Cooking Canadian: it’s local, dude!

By Judy Schultz.

OS05029Today, children, a little history. Long, long ago, I had a strange job. I was a restaurant critic.

The airplane had already been invented, so chefs and most of their ingredients came from far away. Germany, Scotland, Italy, anywhere but Edmonton. We didn’t have our own chefs, but we had steak houses, pizzerias, and restaurants with continental cuisine.

Continental cuisine, or CC, became my nemesis. I’d gone to cooking school in France and Italy, where fresh-and-local was a religion. Chefs not personally acquainted with the goats who produced the chevre for their cheese trolleys would be shunned.

In Edmonton, their standards slipped. My managing editor, who’d paid for those cooking schools, issued a mandate: “Get tough. Get your teeth into it.”

So I whined about cliché menus and inept service; raged about chefs who didn’t bother to taste their own food; fumed over the total dearth of local edibles, on any menu, in any season.

The CC crowd, accustomed to columnists who liked frozen shrimp cocktails, shot back. The president of the restaurant association complained that my reviews were “More disastrous than a fire.” The managing editor, a man who had much in common with pit-bulls, loved it.

Hate mail arrived. Anonymous calls. Lawsuits were threatened. The editor was gleeful. “Tell him we’ll see ‘em in court,” he said.

After one not-so-hot review, the aircraft mechanic who owned the restaurant in question posted a billboard outside. It said, “Judy Schultz is no longer welcome here.” The editor did a happy dance. I cried buckets. And that, children, was on a good day.

Meanwhile, in international competitions, Canadian cuisine was interpreted with predictable clichés: BC salmon, Alberta beef, Manitoba wild rice. Quebec brought maple syrup. PEI supplied lobster, and we had that ever-popular all-Canadian vegetable, the fiddlehead. (Never mind that it’s only available for about five minutes in spring. When was the last time you heard anybody say, “Man, I am jonesin’ for a good feed of fiddleheads!”)

Came the Nineties, and a Canadian pastry chef named Bertha Skye appeared in an international cook-off known as the World Culinary Olympics. She made soup and bannock. The judges went into shock. A woman, and an aboriginal? Zut alors!

Here at home, the industry still showed little enthusiasm for local culinary upstarts, local ingredients, or women chefs. (“Women are too emotional to be chefs,” said a chef whose kitchen tantrums were legendary on two continents.)

Change came slowly, long after I’d shuffled off that awful column. But it did come. In 2005, the Hundred Mile Diet was invented by two people from British Columbia. By 2007, the woods were full of locavores.

Canadian chefs had an epiphany: their ingredients and their inspiration could and should be fresh and local.

It’s still a challenge. Fresh and local is fine until you need a lemon, or it happens to be winter. Ask any chef. But they’re trying, and succeeding.

So kids, I’ve decided what I want to be when I grow up. A restaurant critic. In Edmonton. That’s a job I could get my teeth into.

Judy Schultz is a food and travel writer who divides her time between Alberta and New Zealand.