Vancouver restaurants: the next global trendsetters?
Takuya Motohashi may be a chef, but his fridge at home is empty. That’s because he eats out—a lot. The former executive chef for Miku, which specializes in aburi flame-seared sushi, is preparing to open a sister restaurant called Minami this summer in Yaletown. As vice president of Aburi Restaurants Canada, he explains that it’s important to keep up with culinary trends.
“I go everywhere and anywhere, from holes-in-the-wall to Michelin-star restaurants,” he told the Georgia Straight. “You have to constantly be out trying other people’s food and expanding your knowledge on…what people are liking.”
Motohashi said that although aburi-style sushi has been around for a century in Japan, the concept is relatively new to Vancouver diners, who, he claims, are an adventurous lot. “The clientele is very diverse here; there’s a high demand for constantly new things.” So how trendsetting is Vancouver’s dining scene on a global scale? “I believe it’s getting there,” he said. “I don’t believe that it’s one of the top in the world yet.”
When Straight staffers called up more than 100 Vancouver chefs, restaurateurs, and managers and asked them how trendsetting Vancouver’s culinary scene is compared to other cities around the world, responses were mixed. Some asserted that Vancouver is a leader. Others freely admitted that we are followers. And others, like Motohashi, placed us somewhere in between.
Although most people agreed that Vancouver is a great city for food, many pointed to the unique challenges facing our culinary scene, and they discussed how far we can go from here.
Follow the leader
When asked if Vancouver is on the cutting edge of culinary trends, Brad Miller put it this way: “If you compare us to New York, no. If you compare us to Regina, yeah.” The chef and owner of the Red Wagon pointed out that our culinary scene has grown remarkably in the past 10 years. Now, “Vancouver is holding its own.”
“There are a lot of things happening here that are cutting-edge,” responded Danielle Tatarin, bar manager at the Keefer Bar. She noted that Vancouver’s bartenders are “being noticed and recognized in cocktail culture” alongside big players in the U.S. and London and are “competing on the same level as those cities in terms of creativity”.
“We love to think of ourselves as world-class…and for the size of [our] city we are,” said Justin Ault, owner of Hapa Izakaya. “But as far as helping maybe dictate what other areas outside of Canada do… I would say that’s probably pretty minimal.”
On Vancouver’s culinary scene:
“There’s nothing wrong with Vancouver that another million people couldn’t fix.”
—Bob Lindsay, owner of Monk McQueens Fresh Seafood and Oyster Bar and Lift Restaurant
Examples of trends that originated in Vancouver were few. Maj Yee, Canadian managing director of Goldilocks Bakeshop, pointed out that Vancouver’s fusion sensation Japadog just opened a hot-dog stand in New York, so “we’re somewhat creating trends.”
“I think some of our Asian food is probably pretty cutting-edge,” said Doug Taylor, owner of Central Bistro. But he noted that “the pizzeria trend that’s hitting Vancouver now” has “been all over North America forever.…They’ve had it in Seattle; they’ve had it in Calgary for a while.” Minna Benoit, co-owner of Mistral French Bistro, pointed out that Vancouver recently discovered French macarons, which were “in fashion a few years ago in France”.
“Leader is a big word,” responded Laurent Devin, owner of Bistrot Bistro. He sees our city as more “in tune” with global trends than setting them.
Tannis Ling, owner of Bao Bei, noted that she’s seen trends from New York, Portland, Seattle, and London catch on here only in the past few years. “To be honest, I think that Vancouver is a little bit behind everybody else,” Ling stated.
“Vancouver is very closed in on itself,” claimed Steeve Raye, co-owner of Café Régalade. “I feel like it’s a little bubble.” He noted that Europeans and even Americans on the East Coast can easily hop to other cities to dine, but geography prohibits the average Vancouverite from casting a wide net of comparison.
Neil Taylor, executive chef of Cibo Trattoria, suggested that Vancouverites might see our restaurant scene more favourably than others see us. “If you were to talk to people across the world and ask people what are the top 10 food cities around the world, I don’t think Vancouver is making it,” he said. “It’s going in the right direction, but Vancouver is a very young city.”
West chef Quang Dang said that our city is still defining its culinary identity.
Quang Dang, executive chef at West restaurant, said that although he thinks Vancouver’s cuisine competes on a global scale, we haven’t yet defined what sets our food apart. Thus, the international community hasn’t taken notice, as they have of Scandinavia, where chefs have redefined Nordic cuisine.
In Vancouver, we’re still feeling out our identity. “I think that’s what’s exciting about it,” Dang said. “It could turn at just about any time….It could be an ingredient or a style, an emphasis on something that somebody else in the world isn’t doing that excites the global critics.…And that’s when our food sort of takes a turn.”
Some pointed out where they find Vancouver’s food scene lacking compared to other countries around the world. “Vancouver falls short in affordable, quality food,” said Aiyana Kane, co-owner of Bandidas Taqueria. In the middle ground, between high- and low-end dining, she finds creativity and freshness scarce.
Nico Schuermans, co-owner of Chambar, said that although we have several dozen topnotch restaurants in Vancouver, the quality of the average eatery is much lower than in Europe. “People don’t value the day-to-day food as much,” he said, noting that Vancouver diners eat a lot of mass-produced food. “For a European coming here, if you don’t know the right restaurant to go to, you’re going to be very disappointed.”
But for some, comparison is beside the point. “Vancouver has a permanent inferiority complex,” asserted Mike Jeffs, owner and chef at Nook and Tavola. “I don’t think we have anything to feel inferior about, but we certainly do.…I think we’d be better off if we just did what we do well.”
According to Vikram Vij, trendsetting isn’t high on the agenda of Vancouver restaurants to begin with. But that doesn’t make us followers. “We don’t go and seek out something and then say, ‘Oh, let’s make that into a trend.’ We just do what we want to do, what we believe in…and then that becomes a trend.”
Alessandra Quaglia, co-owner of Provence Mediterranean Grill, said Vancouver’s food scene isn’t about fads. “Our trends in Vancouver seem to be more about really good food that is lasting.”