Food Scene: The End of an Era

The Globe and Mail, June 4, 2010

With a new generation of young chefs flourishing downtown, and better-than-the-homeland ethnic cuisine conquering the suburbs, it is a great time to be a food writer in Toronto. It’s hard, then, not to sympathize with the venerable restaurant critic James Chatto, who learned recently that his 23-year-long stint at Toronto Life was over. At the time, the magazine’s editor-in-chief Sarah Fulford said that Mr. Chatto’s writing had been appropriate to a “particular time and place” and that it wasn’t any longer. The implication was clear: his lengthy pieces, heavy on context and light on criticism, were appropriate to a city with a burgeoning restaurant culture – not a developed one.

The news, which rippled through the city’s food and media worlds, left some of the city’s leading chefs distressed. After nearly a quarter-century of supportive, richly detailed columns, Mr. Chatto’s voice would be tough to replace. “James wasn’t a critic,” says Chris McDonald of the midtown tapas restaurant Cava. “He was a champion of the industry.”

Mr. Chatto was once described by Toronto Life as a “dining columnist.” In reality, Mr. Chatto was a translator, communicating chefs’ increasingly sophisticated ideas to diners. He occupied an ambiguous place between critic and restaurant insider, a quasi-reviewer with close relationships with chefs and no pretensions of anonymity.

In 1987, when Mr. Chatto arrived to Toronto from London via Greece, there were few significant chefs to befriend. The list of interesting restaurants was short: Centro, Prego, Scaramouche, most notably. Torontonians were adjusting, slowly, to dining concepts such as eating local produce and cooking with olive oil. The Internet hadn’t yet brought together the city’s foodies. In that vacuum, his column became essential reading. Nathan Isberg, who worked as chef at Czehoski and Coca before opening The Atlantic in April, says, “James was able to contextualize what a chef was doing better than anyone. He understood chefs’ intentions, and could communicate that to diners.”

With his support, then-emerging chefs such as Susur Lee, Michael Stadtlander and Chris McDonald challenged the development of diners’ palates. And since he spurned the food-critic convention of anonymity, chefs could thank him personally for his support. It cut both ways: Mr. Chatto didn’t hesitate to ask chefs to participate in his pet cause, Gold Metal Plates, a fundraiser supporting Olympians. “It’s hard to say no to James when he asks you a favour, which he often does,” says Mr. McDonald. This was not underhanded; it was only a matter of playing for the same team.

His notoriety had advantages for the reader, too. Had Mr. Chatto operated incognito, he could never have made sense of a place like Kaiseki Yu-zen Hashimoto, which serves an obscure kind of Japanese multi-course meal. Instead, for Toronto Life’s March issue, he spoke with the chef behind the $300 prix fixe menu, gleaning nuanced insights into the philosophy, preparation and ingredients. “Most of us still have a lot to learn before we can look at one of the chef’s dishes and immediately understand it,” he wrote. “The significance of a certain herb, the seasonal pun of a yam carved like a chestnut, the fact that a morsel of conger pike is a homage to the Gion Matsuri festival, celebrated in Kyoto every July since 869 AD.”

Mr. Chatto insists that ostensible conflicts of interest “don’t make me any less objective.” When asked for his culinary touchstones, he says that he “considers each restaurant on its own merits” long before comparing it to others he’s visited. But some would question his frame of reference.

Today, restaurants like the Local Kitchen & Wine Bar, Black Hoof and The Ceili Cottage are shattering the rigidly formal fine-dining conventions that once defined Toronto restaurants. Much of the city’s most interesting cooking is now happening in immigrant enclaves in Markham, Mississauga and Richmond Hill.

Discovering gems like Ho Ho BBQ – a Chinese joint in Scarborough first covered by the now-defunct New York-based Gourmet magazine – requires a great deal of energy, openness and drive. Mr. Chatto’s more exclusive approach risked seeming dated to serious eaters. “On weekends, my wife and I go to Markham strip malls, looking for what’s out there,” says Anthony Rose, the executive chef at the Drake Hotel. “I often wish I knew more about it.”

Mr. Chatto’s successor – former Toronto Life food editor Chris Nuttall-Smith – has his work cut out for him. He has shown a willingness to be critical, even ruthless, when he deems it necessary, and there’s no question the city’s chefs are ready for that. It will also be interesting to see if he digs into the city’s nooks and crannies for his next reviews. But speaking to readers with endlessly diversifying tastes – and options – is no mean feat.

“Critics’ ideas of what is interesting and unique is very different from what I find interesting and unique,” says Vanessa Toye, a respected voice on Chowhound. “It’s easy to go to them for new trendy restaurants, but not for something small and interesting.” Ms. Toye is of Chinese descent, and she says no critic in town seems to really get Chinese food.

It’s possible that covering everything from strip malls to high-end-dining strips is more than any critic can handle. And so it’s tough to fault Mr. Chatto for sticking to his beat, even as the city changed around him. Besides, he says, “People still like to have a detailed context for the dining experience. That means the sorts of articles I’ve been writing for the past 25 years are still relevant.”

He says he’ll continue doing what he’s always done – he’s just not sure for whom – adding, “I am what I am.”

Image courtesy of Bloggerton.

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