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Food in British Columbia: Top trends in 2017 and what’s on the horizon

THE DISH

Clearing the table for the new year and dishing on the past

From an abundance of meals catered more for Instagram than discerning palates to a near-total absence of anchovies, let's reflect on the year that was

Hook is one of many casual seafood restaurants that has cropped up recently. But still missing from the city’s restaurants are locally caught offerings such as anchovies and herrings.

Happy New Year! Before we get down to the delicious business of eating in 2018, it's time to take stock of the year that was, look ahead to new dining trends on the horizon and cross our fingers for a few fanciful wishes.

Social media insanity

It's a far-fetched fantasy, granted. But wouldn't it be wonderful if people stopped judging food by its Instagram looks? Everywhere you turn these days, chefs and bartenders are designing dishes and drinks as gimmicks that appear better on a phone than they taste in real life.

Do we really need to sip cocktails from blue-lagoon-like goldfish beakers too heavy to hold? (I'm talking to you, Botanist.) And why should a gold-leaf-flecked sashimi bowl filled with spoiled salmon, sea urchin past its prime and shredded crab as dry as cotton balls become a sensation? (Raisu, that's on you.)

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The next time you are tempted to like a photo of a unicorn frappuccino – or any such monstrosity dusted in sugary pastel glitter – try to remember that cutesy rainbows are also touted as the not-so-flavourful essence of the mythical animal's flatulence.

Raisu is among the many restaurants where the food looks better than it tastes.


Unsung seafood

The emergence of casual seafood restaurants ( Oddfish, Hook, a second WildTale in Olympic Village) was one of 2017's most notable trends. Yet Vancouver is still sorely lacking in ocean-friendly fish from lower down the food chain.

Where are all the anchovies, herrings and sardines? Sadly, much of our locally caught, sustainable seafood is shipped to foreign markets without ever touching the mainland.

Ocean Wise executive chef Ned Bell, author of the recently published Lure: Sustainable Seafood Recipes from the West Coast, has made it his mission to open our minds and palates to the vast varieties of forage fish and sea lettuces from the country's northwest Pacific coast. Let's give him a hand because it is going to take a much larger, industrywide effort, on par with the past campaign to keep spot prawns in B.C., before we start seeing these rarities on restaurant plates with any sort of regularity.

The emergence of casual seafood restaurants, like Oddfish, was one of 2017’s most notable trends.


Survival mechanisms

These are tough times for the restaurant industry in British Columbia. Although business is brisk (2.7 million restaurant visits a day, according to Restaurants Canada) and Canadians are expected to dine out even more frequently in 2018 (so says Canada's Food Price Report), food prices are going up and will likely hit B.C. hardest. In Metro Vancouver, rents continue to soar, property taxes on commercial leases are brutal and the labour shortage, especially for chefs and cooks, is critical.

According to the BC Restaurant & Food Services Association, which has just concluded a six-month survey of the skills gap and employment shortage in Vancouver-area restaurants, 298 of the 300 operators to whom it talked are short-staffed.

The BCRFA is spinning its report, which will be delivered to the provincial government in February, as a good-news story for the restaurant industry. "Operators are coming up with innovative ways to tackle [the shortage]," program manager Samantha Scholefield says. And it is indeed encouraging to hear that workers are being offered better wages, benefits, perks, predictable hours, shorter shifts, mentoring opportunities and management coaching.

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For diners, however, 2018 will inevitably bring increased menu prices. In downtown Vancouver, you can already see the average cost of entrées creeping over the $40 mark in such casual-upscale restaurants as L'Abattoir and St. Lawrence.

While many establishments are thinking outside the box by offering all-day hybrid menus (Bows & Arrows) and special dinner events (The Birds & The Beets), I predict that we will see more restaurants doing away with bricks and mortar all together and focusing on home delivery. Also, don't be surprised to see the ubiquitous no-reservations policy replaced with a ticketing reservations model for which diners will be required to prepay for their meal or put down a deposit in advance.

Many establishments, like Bows & Arrows, are thinking outside the box by offering all-day hybrid menus.


Food feud

On a personal note, I wouldn't mind going back to Hawksworth Restaurant this year. It won't likely happen.

David Hawksworth was pretty upset when I gave Nightingale a poor review last year and accosted me at a public event the day after it was published. Four months later, I dined at Hawksworth. Although he wasn't working that night, he sent me a text message the next day, demanding to know why I had gone.

"To eat," I eventually replied, after another insistent text.

"Well after what you have written about my company you should probably find somewhere else to dine," he wrote. "If you need me clarify I will but I think you get it."

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Although many people urged me to write about these incidents, I didn't want to make a fuss. Critics get banned and refused service from restaurants all the time. But considering this was the most amusing anecdote from my line of duty in 2017 (and people really get a kick out the story when I tell it at parties), I thought I'd share.

A Pacific octopus dish at Nightingale in Vancouver on Sept. 7, 2016.


#MeTooVancouver

One of the biggest news stories of the year appears to have bypassed the Vancouver restaurant industry. There have been no prominent leaders or even line cooks brought down by public allegations of sexual harassment and sleazy behaviour.

But let's not kid ourselves. Vancouver has plenty of bullies (see above), restaurants that are run like boys clubs and toxic kitchens. Maybe Vancouver is too small; no one wants to speak out against the kings. And what about the queens who dare speak up for themselves?

Before I resigned from the Vancouver Magazine Restaurant Awards (for personal reasons), the judging panel was ruffled by an e-mail sent out by a PR company on behalf of a prominent female restaurant owner: We'd love to have her considered for chef of the year, the e-mail urged.

Most agreed that this highly accomplished chef is completely deserving and worthy of consideration. Yet many were appalled by the effrontery of such aggressive "vote meddling" and decided that the e-mail ruined her chances.

Really? I can't think of any male chefs who have ever been accused of being too ambitious. And when was the last time a woman was named chef of the year? Never. Until the food media begins recognizing successful women or, at the very least, not damning them for trying, # wetoo are complicit in perpetuating the status quo and enabling an industry in which disparities fester.

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