City Bites

FOOD BUZZ: Learning about locavore fever, umami, and architecture at Toronto’s Terroir

Terroir, the annual hospitality industry symposium drew 500 foodies together to contemplate the pleasure of dining and the future of food in the digital age. Photo Credit: Alexa Clark and Ger Olsen

On Tuesday, I spent the day gabbing and noshing with the who’s-who of Toronto’s foodie world — chefs, farmers, food writers, and wine folk — nearly 500 people who gathered at U of T’s Hart House to participate in the 5th annual hospitality industry symposium, Terroir. One of the subtle but reoccurring themes was this nagging issue of what to do next with the local food movement. Or as Globe & Mail columnist Mark Schatzer, asked in the newspaper yesterday: Has eating local become annoying?

It’s a provocative question. But it’s one that was barely touched upon during the breakout sessions and keynote talk that I attended.

So-called “eating local” — the term, alone, drives a farmer friend of mine batty — is undeniably the single strongest and most-enduring food trend of the last decade. And it is Terroir’s attendees who are driving the local food movement in this province. So when it comes to local, organic, seasonal, and sustainable food, who could be more keenly aware (and loathe to admit) that these words are getting tired, watered-down, and even abused. As UK Chef Fergus Henderson, the godfather of nose to tail eating, put it in his keynote speech, The Pleasure of Dining (a self-described quiet rant): “It’s the stuff we’re all trying to strive for…The ambitions are right, but it’s all gone very wrong.”

I was disappointed that the symposium didn’t delve more deeply into this conundrum, but the organizers are no doubt aiming to keep the tenor positive. The purpose of this gathering, after all, is to inspire industry insiders and to share ideas about where things are going. So here is what I gleaned about what restaurant patrons can look forward to in the future:

Take-away #1: Chefs and restaurateurs should continue to advance the practice of “contextual eating” — the idea that things tastes better in a particular context, like a hot dog at a baseball game. This is actually an offshoot (or perhaps a trickle-down effect) of molecular gastronomy or modernist dining where all of our senses are engaged in the experience of the meal: smells and sounds as well as tastes, texture, and the visual aspects of dining. “Senses are the tools we use to experience the world,” said food activist and chef Joshna Maharaj, “So it makes sense that restaurants can add new layers to amplify people’s experience.”

While the importance of good ambiance is nothing new, I like the idea that restaurants of all levels, not just fine-dining, should increasingly regard themselves as theatres or virtual travel destinations that invite people into “consciously created environments” where all of the elements conspire and feed into the experience of the food.

“The restaurant is a canvas for joy,” says Chef Henderson who has a unique perspective as someone who came to the culinary world via architecture. “As an architect and as a chef, you affect the manner of people’s relationship to space.”

Take-away #2: “You can’t underestimate umami,” says Chef David Kinch from the renowned Manresa restaurant in California. Kinch argued that chefs who spend a lot of energy on the locavore message are missing out on the single most important factor when creating a dish: umami.

Widely regarded as the fifth basic taste (after sweet, sour, salty, bitter), umami is the relatively new science (100 years old) behind the mysterious world of flavour and taste preceptors: the intangibles that help explain why certain things taste great. “Umami makes everything taste rounder, fuller — it’s not a taste in itself; it’s a savoury meaty quality,” he explains.

While umami is most often associated with Japanese cuisine and ingredients like soy sauce and shitake mushrooms, Kinch points out that it actually transcends cultures. He says two of the highest foods in umami are cooked tomatoes and parmesan cheese. Is it any wonder we find pizza served all over the world — or why it is such a pleasure-inducing food?

Bonus Take-away: I was delighted to see Murray Street’s Chef Steve Mitton also representing Ottawa at the symposium. I ran into him at The Social Media Smackdown session, where we learned how people in the food industry could best use Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and blogs to “humanize” and enhance their brands and businesses. He was beaming after having spent time chatting with his culinary mentor Chef Henderson at a dinner the night before. It just goes to show that it’s not always the content of the sessions that are the greatest source of inspiration.