The fine dining dilemma

Toronto has been dubbed the most multicultural city in the world, yet its fine dining scene remains resoundingly white. We take a look at a category of cuisine that’s ripe for change.

A look at Toronto's fine dining scene | A fine dining dish

Last summer, I brought a friend to SoSo Food Club for dinner. The Chinese restaurant had opened a year before and its location at Ossington and Dundas, along with the glow of Instagrammable neon lighting and clientele who looked much cooler than myself, all promised for a good night.

We sat down and I pored over the list of items I’d mostly never heard of, excited to try Chinese cuisine beyond the westernized General Tso’s Chicken I’d eaten at cheap and cheerful takeout spots so many times before.

But my friend didn’t share my enthusiasm. I watched her shift anxiously in her seat, eyeing the menu. After a few minutes of awkward silence, I offered her an out.

“Do you want to go somewhere else?”

Relieved, she cast her menu aside and we left. Once outside, she complained about how “weird” and “overpriced” the restaurant was. Her sour attitude bothered me, but I chalked it up to us just not being hipster enough to hang out in that neighbourhood. We settled on an Italian restaurant instead.

After this particularly uncomfortable incident, I began to realize that this same scenario had played out dozens of times in my social circle. When dining out or ordering in, among friends, family or acquaintances, there are often moments when someone reveals that they just don’t want to pay that much money for that type of cuisine.

French and Italian restaurants seem to hold an exclusive place on the pedestal of foods that Torontonians are willing to pay top dollar for. But what is it that makes a plate of Italian noodles inherently more valuable than a plate of Asian noodles?

“We’re buying from all the same suppliers that all the fine dining places are getting from. We’re buying from small suppliers, local farmers; very, very high-quality products,” says chef-owner Nick Liu of his Asian restaurant DaiLo. “And just because of the concept, we didn’t charge as much as we should have off the hop.”

We share suppliers with the best fine dining spots

When DaiLo first opened in the summer of 2014, some customers didn’t feel right about paying what was actually a fair price for the restaurant’s “New Asian Cuisine.”

“We really did have a hard time and a few negative comments on Yelp talking about how expensive we were. But our margins were probably lower than most of the fine dining restaurants that were serving the same food, just in a different way – a typical French-European way. We still have foie gras and truffles on everything, but because we were an Asian restaurant, we had to not charge the fine dining prices [when we first opened],” says Liu.

With the quality of ingredients and the range of luxury items like foie gras matched across the board, shouldn’t a restaurant like DaiLo be able to go up against the heavy hitters in Toronto’s fine dining food scene?

Some might argue that training and technique make French fare more worthy of our hard-earned dollars. Around the world, classic French training is still touted in the top tier of culinary excellence.

While DaiLo serves mainly Chinese cuisine, the dishes are created with French tradition in mind. Before opening his College Street eatery, Liu had a storied career working in some of the best restaurants across the globe. As a French-trained chef, Liu worked in French fine dining his “whole entire life,” until he rediscovered the value of the cuisine he had eaten growing up.

“I was living with my aunt and uncle. And my aunt came home late one day and she started doing all these things – she pulled this rolling pin out, rolled out some dough and just made a whole bunch of dumplings and scallion pancakes. At the time, I had just worked with Heston Blumenthal, and I’m watching this lady and I’m like, ‘Holy fuck this is amazing.’ She’s one of the best cooks I’ve ever seen,” says Liu. “That changed my whole perspective. Like, ‘Holy shit, the food that I’ve been brought up with is actually really good and [so are] the techniques that go into it.’”

Every style of cooking has its own unique set of techniques

Of course, Asian isn’t the only other type of food that requires serious culinary prowess. From South American fare to Middle Eastern eats and Caribbean cuisine, every style of cooking has its own unique set of techniques required to make delicious dishes that are authentic to that culture.

“Jerk is a technique,” says Angela Lawrence, the chief culture officer at Chubby’s Jamaican Kitchen. “It’s a technique to do it and do it well. And that’s something that we invested a lot of money and time in – we have a wood fired grill so that we can create that smoky flavour. At our commissary kitchen, we have a complete meat marination programme. Our chicken, our pork, our jerk go through 36-72 hours of marination before they’re even delivered to the restaurant.”

Like DaiLo, Chubby’s is an outlier, raising the bar and the price point for a style of cuisine that has previously been boxed in to the cheap takeout category in Toronto. And like DaiLo, Chubby’s has also faced backlash over their pricing, even though the quality of their homestyle Jamaican cuisine can more than justify the cost to diners.

“Every patty that comes out of our kitchen has been made by hand, folded by hand, filled by hand, crimped by hand. There’s a cost to that, as opposed it being mass produced using a machine. And the ingredients in our fillings are not inexpensive. That’s reflected in the price,” says Lawrence.

After quality ingredients and the technical skill involved to make each dish, the atmosphere is next on the list of banners that high-end restaurants brandish. Chubby’s has that covered, too. Beautiful murals inside and outside of the building by local artists Komi Olaf and Elicser Elliott “make people, even before they come in the door, feel like ‘Oh I’m about to go somewhere,’” says Lawrence. “The music is beautifully curated. The experience is curated. Our food is curated. We wanted to transport people to Jamaica for a few hours.”

Along with Chubby’s and DaiLo, plenty of mid- to high-end restaurants have opened up in the last decade that offer Torontonians the whole package – high quality ingredients; culinary prowess that goes into creating delicious, balanced dishes; and a curated atmosphere. Yet these restaurants still tend to be overlooked and lists like Canada’s 100 Best Restaurants remain resoundingly white. Only a small number of Toronto restaurants that ranked on this year’s list serve something other than French and Italian fare. How can that be representative of a place dubbed the most multicultural city in the world?

“I think that a lot of global food hasn’t broken through to that category of what’s considered the top echelon, but to me, it’s also about who sets the standard,” says Lawrence. “Who’s to say that this restaurant that you eat at and you leave hungry is the best restaurant? Lots of the standards that are placed are European standards. That’s why a lot of these restaurants are going to be judged from these European standards of what’s good cooking and what’s not. That’s where there needs to be more diversity.”

We cannot celebrate a list that is more than 80% white

In Montreal, fine dining spot Candide asked to be removed from Canada’s 100 Best Restaurants in an Instagram post. 

“While we are always happy and grateful to be recognized, we cannot remain silent regarding the lack of diversity in this year’s @canadasbest100 restaurant list. We cannot call for #changehospitality and simultaneously celebrate a list that is exclusive, and more than 80% white,” reads the post on the restaurant’s Instagram. Candide then asks to be replaced with another Montreal spot Palme, touting them as “one of the best Haitian restaurants in this country.”

“We encourage any restaurant featured and owned by a white man to stand in solidarity, and ask @canadasbest100 to replace their winning entry with a restaurant that they love and is owned by someone in the Black, Indigenous or POC community,” it continues. The post came after the murder of George Floyd by police rocked the world and the Black Lives Matter movement sprang into the forefront of the mainstream media. Back in Toronto, lists of Black-owned businesses popped up all over the internet. People flocked to restaurants like Aunty Lucy’s, buying up their juicy smash burgers until they were completely sold out – showing that when it comes to more wallet-friendly foods, Torontonians are right there, ready to support the multicultural experiences available.

For those who have the capital to drop on high-end dining experiences, and for the special occasions that we sock away money for, perhaps it’s time to rethink which restaurants we choose to eat at.

As places like Chubby’s and DaiLo push the envelope, more restaurateurs have begun, and will continue to follow in their footsteps. All kinds of high-end restaurants could be on the horizon – like Caribbean fine dining.

“I think there’s a space for that,” says Lawrence. “It’s not like it hasn’t been done before. Is there a restaurant here in Toronto that has opened in that category? No. But it’s been done and it is being done. Just not here.”

But are we prepared to support these restaurants if they do open?

“I absolutely think the people in Toronto are ready for it.”