There’s no better way to take the temperature of a country’s restaurant and hospitality industry than dining at more than 30 establishments from coast to coast. I was the peripatetic critic who did that, travelling from St. John’s to Tofino and observing the common interests and obsessions of chefs and restaurateurs, many of whom are impressively innovating despite supply chain challenges and labour shortages. Here are six industry trends that stood out on my cross–country culinary odyssey.
Hayloft Steak + Fish.
Cutting Waste, Prioritizing Sustainability
Environmental concerns continue to intensify as we face the effects. I was heartened to see more places prioritize sustainability issues and no–waste practices.
In Edmonton, Hayloft Steak + Fish shares the same footprint with one of chef Paul Shufelt’s four Woodshed Burger locations, Woodshed taking the cow’s ground beef while Hayloft puts both the prime and sub–prime cuts on its menu. At Một Tô Vietnamese restaurant in Calgary, look closely and you will see that the tables are made by the local firm ChopValue YYC from recycled disposable wooden chopsticks.
Fishy People, in Yellowknife, is devoted to using only fish from the body of water it fronts, Great Slave Lake, and practises a form of whole–fish cookery. In Quebec City, the no–waste Restaurant Alentours sources all its ingredients save for salt and yeast from within 150 kilometres, and the more than 60 small farmers it works with are vetted for the sustainability of their practices.
Co–owner Miki Ellis and chef Justin Lee of Elephant. Photos: May Yi Then
Enough with the Toxic Workplaces
While the issues in question are not new, we are seeing a new, clear–cut willingness to advance wage equity, detoxify the workplace, and enhance work–life balance and mental health. At Gia Vin & Grill in Montreal, a contemporary landscape painting on the wall bears the workplace motto: “A small place where differences have been respected and maintained.” Perch, in Ottawa, holds the vision of “a healthy staff; a culture of support, with true work–life balance.”
Toxic behaviour has been so normalized in some restaurants “that it would be considered weird to complain about it,” says Perch bar manager and sommelier Sapphire Misquitta. Thankfully, she says chef Justin Champagne “has been adamant” about keeping such behaviour out of his restaurant. The six–member team also pools and divides all tips evenly between the front–of–house and kitchen, instead of servers keeping their own tips or kitchen staff getting at token “tip–out.”
Restaurant 20 Victoria, Mimi Chinese, Restaurant Alentours and Mastard, too, pride themselves on their more non–hierarchical structures. Mimi Chinese and Restaurant 20 Victoria both offer staff four–day workweeks and full benefits. At Big Hug Hospitality Group, which includes Mimi Chinese and Sunny’s Chinese, owner and co–chef David Schwartz says that all full–time team members receive 100% coverage on dental, vision and extended health care (including chiropractic, physio and acupuncture). “It’s unusual but I’m hoping it will become standard,” he adds.
In Vancouver, Miki Ellis, co–owner of Elephant, Dachi and Hānai, says “a consistent and good restaurant starts with happy people who feel safe and supported in their workplace.” According to Ellis, each restaurant and team has its own particular needs, which is why she and co–owner Stephen Whiteside have explored a range of programs, including “donation and give–back elements, pop–ups for staff to try their own things, or education days.”
Yet change comes slowly. When it comes to restaurant working conditions and wage equity, transparency has traditionally been non–existent. Too often, we find out that vaunted values are not upheld as claimed. As diners, we can let it be known that pay equity and a safe workplace are important to us and leverage our purchasing power to encourage change.
Chef Scott Jonathan Iserhoff of Edmonton’s Pei Pei Chei Ow. Photos: Roam Creative; courtesy of Indigenous Tourism Alberta
Food as an Expression of Personal Identity
More chefs than ever are striving to express their personal identities and to tell their stories on the plate, whether it is grappling with the legacy of colonialism or bridging gaps created by immigration, racism or prejudice.
Mexico–born chef Julio Guajardo of Toronto’s Fonda Balam reps his heritage in offerings ranging from the humble cacahuate spiced peanut mix to the quesabirria con consome, his masterful take on the birria taco. Scott Jonathan Iserhoff at Edmonton’s Pei Pei Chei Ow draws inspiration from his roots growing up on the Attawapiskat Reserve in Northern Ontario. Childhood memories of walking through herb–scented forests or the ubiquity of Spam processed meat on reservation grocery shelves inspired two of his sandwiches.
Edmonton’s Fu’s Repair Shop celebrated Asian Pacific Islander Heritage Month by inviting API staff members to create recipes that reflect their upbringings, while at Calgary’s Một Tô and Tofino’s Jeju, chefs revisit the food they remember eating while growing up. But they also bring their Canadian histories and elevated cooking skills to bear in dishes like Một Tô’s pho grilled cheese sandwich, or Jeju’s octopus crudo with dill, kimchi, lime and perilla oil vinaigrette.
Come–As–You–Are Tasting Menus
Then there’s the return of the tasting menu, which can be fancy or casual. In 2019, when I put Arvi and its tasting menu in the top spot, people told me that the concept was a tough sell in Quebec City. It was considered expensive, elitist and not how people wanted to eat. Yet this year, in that same city, chef Tim Moroney at Restaurant Alentours has encountered no such resistance to his sustainably minded tasting menu.
Even in the most elegant rooms serving tasting menus, Le Clan in Quebec City and Restaurant 20 Victoria in Toronto, the service is casual, friendly and even jovial at times. Guests can certainly dress up for a special night out, but there’s no expectation of that.
The only restaurant that seemed to give a fig about attire was Major Tom in Calgary, where there is no tasting menu. The final line in its online reservation confirmation e–mail read, “Dress sharp, it’s been a while!” I interpreted that as giddy excitement over the prospect of a night out in its glittering, 40th–floor dining room with panoramic views of the city below, not some snobbish expectation of formal wear.
Most of the establishments offering tasting menus and wine pairings follow Arvi’s suit, which is to say the experience is casual, ranging from the cozy, cottage–like Oxalis in Dartmouth, to the after–hours wine bar feel of Elephant in Vancouver, which offers an omakase chef’s choice tasting menu.
Prime Seafood Palace. Photo: Daniel Neuhaus
The Steakhouse 2.0
Major Tom is also one of several establishments that are rethinking the steakhouse. It takes great pride in its “beef program” (it’s in Calgary, after all!) and products are carefully sourced and aged. Like Prime Seafood Palace in Toronto, Major Tom includes steakhouse tropes such as a menu of “sauces” or “toppings” for your steak. Yet steak is hardly the cornerstone of the menu at either restaurant. At Prime Seafood Palace, which is inspired in part by owner Matty Matheson’s childhood love for The Keg steakhouse chain, its very name emphasizes seafood over beef, although the restaurant’s logo does feature a cow.
Both establishments seem to place equal emphasis on being more eclectic, plant–based friendly and open to world cuisine influences than a traditional steakhouse. Perhaps the pivot away from being so meat–centric is a response to increased public awareness of the carbon footprint involved in raising beef, which Hayloft Steak + Fish in Edmonton tries to address with its focus on whole–animal, no–waste butchery.
Heart’s Tavern and Bar in Kimberley, Ontario, opened by the team behind Cote de Boeuf in Toronto, will sell you beef cuts from its butcher shop as well as steaks in the restaurant. But here, too, it does not limit or tether itself to that menu item.
Collab Culture on the Rise
Finally, one welcome trend is the rise of collaborative relationships between different food and drinks businesses housed on a single site. In St. John’s, the Thai–inspired restaurant Namjim began as a pop–up at Bannerman Brewing Co., and proved so popular that it became a permanent fixture.
The collab is especially fitting since the brewery is housed in the former East Fire Station and symbolizes the neighbourhood’s history of collectivism and community. After the great fire of 1892, many of the 11,000 displaced people gathered in nearby Bannerman Park, where along with city officials they jointly staged the rebuilding of St. John’s.
In Edmonton, the Indigenous takeout spot Pei Pei Chei Ow shares space with the Whiskeyjack Art House gallery and features its preserves and other food products in its gift shop. J’ai Feng in Montreal collaborates with artisanal Japanese baker, Maru.
In Halifax, one of my favourite discoveries was Beverley Taco Service, which nixtamalizes cornmeal sourced from Oaxaca for its addictive tacos inside Sourwood Cider. In the mornings, the space is home to Ramblers Coffee, run by one of its employees, who also happens to perform occasionally at the cidery’s frequent live folk music sessions. In these inflationary times, collaborating to reduce overhead costs makes more sense than ever before.
I hope I’ve convinced you that it’s high time to hit the road and check out some of these movements, and the dynamic restaurants and people behind them.