The Reviews Are In!...Sorta.
Ottawa is probably the most underrated culinary city in Canada and I’ll be ready to have that debate with anyone who comes at me saying otherwise. Why is that though? We don’t get the exposure that we rightly deserve and it’s something that gets brought up a lot in talks I have with industry pals. So as I’m thinking about all the possible ways to expose more of the deep pool of talent we possess here and ways to promote culinary growth in Ottawa, one possible avenue keeps popping up in my head.
Is the structure of the review system working in Ottawa; and how can we create a more concise criticism of what’s going on in the city’s culinary scene to better educate everyone (both behind the bar/kitchen and the guest).
To break it down, I want to talk about what I feel are the top two review systems that we currently use that could directly affect us.
So let’s start by talking about the most famous food review guide in the world, The Michelin Guide. A quick history lesson and I promise not to bore you. The Michelin Guide didn’t start rating restaurants until about 40 years into its publication, and it was actually created for French motorists. But once the publication started being sold to the public it shifted from rating the motor industry to the culinary world. Even then in 1926, as they began rating restaurants, it was only with a single star. It wasn’t until 10 years later when it adopted the 3-star system we see today. Now the whole process of reviewing is kept pretty tight, but everything is rated under the watchful eyes of anonymous judges. Chefs spend their entire careers waiting to get the chance to work in one of these starred establishments, and there are a select few Chefs who give most of their working lives to get their restaurant on the list and maintain their ratings. Ok, so that’s the quick Wikipedia-like description I have for you about the rating system that we hold to the highest standard. You know the rest, every time we hear about a new acclaimed restaurant, the discussion about their Michelin stars are not far behind.
Canada, as of this writing, currently does not have any restaurants with a Michelin Star. We do have Canada’s 100 Best lists which are comprised of a panel of judges in different territories, combined with a national panel of judges who collectively select the 100 top dining experiences our country has to offer. Similar to the Michelin panels, they remain quite secretive and anonymous. You won’t really know when you’re being judged and who the actual people will be that dine at your restaurant to rate all aspects of service. This is how the public learns about the top restaurants around the world and it’s a step towards how we recognize an exceptional dining experience.
Canada isn’t on a prestigious worldwide list yet when referring to the Michelin Guide, although, in my opinion, we do have a system we can be proud of in Canada’s 100 Best. A special shout out to all of the amazing teams that have made that list and continue to make it and maintain their spots.
Now we see all of that on a national and worldwide scale, but what about us in Ottawa?
We have a select group of food writers and critics, but unlike the structure of the 100 List, and certainly the Michelin Guide, how is this group being held accountable? Is the field of critic and “blogger/foodie” becoming more blurred? What’s the criteria and requirements for becoming an accredited reviewer? How does one actually become a food critic? Can this level of critiquing be better? Can we as Chefs even ask for that? JEEZ! there are so many questions!
There’s no “food critic” school you can go to. As I understand it, you get a degree in journalism so you know how to write all fancy and shit (unlike me) and you have enough disposable income to dine out consistently (also unlike me) and form a qualitative and responsible opinion on what you consume. I assume there isn’t a food critic school that takes you through the gauntlet of systems, policies, training, planning, protocols and procedures that Chefs, sommeliers and both FOH/BOH teams go through on a daily basis to try and provide the guest with an exceptional dining experience. But hey, in this day of age, if you have a keyboard and an opinion, the world is your oyster.
We trust professional critics on the basis that they are educated on the immense work that goes into that which they’re reviewing, and based on specific criteria, an informed opinion can be composed. And I’m trying to think; do we, here in Ottawa, have a healthy number of those people? Or, do we find that we’re being exposed more often to those that dine out frequently and simply have an opinion about what they’re consuming? Because if the latter is the case it’s not going to help us progress in any way in the current culinary climate.
Perhaps because of these discrepancies in review quality, there is an immediate need to legitimize our structure in favour of a more concise review/rating system that could not only help Ottawa get more exposure nationally but hell even globally.
It’s terrifying to get reviewed but it’s also a part of the industry we actively chose to get into. We know that we’re exposing ourselves in each dish and drink we send out, and we are open to it, as long as those who are writing reviews are putting in as much work to understand how their reviews impact us. Furthermore, feedback would be even more useful if a reviewer could bolster those critiques with a serious grasp of the restaurant industry, its protocols and guidelines and respect for the sheer amount of brute labour it takes to run our restaurants every day. Every plate and drink is another chance for a Chef, their cooks and all Front of House staff to be praised for their exceptional work, or blasted for their incompetence. As one saying goes,
“In a place where so many things can go wrong and do, the level we are judged is perfection.”-Gordon Hamersley
That feeling is exponentially higher when you are a Chef/Owner because everything you’ve got mentally, emotionally and most definitely financially is put into your restaurant. Accurate, informed and responsible reviews allow restaurant teams the chance to see where they're exceeding expectations and/or missing their marks.
Yearly reviews by credited sources are crucial in informing the public about what’s happening in the restaurant with new menus, while also discussing the quality of the food, drinks and service. If the reviews on restaurants are years apart, sometimes only once in their entire length of being open, what good does that do anyone on both sides of service. What should the expectations of these teams be then, to create and elevate their restaurant's experiences if there are no credible review systems and we’re just held to the whims of random TripAdvisor and Yelp rants?
Perhaps a more concise criticism also helps the industry itself, elevating our potential status and ranking on a global level. If there’s more conversation about our culinary community, it may also generate more traffic in the restaurants that should be getting noticed. On the other side of that, it helps us see what works and what doesn’t, in this city particularly. Ottawa is a conservative town, there’s no denying that; we’ve historically fallen slightly behind the 8-ball when it comes to food trends compared to the other major cities in the country.
The people who recognize new menu changes in restaurants here in Ottawa are the regulars who dine at these establishments consistently, and not the self-called reviewers of this city. Then there are others who are the ones that will document their one-off experiences on popular review sites and it shows the imbalance of the narrative. Those types of reviews lean heavily on the side of the average, inconsistent diner instead of say, a composed, educated and informed opinion from a consistent patron. Let’s call it as it is, most of the time, when a place gets a real review is when it first opens and typically doesn’t see another one, sometimes for years in some cases. I know this to be true as I’ve seen it happen to restaurants in my own community as well as places I’ve worked myself.
We don’t have to be the Michelin Guide, and more importantly, Canada’s 100 Best is doing amazing work, but to continue to grow this city’s culinary scene, it’s fair to ask for unvarying, sophisticated systems, qualitative critiques, reviewer accountability and respectful work. Could there be a small collective of reviewers built into our community that helps to build the craft that we all love and share with each other? I’ll leave that in your hands' pals.
There’s a lot that can happen with a restaurant within a year, it’s a constant growing organism with new menus, talent and even changes in their vision. I truly believe that we can see our city’s recognition develop as our food, drink and reviewing communities continue to work together and push each other to new heights and achievements.
Until next time, have a good service.