In a darkened auditorium earlier this week, hundreds of tired food journalists, chefs – a few still wearing their chef's whites – and culinary experts sat watching as Mitchell Davis climbed onstage. "I know this is very un-Canadian," he started by saying, "but I'm going to ask you to raise your hands like this," he said, making a fist above his head. "Now follow me in saying 'Toronto rocks. Toronto rocks.'" A few heads bobbed up before looking left and right, puzzled. But slowly, hesitantly, the crowd joined in his chant.
"I wanted to show how uncomfortable it made people to do that," Mr. Davis, the executive vice-president of the James Beard Foundation, said after his presentation at the annual Terroir Symposium in Toronto. Though based in New York, Mr. Davis grew up in Toronto, and said that we don't do enough to promote ourselves. "Unfortunately, it's not just about cooking great food," he said. "All this sort of stuff – the press, the international attention, the lists, the awards – are just really, really valuable."
After years of living in the shadow of Montreal's "haute lumberjack" cuisine and Vancouver's celebrity chefs like Vikram Vij and Hidekazu Tojo, Toronto's food scene has exploded over the past few years with a slew of new, exciting restaurants opening across the city, and the arrival of not just one, but two international superstar chefs in the form of David Chang's Momofuku restaurants and Daniel Boulud's Café Boulud. Toronto traditionally hasn't been seen as a major food city and it is consistently snubbed by the "world's best" lists. But local chefs are starting to carve out their own space on the international scene – and angle for global attention.
"That's like asking an actor who does commercials whether they want to be the next Brad Pitt. Who wouldn't want to be a famous chef?" asked Grant van Gameren, co-owner at Bar Isabel and one of the city's most celebrated chefs. Though he said that his focus will always remain on pleasing the local crowd, "Who wouldn't want to be doing something that's on the world's top 50 restaurants?"
Toronto's place on the international scene – and whether those imported star chefs are a welcome addition – were the subjects of the "big debate" at this year's Terroir, a Toronto food conference that attracted its most star-studded lineup of international chefs and experts yet.
After a Globe and Mail review gave Momofuku Shoto, the 22-seat tasting-menu-only restaurant, a four-star review in November and hailed it Toronto's best, some locals and food critics were less than impressed. Lesley Chesterman, a food critic at the Montreal Gazette, participated in the Terroir debate, arguing that restaurants like Momofuku can be challenging to Toronto's culinary identity. "The restaurant scene here is very fragile in terms of identity," she said after the panel. "Toronto was building some steam, and now suddenly, it's Momofuku-land."
But local chefs like Tobey Nemeth, co-owner of Edulis, said that having the star chefs in town forces others to step up their game. "I think there's enough room in this business for every type of restaurant," she said at Terroir. "I feel like maybe it should push us; it should make us competitive; it raises the bar."
And if Toronto chefs hope to attract more attention and to make it on top lists, having the likes of Mr. Boulud and Mr. Chang in the mix – or visits from chefs like René Redzepi, in town this week for Terroir, whose restaurant Noma has been number one on the World's Top 50 Restaurants list for the past three years – can only help them get there.
"If you want to be the best hockey player in the world, of course you're going to want to play with Gretzky in his time, or Sidney Crosby today," said Alison Fryer, owner of The Cookbook Store in Toronto. "Wouldn't you want to learn from the best chefs in the world? It can only improve your own game."
Local chefs learn from dining at places like Momofuku, Ms. Nemeth said, where there's a strong emphasis on training and innovation. Momofuku in New York, for example, runs an entirely separate test kitchen where full-time chefs work with scientists to research new culinary methods and techniques – something that Canadian restaurants just don't have the resources to do. "I watch how they do everything: the way service works, the systems they have," she said.
The arrival of superstar chefs also help to create a "halo effect" on Toronto's other restaurants, said Joe Warwick, a food critic for The Guardian and founder of the World's 50 Best Restaurants list. "You're bringing the people in with the headliner – the star chef – and then they're going out and seeing what else is out there." He pointed out that other cities like London or Tokyo have managed to create and maintain their own unique culinary identities despite the arrival of big-name chefs such as Alain Ducasse and Joël Robuchon.
Kate Krader, the restaurant editor at Food & Wine magazine in New York, calls Toronto a "rising star." She wrote an article in December of last year titled "An Insider's Guide to Toronto" and name-dropped local spots such as Hoof Raw Bar, Ursa and Grand Electric. "Without those guys," she said, referring to Mr. Chang and Mr. Boulud, who played hosts on the tour, "I'm not sure what story we would've gotten to do."
And though Toronto chefs may be vying for global attention, the question remains: Do they deserve it?
Ms. Krader said yes. "You can feel when a city has an exciting food scene, and I feel like you can feel it in Toronto," she said.
"It's certainly promising," said Mr. Chang of the city's dining scene. "Toronto has everything to be a world-class, number one city."
He brushed off criticism that his Momofuku restaurant cannibalizes the local scene ("We're not trying to do bad things in Toronto," he said. "I don't think we're a monstrosity. We're not McDonald's"), adding that what really has going for it is that it's not restricted by any one culinary identity. "Everything's
open. The future is unwritten in Ontario," he said. "That's the most beautiful thing."
Steve Dolinsky, a food journalist from Chicago who's also a judge on the World's 50 Best Restaurant list for the central Canada region, said that Toronto's chefs definitely deserve more attention, and said that he can very well see Toronto earn a spot in this year's Top 100 list, if not in the top 50. Mr. Dolinsky had eaten at Hopgood's Foodliner on Roncesvalles the day before and raved about his meal. "That place would be in Food and Wine magazine if it were anywhere in the States," he said. Mr. Redzepi agreed – he called a fatty snow crab and steamed wild leeks dish at Hopgood's "one of the best mouthfuls I've had in North America." He also described lunch at Edulis as "smashing."
The problem? The same one Mr. Davis pointed out. "Canadians by nature are not chest-thumpers," Mr. Dolinsky said. "They just do super good work, they do hard work and sort of keep their nose down."
Case in point: At about 11:30 p.m. at Bar Isabel the night before Terroir, prominent international journalists were seen turned away at the door because the restaurant was already at capacity.
Mr. van Gameren sounded almost embarrassed by the attention when talking about it afterwards. He said he's more focused on creativity and innovation, rather than being interviewed by the press. "Someone like Ferran Adria who develops his own techniques and creates things … they think differently," he said. "To be internationally known, you have to be doing things different."
And Mr. Chang agrees. "I think in 10 years, you'll be able to look back and say 'Whoa, Toronto is at the forefront of so many things.'" Ten years ago, he said, everyone in Scandinavia was cooking French food and Mr. Redzepi was developing his natural "new Nordic" style. "Everyone thought it was a joke," he said.
"Now, Scandinavia is on the map," he said. "If it can happen in Scandinavia, it can certainly happen in Canada."