TORONTO – David Chang believes Toronto has a brilliant future as a culinary destination, but the award-winning chef thinks the city needs “the audacity to dream” to fulfil that vision and achieve a world-class dining scene.
“We’re not there yet – I don’t think anywhere close – but I believe it will happen,” said the founder of the restaurant group Momofuku.
“If you think about where TIFF was in 1976, which those guys were visionaries, no one thought that it would rival Cannes at all and now the city is on fire (during the film festival). It’s the best place to be, one of the best places to be. The city is so vibrant and alive.”
The Toronto International Film Festival is now a “must stop” for the movie industry, he said, “and I don’t think they can say that about the food industry.”
“People should be coming here for the food, not for TIFF, is how I look at it. Those are high standards, but I can envision that … That would be a great day. I think the people really need to analyze what it is,” he said in an interview ahead of an address to delegates at the recent Terroir Symposium for members of the hospitality industry.
Chang started his restaurants in New York in 2004, which now number five including the Michelin-starred Momofuku Ko. He expanded in 2012 to Toronto, opening three restaurants, a bar lounge and Milk Bar under the same roof in the tony Shangri-La Hotel. There is also a location in Sydney, Australia. Momofuku means “lucky peach.”
Toronto attracted him because “it has a lot of potential in my mind to be one of the best cities for food in the world. … Another reason was in New York we were never going to get an opportunity to get a new building. … I can’t tell you how many times I’ve knocked myself out walking down the stairs at Ssam Bar. The ceilings are low. There’s a pipe that I can’t move. So having that luxury was really great and I wanted to be part of a scene that was going to be on its way up.”
Conscious of his status as an outsider, Chang hesitates to be critical but notes he spends a lot of time working in Toronto and sees the city has plenty of resources.
“It’s got a larger population than Chicago, but I don’t think anyone would disagree that Chicago’s got a better food scene. Why not Toronto?
What’s preventing Toronto from elevating to the next level? And elevating doesn’t have to be fine dining or something. It’s just finding its voice and being the best at that.”
All it takes is someone with a vision, like chef Rene Redzepi whose Noma restaurant has been ranked best in the world four times by Restaurant magazine since it opened in 2003.
“The best example I can give is Copenhagen,” said Chang, whose restaurants have also been on international top 50 lists. “It’s a fifth of the size of Toronto, similar weather and in 10 years it’s completely changed the culinary landscape. Everybody knows about it. No one could tell you anything about Scandinavian food 10 years ago. The magic of Noma is the integrity of their vision and their willingness to not compromise and to exceed anybody’s expectations and to persevere and to win.”
The one food scene that does really well in Toronto is Chinese. “No arguments there,” said Chang, who has received several James Beard Foundation awards. “It’s the best. You have six Chinatowns. It’s been around for over 100 years. Why are they successful? I don’t know of anybody who tries to look at what they do. Maybe they’re doing something that the rest of the community can learn from.”
Chang, who is also a cookbook author and has a quarterly magazine called Lucky Peach, said Montreal has a great food lineage to draw upon while Vancouver has a vibrant restaurant community with an Asian vibe that reflects its population.
“And I think that Toronto’s got a much more diverse population. Indian food’s great, Vietnamese food’s really great and why not push the boundaries there? Why not embrace what we do well?”
While judging during the recent season 4 of Food Network Canada’s “Top Chef Canada,” Chang found a huge contrast between the Canadian and American versions of the show.
“It’s really telling about the two countries. People (in the U.S.) will jump at the chance to throw somebody under the bus. I watch these (Canadian) kids cook and you knew exactly who (screwed) up and I think it’s very telling and I think very endearing that they have the integrity to not do it. They would not say my partner is the reason why.
“I mean, it was a shock to me. In America it’s the first thing – ‘Your fault.’ Here it’s like, ‘No, I’m not going to do it’ and I think America and Canada need to find like a middle ground in that,” he said with a laugh.
© The Canadian Press, 2014