Whining and dining: A look back at Winterlicious 2009 with Marc Thuet and Michael Bonacini

Whining and dining: A look back at Winterlicious 2009 with Marc Thuet and Michael Bonacini

Has Winterlicious lost its way? (Photo by Chunyang LIN) 

The Winterlicious of 2009 was like no other. There was a recession on, new pricing and a two-week extension. Plus, the much loved food-a-thon sparked the most criticism it’s had since its inception in 2003. Despite the backlash, though, most reports indicate that this year’s festival was a resounding success. There has even been a backlash to the backlash, as some of the industry’s biggest names encourage haters to stop whining. As Michael Bonacini of the Oliver & Bonacini empire puts it, “Get on board or zip it and get out of town.” Zing.

What began as a way to combat SARS reclusion—and to fill tables during the industry’s slowest season—has turned into a city-wide annual event that earns as many gripes as accolades. This year’s grumblings began before the festival even started, with a to-do over high pricing categories. Bymark’s Mark McEwan added fuel to the fire when he aired frustrations on CBC Radio about the headaches associated with “Wintervicious.” Others were quick to join in. The Toronto Star offered insider complaints, mostly from servers lambasting clients who cheap out on alcohol and other extras. Meanwhile, the chatter from diners has pointed to disappointment at how quality is sacrificed for quick-and-dirty festival service (rushed eating, paper menus, brusque wait staff, etc.).

Despite all this, Winterlicious 2009 experienced jammed reservation lines, cramped seating and a two-week extension due to overwhelming response. Whatever the bellyaches, it seems as though there is still plenty that pleases.

That’s what matters to many restaurateurs, like three-time participant Marc Thuet (Bite Me, Atelier Thuet). “You can never make everyone happy, and everybody is becoming a food critic these days,” he explains. For the French chef, it’s about opportunity—he characterizes food as joyful stuff that should be shared, especially at a time of crisis. The strain is worth it: “There may be more yelling in the kitchen than before, but that just means the chef is actually cooking in there.”

Bonacini couldn’t agree more. With a slew of successful participating restaurants to his credit (Jump, Canoe, Auberge du Pommier, Biff’s), he knows a little something about the biz, and he’s tired of all the groaning. “Restaurants that bitch and complain about it have no obligation to participate. They’re an embarrassment to the industry.” After all, he says, “Restaurants are built to be busy,” and Winterlicious makes an otherwise dead time (which could have been devastating in ’09) one of the busiest of the year.

Both Thuet and Bonacini admit that there are improvements to be made. Bonacini says his team gets better at handling the hullabaloo every year, and Thuet would like the event to expand to specialty food stores in a larger, full-month festival. But while Winterlicious may still have something to learn about organization, the event remains—at least for now—an essential part of the city’s post-holiday winter blues binge. Apparently a hot meal goes a long way toward getting us through the deep freeze, even if it is chosen off a paper menu.