I wasn’t going to look. I was going to go to sleep, but my fingers found the keyboard instead. “Toronto Michelin Guide,” they typed into Google, and my drooping eyelids perked right up. For folks like me in food media, the reveal of Toronto’s first Michelin Guide is like the Oscars, and my half-assed attempt at pretending not to care on the evening of the awards didn’t exactly work.
Group chat notifications were racking up to the hundreds. Twitter was trilling with opinions that ranged from “History is made!” to “a deeply weird list.” Shaky videos of caviar ice sculptures and the puffy Michelin Man waving maniacally into the night flooded my Instagram feed. “We didn’t even know why we were invited,” admits John-Vincent Troiano, chef-owner of Frilu. “When they called our name at the ceremony, I was in shock, like, ‘Oh, shit, we got it?!’”
Ever since Michelin announced in May that they would release a Toronto Guide, anticipation and speculation has been rampant. Not a single chef or restaurant professional invited to the ceremony this September knew why their attendance was requested. Mystery is Michelin’s specialty.
It’s been this way since the early 1920s when André and Édouard Michelin, French brothers and founders of the namesake tire company, recruited a team of secret diners to visit and anonymously review restaurants.
The reviews were featured in Michelin guidebooks, printed volumes full of handy info, detailed maps and fuel stops to encourage motorists to get out there and, consequently, buy more tires. In 1926, the guidebooks started giving stars to fine-dining establishments — restaurants that Michelin deemed were worthy of the drive (and the price tag). In 1931, Michelin introduced its three-star system.
More than 90 years later, Frilu — a seasonally focused tasting menu restaurant in Thornhill, which only serves 12 to 14 people a night — became one of the 12 Toronto restaurants to receive one Michelin star. Only one restaurant, Sushi Masaki Saito (where a meal starts at $680 per person), was awarded two stars.
Also within the Guide are 17 restaurants with a Bib Gourmand distinction that recognizes “exceptionally good food at moderate prices.” The prices vary between cities, but for Toronto, they’ve landed on less than $60 (before tax and tip) for two courses and a glass of wine or dessert. The 13 starred restaurants, plus the 17 Bib Gourmands and an additional 44 ‘recommended’ restaurants make up the entire Toronto Michelin Guide.
Being recognized by Michelin has been a dream for Troiano and his wife (who own the restaurant without partners or investors) and their small team of three. But, until recently, it was precisely that: a dream.
“We didn’t know what the outcome of the restaurant was going to be. We were almost ready to give up and say, ‘We should pack it in and call it a day. It’s not looking good,’” says Troiano. “But now, with this accolade, things are looking up ... It’s definitely a blessing in disguise,” he adds.
Things are looking up ... It’s definitely a blessing in disguise
In the weeks that followed the awards, Frilu went from being fully booked two weeks in advance to two months; the waitlist climbed to 150 people a day, and their Instagram followers doubled overnight. “People were coming into the restaurant during service at peak times requesting to talk to me and actually getting into arguments with me because they wanted a reservation,” he says.
Despite the added pressure, Troiano and his team have had to stay focused to maintain the high-level of quality they put out day after day. “We’re a very small team, and maybe that’s one of the advantages that we had. Our consistency level is so [high] because it’s the same people touching the same food every day,” he says, pointing out that many other restaurants don’t have that benefit.
“The hardest part for restaurants, in general, is consistency,” says Steven Molnar, head chef at Quetzal on College Street, where a 28-foot-long wood fire provides both a challenge and an enticing kiss of char to regional Mexican cuisine. “I’m not Mexican. I’m Japanese and Hungarian. It’s quite a random mix, but it’s totally Toronto — it’s the most multicultural city,” he says.
Before Quetzal got its Michelin star, an average Wednesday night would have 60 to 80 covers. Now, that number is more like 120. “Retaining the majority of my team through the pandemic was a huge asset,” says Molnar. “It allowed us to hit the ground running when we reopened.”
Consistency between each visit is one of the five criteria assessed by anonymous Michelin inspectors. These former hospitality professionals turned inspectors “have at least 10 years of experience ... and receive two years of training in the Michelin Guide’s methodology,” says Andrew Festa, public relations manager for Michelin North America. Yet it’s inconsistency that has plagued Toronto’s restaurants for years, from government-mandated closures and toxic working environments to crippling staff shortages and procurement issues.
Toronto Michelin Stars
Sushi Masaki Saito
Don Alfonso 1890
Kaiseki Yu-zen Hashimoto
“It’s a very tough industry as it is and very competitive — I feel like a lot of the time, these lists create more of that,” says Julio Guajardo, chef-owner of Fonda Balam, which received a Bib Gourmand award. When Guajardo and his partner, fellow chef-owner Kate Chomyshyn, opened the casual Mexican eatery on Dundas West, their goal wasn’t to make it onto best restaurant lists. Their priority has always been to create a happy environment for their staff while representing Mexican cuisine in Canada.
“Lists like this breed and cultivate a lot of the bad parts of our industry because of the amount of pressure it puts on chefs,” says Chomyshyn. While the Bib Gourmand list has brought in more business, the two have said it’s been hard to manage at times with the amount of staff they have and guests coming in with heightened expectations.
Lists like this breed and cultivate a lot of the bad parts of our industry
“I think just surviving through the pandemic and being busy and creating nice food and guest experiences is more important,” says Molnar, who describes the arduous process of getting ingredients as something that Quetzal fights for every day. While the resiliency of Toronto’s restaurants alone should be celebrated, Molnar also thinks the Michelin Guide is “important for our city on an international level,” and that it’s “still very revered.”
Quality products, harmony of flavours, mastery of cooking techniques, and the chef’s personality in the cuisine are the other criteria that inspectors use to rate their experience. But Michelin inspectors don’t just rate a city’s restaurants out of the goodness of their hearts. Instead, Michelin undertakes partnerships exclusively with destination marketing organizations like Destination Toronto, Destination Ontario and Destination Canada. All three organizations were involved in the multi-year deal but don’t have any say in, or inside information on, Michelin’s assessment process.
“There are financial terms associated with it; this is a partnership,” says Andrew Weir, executive vice president of Destination Toronto. “Michelin will be creating more content to help tell the Toronto story.” The Guide is only the beginning, “a foundation from which we tell a great story about one of the outstanding culinary destinations in the world by accessing Michelin’s global audience through their influential voice,” he explains.
I get it. Michelin is a powerful force in the food world. Receiving a Michelin star is one of the highest honours a restaurant can get (note: restaurants, not individual chefs, receive stars). However, I can’t help getting a little territorial when he says that Michelin will help “tell the Toronto story.” Because when I look at the starred restaurants altogether, I don’t see Toronto. I see lots of expensive tasting menus. I see fine dining — quelle surprise.
When I ask Festa why Michelin loves tasting menus so much, he replies, “Michelin inspectors appreciate all menu concepts and formats.” When I ask him how Michelin can avoid lists that are predictable and limiting, he says, “The inspectors aren’t concerned with being unpredictable; their mission is to identify the best restaurants in the area they’ve been tasked with evaluating.”
Michelin doesn’t just sell tires anymore. I would argue that the connection between the Guide and the tire company has become so far removed that people rarely associate the two together. They are selling the idea that “the best restaurants” are the ones that exist in the upper echelons of fine dining, where precision and perfection are of the utmost importance.
“I’ve always found the best experiences I’ve had were the ones that were the least perfect,” says Nick Liu, chef-owner of DaiLo, where homestyle Chinese and Hakka dishes inspired by his upbringing are at the core of the restaurant’s ethos. “We didn’t want to do white linens and white gloves and that kind of robotic perfection,” says Liu, who spent his early years as a chef working in Michelin-starred restaurants around Europe. DaiLo didn’t make the Guide, a position it shares with many great Toronto restaurants.
“When you make the list, it’s great for business. But if you don’t, and you’re busy, then making these lists is just for ego,” he adds. Although Liu has a positive outlook, his voice carries a twinge of disappointment. “Even though we didn’t make the list, it would still be a dream, and that’s OK,” he chuckles. “It’s something I really hope for, for my staff.” I hope DaiLo makes it too. I hope more Toronto restaurants do.
“We can all look at that list and suggest other restaurants that should be there,” says Weir. “I love that there are 74 restaurants in the Guide, and the chatter on Twitter and elsewhere is about all the other restaurants that are just as good. That’s great because it shows how deep our culinary scene is.”
Toronto’s culinary scene was certainly here long before Michelin arrived, but it’s nice of them to notice. When I take a closer look at the chefs and hospitality professionals who work in the restaurants recognized by the Guide, I start to see Toronto.
I see Shoushin chef-owner Jackie Lin, who immigrated to Canada from Guangzhou, China, settled in Scarborough and became one of the country’s most skilled sushi chefs. I see chefs like John-Vincent Troiano, Julio Guajardo and Kate Chomyshyn who care deeply about their teams. I see Steven Molnar, a half-Hungarian, half-Japanese chef who trained in French cuisine and cooks modern Mexican food over open flames.
I see many dedicated and generous individuals who’ve earned recognition through their hard work and commitment to food and service that makes people feel good. I don’t see our whole city, nor will we ever in a Michelin Guide; that’s not what Michelin sets out to do. It’s simply not big enough to hold all the restaurants we are so passionate about and protective over. There’s not enough room to tell Toronto’s story — and this is the best thing of all.