A decade ago, nobody went out for Canadian food. It was the simple stuff we cooked at home: peameal bacon, neon Kraft Dinner, Sunday roast beef dinners, pancakes drenched in maple syrup. When we went to a restaurant, it was for duck confit, sashimi or some other exotic dish we lacked the expertise to concoct ourselves.
Then in 2000, a restaurant called Patriot opened in Yorkville. The young chef, David Chrystian, had the radical notion that Canadian ingredients and recipes were worthy of fine dining. Eating there was our duty as Canadians, like seeing every Atom Egoyan movie. Chrystian served things like venison with fiddleheads and juniper berries, but the city’s locavore movement was only nascent, and the place closed by 2003. If Patriot opened today, it would be a hit.
In the past couple of years, a dozen or so places debuted that are so uniquely Canadian you wonder if they’re recipients of Heritage Department grants. They tend to advertise their local bona fides with names that evoke old-timey Upper Canada (Bannock, Woodlot, Farmhouse Tavern) and Canadian fauna (Chantecler, Ursa, Rock Lobster). As evidence of their devotion to all things red, white and maple flavoured, the rooms are decorated with stuffed beavers, antlers and antique wood stoves, and the guy serving you a peameal slider is likely sporting a maple leaf tattoo under his lumberjack shirt. Their menus name-drop small farmers and meat suppliers like they’re celebrities. And why the hell not? In this era when interactions are measured in megabytes, there’s something romantic about knowing the chèvre you’re eating is from Monforte Dairy in Stratford, the walnuts grown in Niagara, the halibut caught by a fifth-generation P.E.I. fisherman.
These new restaurants are run by a cohort of chefs uniformly devoted to Canadian ingredients: spruce tips, red fife wheat, elk, lake trout, small-batch birch syrup and wild leeks. Their world has been shaped by the Slow Food movement and Michael Pollan. Their hero is the Danish chef René Redzepi, who, at his world-renowned restaurant Noma, is famous for reviving Nordic cuisine—in many ways, a sibling to Canada’s—with radical native ingredients. They’re cooking at a time when the story behind our dinner plate is loaded with philosophical import.
The new Canadian food proponents generally fall into two categories: the chefs who revive and refine classic Canadiana recipes, as Geoff Hopgood does with molasses bread and donairs at Hopgood’s Foodliner; and the chefs whose idea of Canadian cooking is as ethnically jumbled as the businesses in a Scarborough strip mall—such as Nick Liu, who runs the pop-up dinner series GwaiLo and cooks in a style he calls a second-generation Asian-Canadian mash-up, which involves dishes like bolognese made with cold soba noodles and beef tataki, and General Tso’s sweetbreads (the ultimate Canadian food, according to Liu). These cooks all share a devotion to making the most inventive and delicious food in the city. In just a few short years, they’ve transformed Canadian cuisine from an oddity into something we go out for.