Five things we learned about Toronto’s dining history from Joanne Kates’ farewell column

Five things we learned about Toronto’s dining history from Joanne Kates’ farewell column

Before the days of everyone and their mother starting up a food blog, there was Joanne Kates, the Globe and Mail’s resident food critic. Kates has been on the job since her 1974 review of Noodles, an early non-red-checkered Italian restaurant, but she recently announced that she would be to retiring her column (she’ll be taking over critic duties at Post City Magazines). Kevin Siu, the executive editor of features at the Globe, called her “the defining voice in Toronto dining for a long time,” and Kates herself had plenty to say about her gig and Toronto’s changing food scene. Below, five things we learned about her career, and the dining scene she presided over, from her farewell column in the Globe:

1. She never went as far as wearing a wig, but did try to be the “everyman” diner
To avoid special treatment, Kates tried to stay anonymous for her 38-year tenure. Though she never put on elaborate, Ruth Reichl–style costumes while on assignment, she dressed to fit into the ’hood and used WASP-y nom-de-plumes (often based on characters from her favourite Victorian novels). Of course, it didn’t always work: sometimes her dining partners would knock back too much wine and call her by her real name.

2. Eating out all the time can be a bit of drag
Kates seemed to really enjoy the job, but admits a weekly column becomes a “bit of a grind” and eating out gets to be “routine.” She writes: “It’s a lot of going out for a person who adores cooking and has a great kitchen at home.”

3. Forty years ago there was barely a food scene to speak of
Judging by Kates’ outline of the last four decades of Toronto’s dining history, things were a little bleak at the start of her career. Though “we have become a city-state of foodies” now, in 1974, she had to fight to convince the paper to devote the space to food news. “In those days there were barely enough restaurants of interest to review, and you could count the serious chefs and waitstaff on the fingers of one hand, all of whom worked in expensive, fancy formal places.” In other words, Toronto’s gone “from bland to smoking hot.”

4. Thank immigrants for Toronto’s accessible and tasty restaurants
Though French and Italian cuisine became big trends in restaurant kitchens in the 1970s and 1980s, Kates pinpoints the 1990s as a turning point. Because of an influx of immigrants and plenty of Indian, Vietnamese and Thai restaurants popping up, eating habits changed: “Suddenly Toronto was an Asian-inflected food city, and the value we placed on food skyrocketed.”

5. Toronto may be a city of foodies, but there are a few problems (pork and noise mostly)
Kates acknowledges that collectively, the city’s become pretty food-obsessed. But that doesn’t mean it’s keeping things interesting. She cites an “unfortunate sameness to the new guard” that translates to no reservation policies, inelegant décor, noisiness, and too much emphasis on pork and meat fat, “which could be partly because so many of them are either alumni of the Black Hoof or friends/protégés of the people of the Hoof.” Zing.

Joanne Kates signs off after 38 years as the Globe’s restaurant critic [Globe and Mail]