The food scene in Edmonton is a strange and peculiar place. So, it’s almost no surprise that a recent article by Paul Shufelt has stirred the pot. Not to mention, Paul’s article comes just days after this post by Daniel Huber, which was – from my limited understanding – pointed at a specific ‘reviewer’ in town. Clearly there is some kind of uncomfortable battle going on in Edmonton, and Paul happens to have the voice and space to share this revelation for those who are unaware.
If you haven’t read Paul’s newest musing, I’ll start by saying that being called out by Paul in an article is always nice. I know Paul. I eat at Paul’s restaurant. In some ways we are probably considered friends. Albeit, more of that new-age internet friend, rather than real life friend. Either way, I don’t think I’ve ever had an issue with Paul, and I don’t think (Paul correct me if I’m wrong) Paul has ever had an issue with me. To be called out as a critic is interesting. For me, writing about food has always been about an experience. I’m not here to give a restaurant two thumbs up or 3 popcorn kernels out of 4. I’m here to share my experience, talk about what the restaurant represents, the type of food served, and whether I enjoyed, or didn’t enjoy, what I had. I’m not trying 12 dishes and taking home 11 plates of leftovers so I can be the hippest blogger in town. I’m trying a dish, likely with friends or family, paying my share of the bill, and showcasing an average dinner.
So while I understand asking yourself questions like. “Who are these people given the privilege of sharing their opinions about our city’s restaurants? What experience or training do these experts have? Have they gone to cooking school? Are they decent home cooks?” In many ways, it doesn’t matter what the answer is. Every person who enters your restaurant is a critic, who will tell their friends, who will tell their friends. Sure, blogging blows this up to a larger audience, but the hype or disappointment of a restaurant has been shared by people for as long as people have served food in return for money. What matters to me is that you take pride in your food, you understand your food, you make good decisions about your staff, and you showcase your love for what you do everyday. Knowledge is a key ingredient. Service is paramount. Passion is contagious. Food…well there is truth in the old adage that you can’t have a crappy meal in the company of good friends. And yes, I did paraphrase that sentiment.
When people tell me they had an amazing meal at a restaurant, I ask them one simple question; Why? Why was it such a great meal? Was it because the steak was flown in from beef-loving Argentina or was it your birthday, anniversary, or an amazing first date? Did the panzanella salad sing with the excitement of the summer sun or did you just get a promotion? Did the pasta remind you of your grandmother, or was it the way the chef sprinkled on the flat leaf parsley? Was it because you’ve worked for twenty years as a line cook in a late night diner, or was it the first meal you’ve had since returning home after serving overseas? Maybe it was just a long week at work and this hot plate of food hits every corner of your body with a feeling of happiness. The list goes on and on, but my point is that when you really push people to answer that question, you often find that knowing anything about cooking plays very little into the appreciation of good food. Heck even the food can play second fiddle to the moment. That heart warming experience that explains why you showed up.
Now it’s always an honour to be considered ‘influential’ in our city, but let’s be honest, my level of influence is probably non-existent. It’s not that I don’t love food, the city, or the new restaurants that appear; it’s that I’ve been writing about food since 2009. Staying current, hip, and up-to-date with our seemingly never-ending restaurant openings is just too difficult. Trying to capture the essence of every restaurant meal starts to rob you of that experience, and quite frankly, eating out just isn’t that important to me. Plus, I’m not a single passion kind of guy. The world is too big and beautiful to only focus yourself in one direction. That’s not to say that I don’t share my stories. In fact, I probably share more of them now over on my Instagram page because it’s easier, quicker, and more enjoyable.
As I sit here catching up on this whole stirring of the pot, I can’t help but think that the funny thing about this situation is that the danger in this challenge is already apparent, as some of our city’s chefs seem to think it’s time to tear down the critics. My favourite asshat comment was this one from Characters Chef, Shonn Oborowsky – “this is very funny by the way, its going to be a disaster for them”, which he so kindly left on Paul’s Facebook post for all to see. At the end of the day, this does absolutely nothing for our community, or the relationships between bloggers and chefs. If anything, it’s counter-intuitive. And really, I’m never going to eat at Characters again.
Where does this leave us? Who knows? I started cooking regular meals at my house – for new and old friends alike – because I realized building a community of people around you is likely one of the most important things in life. Together, a strong community can do everything from raise children to share in the struggles of separation, help you transition between jobs or even stages in life, and maybe most importantly, community can help feed hungry mouths. So can I cook, you bet your bottom dollar I can. Can I jump into a kitchen and cook for 150 people in a restaurant setting? Nope. I don’t even know where I’d start. The prep work alone is daunting and I don’t have enough hands or energy to somehow pull this challenge off. Do I need to be able to run a kitchen to have an opinion? Absolutely not. Yet, I can butcher a duck, kill a pig, make a 23 ingredient mole, grow my own produce, make my own charcuterie, breakdown a bison, make you the smoothest sous vide chicken liver parfait, make fresh pasta, yogurt, cheese, pickles, jam, and bake you some of the best bread you’ve ever had. I can tell you that El Salvador makes thicker tortillas than Mexico, and that sweet cornbread comes from America’s Northerners while its non-sweet counterpart is very Southern. Should I keep going? Is that enough credit for you? Feel free to come by for a meal one day. Just remember, you’re coming for the community and the moment. If I’m being an asshole in your restaurant, kick me out. If you’re being an asshole in my house, I’ll kick you out. If you want to share your opinion, let me hear it. If you don’t want to hear mine, then ignore it. At the end of the day, we all need to eat, so we should spend more time eating together and less time fussing over this childish nonsense.