OMG! Do we really need a gastronomy office?
I have some reservations, writes chef and restaurant owner David Ferguson.
When Mayor Valérie Plante announced the creation of the Office montréalais de la gastronomie (appropriately OMG for short) to aid restaurants to recover from the pandemic, a simple question was begged: What defines Montreal's gastronomy?
If we were asking what defines Quebec gastronomy, the answer would be easy. From tourtières and cipâtes to cabanes à sucre and the now mighty poutine, Quebec gastronomy was forged over hundreds of years and chronicled in the 1960s Jehane Benoît bible L'encyclopédie de la cuisine Canadienne, and most recently in Julian Armstrong's Made in Quebec. We instinctively know it and love it.
But Montreal gastronomy is different. For sure it shares a Venn diagram with Quebec gastronomy, but it encompasses so many other circles and influences. If you are returning to Toronto or New York from a trip to Montreal, you will immediately be asked if the bagels and smoked meat are as good as “they say” (“better” is the proper reply).
Waves of immigration contribute to any city's gastronomical tour (although my own brethren Scots offer little besides blessed Scotch whisky). From century-old waves of eastern European Jewish immigrants and Italians to the more recent from the French diaspora such as Vietnam, the Middle East and North Africa, each wave has shaped our city's food culture, creating our city's unique flavour.
Shish taouk is as likely to be eaten on the go as poutine (I will not mention Montreal “Michigan” hotdogs; I was shocked to discover they are served with pride). Our pho is championed as some of the best outside of Vietnam and a food blog recently posted the “17 Restaurants Serving Terrific Tagines and Other African Foods in Montreal.” One of the city's most sought-after high-end tables is Syrian.
A friend recently commented that Montreal cuisine feels like it comes from a place, as opposed to Toronto cuisine that appears to come from everywhere. He suggested that even our Italian food tastes like Montreal Italian. I understood what he meant. I used to live in Little Portugal in Toronto, but I never ate Portuguese chicken like I do in Montreal. Not to say Toronto's food scene is not great, but Montreal's does have a sense of place that Toronto's does not (full disclosure: I am a Torontonian, although I did support the Habs in the playoffs).
If we define Montreal's gastronomy as having a “sense of place,” then that definition must include all that occupies that space. My fear is, regardless who holds office at city hall, whom the OMG chooses to support and promote will come to define Montreal's gastronomy. In other words, “follow the money” and you will get a definition of Montreal's gastronomy.
We all know that Chinatown was the earliest and hardest-hit sector in our food community when the pandemic struck. Will Chinatown be front and centre in any promotion? I hope so. Surely our city's stars, such as Joe Beef, Toqué! and Au Pied de Cochon, which have garnered well-deserved accolades from around the globe, need less help than your local Haitian cassecroûte. Will the recent arrival of Indigenous-oriented restaurants — pre-colonial cuisine — receive a nod, being the original food culture of Hochelaga?
Do we need help? Yes. Perhaps a business tax freeze for restoration or orderly construction with proper compensation for lost revenues. That would help. Our staffing problem, another one of OMG'S mandates, is not exclusive to Montreal and is a self-inflicted wound the city can do nothing about.
However, attracting clients is the least of our problems right now. One cookbook author recently commented on Twitter that she was unable to book a table in five restaurants last week. All this leads one to beg another question: Is the Office montréalais de la gastronomie a solution in search of a problem?