Medieval Times, #metoo and Mourning the Way we Eat

After being hyper-vigilant for a few years, i fell off the blogging bandwagon for most of 2017.  I can probably blame a universal shift or some other cosmic phenomenon but it’s mostly because I got jaded and lazy. I won’t spend much time on the laziness but will focus my efforts on the former.  I’m prone to jadedness…some say it’s in my DNA.  Perhaps it’s that I’m a disciple of Darwin and his theories of natural selection and the theory doesn’t seen to working at the moment.

I’m not about to go off on a general social commentary but I will bring my observations and feelings back to what I love to write about…food.  What we eat and the industry surrounding it has not been immune to the utter stupidity that has infected the world over the past half decade.  Whether it be social media, the deprioritization of what we eat as part of a dining experience or the utter ignorance of everything wrong in one of the most corrupt industries in current society, the relationship between who are and what we eat is at an impasse. Unless we really evaluate what we are doing and rethink things, we may end up severing a relationship that has been evolving for thousands of years.

To this day, one of the most important books I have ever read has been “You Eat What You Are; People, Culture and Food Traditions” but Thelma Barer- Stein.  I first read it during a university course as part of my nutrition degree.  It opened my eyes to the wedded yet delicate relationship between humanity and what we eat.  It used to be quite simple; you ate what was around and developed a culture around that.  With the advent of transportation, increased exposure to foods from all over the earth and a rapid fusion of many cultures in a span a few decades that strong cultural history is being forgotten, opening the doors to those with creative business minds to redefine and reinforce new ways for consumers to belong to their definition of food culture.  Unfortunately, Dr. Barer-Stein left us in 2017 but I would have loved to sit down with her just for a few minutes to get her reaction to how, in a matter of a few years, managed to destroy our relationship with what we eat in the same fashion as what we have done to our precious environment.

Social Media

Social media has been one of the biggest catalysts in the destruction of our relationship with food. At one point establishments survived based on word of mouth and quality of their menu as opposed to their elaborate social media platforms which are endorsed by hipster zombies who know how to use hash tags.  Speaking to a friend, reading a review in a newspaper by a food critic (with proper prose and complete sentences) or getting you hands on a hard copy of a Zagat review has been replaced with uncensored bias reviews written in broken English by people revered for the quantity as opposed to quality of what they post.  Yelp, for example, rewards those who post glowing reviews about every Tim Horton’s in town, citing things like “The coffee was priced similar to the other Tim’s across town” or “I saw they had maple dip donuts which is amazing because we live in Canada”.

Instagram is probably worse. True..a picture does speak a thousand words but unfortunately these photos are usually selfies representing  “look what I have and how cool I am” versus “look at how good this looks”.  Take the Starbucks unicorn frappuccino for example.  Anthony Bourdain called it “the perfect nexus of awfulness. Just add pumpkin spice to that mix, and you can nuke the whole county”. I couldn’t agree more. In addition, I would argue it was one of the biggest reasons for truancy in 2017. High school students flocked to their local Starbucks instead of math class to get their hands on one and the main driver was bolstering their social media status.  Being one of the first to post yourself looking like a giraffe sucking back heavily dyed 400 calories (complete with 10 g of saturated fat..the same as a Big Mac) and adding a clever hash tag like #iskippedschooltodrinkthisshit or #sweetthensourjustlikeme elevated your profile to new heights (at least for a few hours or until somebody posted a new puppy or something).  In other words, food has become an accessory in a fashion similar to a designer purse or a pair of Hunters.

bourdain frapp
Unicorn Frappuccinos and Social Media- The even more perfect nexus of awfulness.

Medieval Times

In the restaurant industry, food has slowly fallen from the centre of attention.  At one point, people went out to have a good steak or the best eggs benny in town and actually communicated with those around them.  Now it seems an experience out has become synonymous with heading to the CNE for Medieval Times in which you enter a rambunctious environment and watch a bunch of costumed knights put on a show while you wear a crown and slurp cold tomato soup from an iron bowl before tearing dry chicken off a leg bone with your teeth. Now, instead of jousting horses, you can go to most restaurants and be surrounded by similar barnstormers.  Whether you are into pretentious aristocrats with fake accents or sullen hipsters with the menu tattooed on their arm, you can choose your own adventure.  What’s even better is that in most cases the environment is so loud that you don’t even have to have a conversation with the person or people you are with. This is a definite advantage when you have to hang with annoying friends or family members or maybe with a match.com date that just isn’t working. Listen, I not saying that I don’t appreciate spending my money on a good overall experience which includes great service and a cool vibe but it can’t come at the experience of the food.  I don’t think too many people have left medieval times saying the show sucked by the food was great.  We can’t be lead to believe that the reverse mentality should exist for a place where sustenance should be the primary objective. Furthermore, we have succumb to the mentality that, unlike medieval times when servers were servers, it is acceptable for us as patrons to accept and encourage the sadistic attitude of those we pay as part of our bill.  In other words, the acceptance of the current culture puts yet another barrier in the  longstanding and evolutionary relationship between humans and the food we eat.

med evil
The Supporting Actor of the Show

#metoo

I want to clarify that I’m not against all social media.  In many cases it can be used to unify like minds, promote a business or allow for free expression.  The #metoo movement has been one of the best examples of an important use of social media…sort of.  The core of the movement is long overdue as sexual harassment by whatever definition you choose to use has been running rampant for years.  Part of the magic of facebook and other outlets is to allow the unification of people with commonality regardless of their position on the social ladder. A 50 year-old business executive who hit a glass ceiling because she wouldn’t engage in relations outside her job description has as much clout as a 19 year-old waitress who was inappropriately touched or verbally by a restaurant manager. Unfortunately, special interest groups (including Hollywood and yes, I do refer to Hollywood as a special interest group) have hijacked the cause. I’m not suggesting that making millions of dollars is an invitation to be sexually harassed.  My point it that turning the Golden Globes into a funeral for the male species fueled by speeches of presidential intention don’t speak for the thousands of men and woman who may live in a constant environment of exploitation not to live in a mansion on the hills but instead in order to  pay their rent in a one-bedroom apartment above a convenience store.

I have a 17 year-old daughter who worked for a local restaurant.  A number of months ago she discussed a sexual  harassment issue with management.  A cook in the kitchen easily 40 years her senior continuing made references about how he would like to have babies with her.  When it didn’t stop she brought it up with management and the solution was “he was warned”. The behaviour stopped but she was fired 6 months later. It was shortly after she was promoted to a serving position by one of the managers although she was not yet of the alcohol serving age.  She was doing well until the owner came in and complained.  The pattern continued…every time he would come in he would complain and harass the staff about an underage server right in front on my daughter. I still remember the night she came home and told me she was fired.  I asked her why and she said they told her she was moved to a job she couldn’t handle and her old spot wasn’t available.  When I went in to discuss it was a manager I was told it was because she missed work too many times (she called in sick once because she was…ummm…sick and other the time was because our dog of 5 years acutely went blind, fell down the stairs, shattered his front leg and had to be put down).  The termination letter stated even a different reason for her dismissal.  My point is, sexual harassment or not, employees in food service are treated like cutlery and other inventory and it has to stop. In general, they are at the highest risk of exploitation given the history of the industry, the need for gratuities to survive and the hierarchy and balance of power that exists. Simply making Mario Batali a celebrity sacrificial lamb and wearing black designer suits and gowns while you sip expensive champagne while ignoring the hundreds of other who wear short black skirts because they are pressured to and SERVE expensive champagne speaks to the Hollywood hypocrisy that plagues most social moments that exist. I really hope we see a dedicated movement in the restaurant business which recognizes harassment and even goes as far as to promote a harassment free menu and environment with the same awareness and passion that has been used for gluten and peanuts.

75th Annual Golden Globe Awards - Season 75
And get Oprah Winfrey to sing my euology….

My Take

Much like our relationship with the environment, if we do not reevaluate our interconnection with what we eat in short order (pardon the pun) then good food will become as scarce as clean air and water.  We need to show some gratitude for the food we eat and the people who serve it to us. I’m not suggesting we bow our heads and say grace (although I’m sure some marketing genius will find a hipster way to do it soon),  I certainly didn’t take a selfie of me gorging on Grandma’s jelly salad or give her a slap on the ass on the way past the Thanksgiving table.   Maybe we can use social media presence to promote the businesses and people who work hard to respect the food we eat and the people who make and serve it instead of using it to pad our inflated virtual egos.  Maybe it’s time to realize that Hooter’s was founded in 1983 and yes, things have changed since then. Maybe it’s time to acknowledge that hikes in minimum wage and automatic 18% gratuities do not give us permission to treat food service staff like subordinates (although I’d ask the same in return). Finally, in the words of the late Thelma Barer-Stein, maybe  it’s time to think about eating what we are and not whatever the output of the latest, flashy marketing campaign tells us to.

 

 

 

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A Midmost Rating of Bar Raval and Why Justin Trudeau Would Make A Promising Food Reviewer

 

I think food blogging is a bit like being a  member of parliament.  First, you have the liberty of being able to say whatever you want but with the knowledge that somebody is going to publicly disagree with your opinion.  In fact, some of them will just be nasty about it.  I remember writing a rather negative review of Hudson Kitchen shortly after all the TIFF sightings a couple of years back only to have a reader tell me how wrong I was (for the record I need to point out that Hudson Kitchen is now closed so I wasn’t that far off) and suggesting that I was not a blog to follow.  Second, like politics,  there is an element of responsibility with any kind of blogging.  I’m not saying what I write is going to make or break a restaurant, but what I say is very public and readily accessible so I try to be extremely careful even if I don’t like a place.  It is never my intention to shit on a chef or their restaurant because it’s like shitting on their character. At the same time, however, I shouldn’t be crapped on as a patron either.  Third, I have to consider not only my opinion but also the opinions of friends and colleagues I respect much like a politician has to respect his or her constituents.

For these reasons, I think Justin Trudeau would be a good food reviewer.  Consider the following:

  1. He has a sizable following on social media . For example, he has 1.2 million twitter followers which means his omnipotent opinion would be read (and maybe even retweeted)  by the masses.
  2. Many of those who read food blogs are his target audience…the entitled generation.   His election win was driven by, among others, those who believe that social injustices of the world can be solved by T-shirts, tattoos and that eating ethnic food is a symbol of global solidarity.
  3. He can post his pretty profile pic along with his reviews because that face can’t lie, right?
  4. Since both yelp and zomato use a 5 point Likert scale to rank restaurants, he can rate everything 4. That way we could count on his nauseating neutrality knowing he doesn’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings or show favouritism, even if they deserve it.
  5. He can change his opinion whenever it’s convenient.  Even if his initial review makes absolutely no sense and sounds like it came out his ass, he can always revisit things under different circumstances and use reasons beyond his control  to justify changing his mind…again and again.

So how does all of this relate to Bar Raval? I have two colleagues who I respect as good judges of restaurants.  That said, they differ on a few  and Bar Raval is one of them.  One found it charming and delightful and other thought it was crowded, over hyped and served marginal food. Keeping in mind that one experience doesn’t necessarily reflect the overall quality of a place, I felt like I was going to be the tie breaker.

One of the early criticisms I heard about Bar Raval was its tiny size and no reservation policy which obviously makes it difficult to ensure a spot upon arrival.  A few months ago, when patio season was still feasible, I decided to go in the mid afternoon to grab a drink and an early dinner.  I wasn’t sure what to expect because viewing their menu online is more difficult than playing Myst.

Having secured a corner patio seat, I did a quick survey of my surrounding and realized I was in hipster haven.  In fact, one of the many hipsters ended up being my waitress for the afternoon. Drink wise, I was drawn to the Gothic quarter ($13).  I was a bit excited because, although I’m far from a world traveler, I HAVE been to the Gothic quarter in Barcelona and thought I was REALLY cool to have this namesake drink.  As scripted, however, it was pink ( I have this habit of ordering pink drinks regardless of what the description is). I can swallow my manhood and say it was a decent and despite its appearance, even a little bit manly.

Gothic Quarter $13
Gothic Quarter $13

Since I was solo that afternoon and most of the  came in pairs,  I spent a good amount of time wondering how I was going to spend my finite gut capacity yet still get a good flavour of the place. The problem was solved when the waitress indicated I could order singles of any of the pintxos on the menu.  As I was deciding, I ordered some delicious aged Mahon cheese ($8) with some bread ($2) which I easily consumed while deciding on the rest.

Aged Mahon Cheese $8 with Bread $2
Aged Mahon Cheese $8 with Bread $2

I ordered singles of the tuna pickle gilda, the stracciatella with boquerones, the morcilla with egg and the cojunado.  As an afterthought, I’ll admit they were not the most diverse choices but I love tuna, lovingly remember the boquerones from Bar Isabel and can’t turn down an egg on anything. Plus, I wasn’t about to crack a can or sardines without somebody else helping me. Ranging from about $3.50 to $4.50 per piece, each dish was representative of what I remember from both Barcelona and other Spanish tribute restaurants such as Coqueta in San Francisco and Amada in Philadelphia.  My favorite had to be the morcilla. Flavourwise, it was balanced and seasoned nicely and had an enjoyable, crumbly texture which complimented the perfectly cooked quail egg.

 

My Take 

Many factors dictate a good or bad experience and n=1 is not always indicative of a restaurant’s overall semblance which is a big reason that the opinions of others are important.  My experience was in between bad and terrific.  In other words,  it was good. On one hand, I’m keen to come back and admire the Gaudiesque interior while sipping coffees or signature cocktails while eating pastries, pintxos, the raw bar or some other type of tapas  I didn’t get to try this time.  On the other hand, the thought of being crammed shoulder to shoulder with hipsters in close quarters like the sardines I’m eating is far from appealing. However, in the end, I will side with optimistic  neutrality give Bar Raval a very Justinesque “4”. This wishy-washy, indecisive and up the middle denouement  leads me to conclude that not only do I sound like a politician…I also sound like  a liberal.

Bar Raval Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Why Making a Reservation in Toronto Reminds me of an Anchorman Melee

There has been a definite evolution in the process behind making a restaurant reservation over the past decade.  Years ago, you either showed up live or called ahead and a friendly person on the other end would scratch your name into a book.  Now, the lucrative online reservation systems has blossomed  and many restaurants are left to choose which system fits their business needs the best.  In the end, the choice appears relatively seamless to the patron, but there are some interesting observations to make about this cutthroat business.

Some restaurants have gotten rather creative with the reservation process. State Bird Provisions in San Francisco, for example, offers reservations for dates two months later.   The reservation process starts at midnight and  I will admit I woke up at 3 am to try and secure a spot but was left unsuccessful and had to stand in line with the rest of the peasants.  Others restaurants are asking for credit cards in advance and threaten charges if there is a cancellation too close to the reservation time.

No Reservations

Congratulations, you are a successful restaurant who is either relishing in the fact that people line up to get in or your establishment is so tiny that  you have no problem hitting your capacity on a nightly basis and don’t need a system.  You’re a pain in the ass because if you are looking to entertain clients, have a birthday or plan to propose to your girlfriend, you have to hope to hell that the stars align and you can get a seat without having to wait two hours.  You probably will only seat people once the whole party arrives and you likely take cash only as well.

Reservation by Phone 

Yes, there are restaurants which still see a phone as something you talk on as opposed to checking in, tagging friends and taking pictures.  This system is not conducive to those who have a whimsical desire to make a reservation at 3 am.  In all likelihood, restaurants who subscribe to phone only reservations are:

  • long-standing eateries that have been using a reservation book since 1960 and damn well won’t change now.
  • owned by control freaks who don’t think a computer could never do what a human can.
  • likely to still hand-write bills and frown when you insist that the stub on the bottom is not a sufficient receipt for business purposes and begrudgingly copy one by hand upon request.

OpenTable

OpenTable is the patriarch (or matriarch) of online reservations systems. Once a monopoly, they were known for offering bonus points and a lack of a 7 pm slot on almost any night of the week at some restaurants. Although they still own the lion share of the business (but still only have 322 accounts in Toronto proper), they have responded to recent competition by  undergoing  a major rebrand focused on pillars which include warm and welcoming, inspired and reliable and fresh and current although it would be naive to think that all restaurants they work with have the same philosophy.You still get the opportunity to review the restaurant after and get the subtly threatening email if you don’t show up threatening that you might get banned if such indiscretions continue (even if the restaurant fails to record your attendance).  Open table restaurants tend to include:

  • those who fare better on tripadvisor than yelp.  Tripadvisor uses open table as their reservations system.
  • conglomerates such as O and B and The Khabouth empire since you can refer to affiliated restaurants in the event your first choice isn’t available.
  • those whose names start with numbers or the letter a since they are listed in alphabetical order when searched by region.
  • pricey restaurants in expensive hotels and those who wish they were pricey restaurants in expensive hotels.

 Seatme

Now owned and operated by yelp, this reservation system is less centralized.  Seatme does not have a master website like OpenTable but is meant to attract small business owners  who either find open table too difficult, expensive or cumbersome.  Unlike urbanspoon and tripadvisor, the yelp site itself does not pimp their online reservation system by embedding it in the reviews.  Instead of going to a central site, one gets prompted to reserve via seatme when they go to the restaurant’s site looking for a table.  On the consumer side, it is hardly distinguishable from other reservation systems but  on the vendor’s side it promises a better and cheaper experience than Open Table.

Bookenda

At the end of 2014, yellow media (the yellow pages people) announced the acquisition of both bookenda and dine.TO.  Bookenda is a online reservation that is gaining steam in pockets across Canada including the GTA.  It’s membership is impressive; Pai, Thoroughbred, Rasa, People’s eatery, Ruby Watchco and Edulis are among the hot destinations under the bookenda umbrella.  Like OpenTable, there is a reward program. Instead of saving points in the hope of someday attaining an elusive dining certificate, bookenda offers a variety of reward opportunities for as little as 400 points.  Points are not only awarded for booking online but also if you post your reservation on facebook or make a comment about your experience on their site afterwards.

My Take

Long gone are the days of picking up the phone and dialing a rotary phone during business hours in the hope of securing a 7 pm reservation at your favourite eatery.  Now, you can simply go on a smart phone, tablet or computer at anytime of day and secure anything but a 7pm reservation at any number of establishments.  In some cases, you can be recognized for your loyalty with points which may lead  to a glass of wine, a free appetizer or the ultimate prize of an OpenTable dining certificate.

I picture that scene from Anchorman when the rival broadcasters including the likes of Vince Vaughan and Tim Robbins assemble in the parking lot for a good old-fashioned brouhaha.  In the restaurant world, the clans would be divided based on their reservation system.  In one corner would be the no reservation group who ironically would need to wait outside the lot until space in the lot became available and the whole group was there.  Their main artillery would be dirty looks and ignorance.  The reservation by phone group may sport tin foil hats to prevent satellite interference and carry archaic weaponry  reminiscent of  Game of Thrones. The OpenTable entourage (although they would not likely show around peak dining hours) would be the largest, led by Michael Bonacini and includes fans of tripadvisor and urbanspoon wearing “Keep Calm and Use Opentable” T-shirts. Seatme peeps would be scattered throughout the parking lot like lone vigilantes. The bookenda bevy would likely be led by Lynn Crawford with patrons wearing red t-shirts symbolizing Canada which spell out “Bookenda is the New OpenTable” scrawled across the front in large white writing as they sipped free wine they got for 400 points.

"I said I wanted a 7pm Reservation!"
“I said I wanted a 7pm Reservation!”

 

In the end, the competitive world of online reservations has made it easier than ever for patrons to plan in advance when eating out.   Of course, there are still a number of restaurants who feel that it is an honour and privilege to dine there and don’t mind making people wait for the experience. Otherwise, with some flexibility, one can plan a dinner without too much of a headache regardless of the system.  A quick call to the restaurant might be necessary to secure the elusive 6-8 pm time slot but otherwise it is a pretty easy to book, show up and reap the rewards of a completed meal.  You even have the opportunity, good or bad, to enlighten fellow diners about what you ate and how the experience was….without the need for pitchforks.