Are Toronto’s Chefs Biting New York’s Style?

Last year, when slick New York restaurateur Scott Conant brought his flagship eatery Scarpetta to The Thompson Hotel’s Toronto outpost, he did so with the typical bravado of a celebrity chef from Manhattan. Just prior to Scarpetta’s opening, Conant posted an “Open Letter To Toronto” on The Huffington Post, in which the James Beard award-winner introduced himself, his restaurants, and Miami, to Torontonians. “Miami is really beautiful, T-Dot. You should check it out sometime,” he wrote, urging his new friends to visit a city that is (gasp!) a whole three-hour plane ride away. It was just one of many perceived slights that Toronto’s food critics and bloggers accused Conant of. To his credit, the letter wasn’t all condescension and bragadoccio.

Conant praised the “local bounty” of the Niagara Peninsula, and the importance placed on locally-sourced ingredients throughout the region. He also marveled at the lightning-quick flight between cities, saying that it was “shorter than most crosstown cab rides I’ve been on.” But despite Conant’s effusive praise, the damage had been done. Toronto–always the bridesmaid and never the bride when it comes to major North American cities (and especially New York)–was once again left to lick its wounds, and wallow in its own sense of inferiority.

The fact is, Toronto has always been looked at as a vanilla version of New York City. It’s almost impossible not to compare the two metropolises, given their geographical proximity, and their reputations as the centre of all thing media, fashion, business, art, and food in their respective countries. In the 1970’s, Toronto even promoted itself as a cleaner, safer, more livable version of New York. It wasn’t long before Hollywood clued in, and began using Hogtown’s streets as facsimiles of New York’s own grand avenues and tree-lined streets (to this day, prop NYPD squad cars and yellow cabs can be spotted with a film crew not far behind). Toronto continued to encourage its self-appointed title as “The New York of The North,” until Rudy Guiliani arrived and made Gotham safe again. Suddenly, Toronto wasn’t much cleaner or safer at all. Just smaller. Or as Steve Martin flatly put it on a recent episode of 30 Rock: “Toronto is like New York, but without all the stuff.”

It’s been nearly six months since Scarpetta opened its doors, and so far, so good. Despite some initial lukewarm reviews (including a particularly scathing rant courtesy of the Toronto Star’s Amy Pataki, who clearly felt dissed by Conant’s letter), his trattoria has hit its stride, with tables usually booked weeks in advance. It’s a level of success that eluded Susur Lee–Toronto’s marquee culinary star–when he brought his inventive pan-Asian cuisine to Manhattan’s Lower East Side with Shang, almost two years ago (also in The Thompson Hotel). The restaurant received a frosty welcome from New Yorkers, which Lee blamed on the limp economy and their xenophobic taste buds. “People won’t go for chicken feet no matter how many truffles you stuff in there,” he once said. The folks at New York Magazine’s foodie blog, Grub Street, took offense to his remarks, and facetiously invited the chef to Flushing for pig’s blood and intestine soup. We’re guessing he declined, because, like, ew.

Though Shang remains open today (Lee insists that business has improved), the once-invincible restaurateur has returned to Toronto with his trademark ponytail between his legs. Susur’s new den, Lee Lounge, opened this month in the city’s burgeoning King West area (or Toronto’s version of the Meatpacking District according to Thompson co-founder Jason Pomeranc), and figures to perform much better than Shang, because despite a reverence for everything New York, Torontonian’s like to take care of their own. They’re also fascinated by their most celebrated chef’s failure in The Big Apple. There’s a permeating feeling that well, “If he can’t make it there, who can?” In a recent interview with Eye Weekly, Lee was again asked about the New York debacle, and again he blamed the economy, instead of his own food. He was also asked whether or not Toronto tends to copy New York when it comes to food trends. “I wouldn’t say copying, more like inspired by, like in fashion or art,” he told the magazine. But a handful of recent openings in Toronto might suggest otherwise.

Pictured top: Toronto’s Porchetta & Co.

At the end of last year, Porchetta and Co. opened in Toronto’s increasingly with-it Dundas West area, and has taken the city by storm. The sandwich shop specializes in that succulent brand of Italian slow-roasted pork, much like the similarly-named Porchetta, in Manhattan’s East Village. But the parallels between the two don’t end there. Both menus feature porchetta as their star, with greens, beans, potatoes, and soups available as accompaniments. That Porchetta opened over two years ago however, may raise a few eyebrows. “I was going to call my shop Porchetta, and started doing research to see if such a concept existed in Toronto,” said Porchetta & Co.’s owner Nick auf der Mauer, a former cook at Toronto’s foodie pinnacle, Canoe. “Upon further research, I learned about Porchetta NYC. I did take a step back to ask myself if I should keep going through with the concept. I looked more at Porchetta NYC as a window into the future, to see how I thought people would respond to my concept.”

Respond they did, and as to whether or not Toronto chefs tend to copy what their colleagues in New York are doing, auf der Mauer thinks it’s only natural. “It doesn’t bother me that people think Toronto mimics New York, and to a certain extent we do. It will probably always be perceived that way.” He continues, “It makes perfect sense to, as you say, ‘borrow’ ideas from New York. You can save a lot of time and money seeing if certain things have won or lost in New York, but it doesn’t mean that it will play out the same way in Toronto. You still have to take the risk, stick your neck out, and see what happens. I don’t feel that I borrowed the idea, but it did help to see what had already been done in New York. It is impossible to deny the obvious similarities of the two sandwich shops.”

auf der Mauer isn’t the only Toronto restaurateur reaping the benefits of great ideas hatched south of the border. Since opening last summer, The Burger’s Priest in Toronto’s East End has quickly become a destination spot for burger fanatics. Its classic take on the American burger–never-frozen, fresh ground beef cooked on a flat-top grill–is nothing new for most New Yorkers, yet The Priest is the only place of any regard in Toronto that prepares their burgers this way. But it’s the Burger’s Priest’s vegetarian option–slyly called “The Option”–that most mirrors New York City’s burger benchmark, Shake Shack. The patty, constructed out of two portobello mushroom caps, stuffed with cheese, then deep-fried, is a Shake Shack staple, and The Priest’s owner has taken full advantage. To his credit, the native Californian and former seminary student doesn’t hide the fact that he spent considerable time in New York studying the art of the burger, which would explain the shop’s striking similarities to Shake Shack. When asked if The Option was based on Shake Shack’s portobello burger, he simply replied, “I don’t really remember.”

Is it a big deal that Toronto chefs are trying to cash in on New York’s culinary success stories instead of trying to forge their own? Probably not. After all, a Toronto band is only cool after they’ve sold out a show a Williamsburg, and Jeremy Laing–the city’s most famous fashion export–was only a local icon after he showed at New York Fashion Week. When it comes to food, Nick auf der Mauerr probably puts it best: “Specializing in one thing and doing it well is something that every major city in the world can learn from New York. I think as chefs, we look at places like New York for inspiration, and as an amazing place to see what could be the future of food in their home town.” Now if only someone had told that to Susur Lee.

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