I hope I have your attention! When I started this column last May (FFT01 – The first steps in our journey), I had a feeling we were missing some critical gastronomic element in Hamilton and Burlington.
Sure, there are some fine restaurants, talented chefs, great produce, well-stocked kitchen stores, and individuals passionate about food, amongst an almost-overwhelming presence of fast food outlets and chain restaurants serving undistinguished fare.
I’ve written in the past that the Oakville-to-Niagara area should merit attention at the national level, and in rankings such as the En Route guide to top restaurants (FFT 21 – Belgian Delights, Canadian Lists). I’ve also suggested that something bold might help put us on the map (FFT13 – High Flying Food).
However, ultimately, I’ve concluded we don’t factor, partly because we’re not organized. Unlike Toronto and Niagara, not to mention Montreal and Vancouver, we don’t have a food “scene”. Or at least not one that I’m aware of, and I’ve looked.
That’s not meant to sound pretentious, and “scene” is perhaps the wrong word to capture what I mean. There’re no points of cohesion: it’s as if we have many of the ingredients, but no real recipe to bring the dish together. And few, if any grace notes to elevate the meal to all it could be.
Yes, we have: a lively food and wine fest (the next one is April 12-14) and various food-related events throughout the year; a fine restaurant reviewer in the Spec’s Dan Kislenko; and Barbara Ramsay Orr writes beautifully for Hamilton Magazine, (see her recent piece about food, romance and love). And there are promising signs like the first (sold-out) Hamilton dishcrawl event and a second planned for April.
But our area does not have any active gastronomic societies bringing people together: There are no Hamilton chapters of the International Wine and Food Society (the nearest are in Niagara, Oakville and Kitchener-Waterloo), Les Marmitons (Toronto, Niagara), or the Chaine des Rotisseurs (Toronto).
Also missing are dedicated places people can learn hands-on about cooking. And yes I know the Spec offers a series of (hands-off) classes (see here for the March/April series), and some restaurants offer the odd opportunity here and there.
For instance, the Courtyard on Locke (the start point for the March dishcrawl incidentally) has recently started to offer classes, but based on the call I put in to the restaurant, I’d qualify them as more of an ad hoc dinner where guests cook with the chef. The health food chain, Goodness Me, also runs classes that cater to a particular demographic.
But Google “Cooking Classes Hamilton” or “Cooking Classes Burlington” and contrast the results for the same search for another city I’m familiar with, Waterloo. Those results include the Culinary Studio as well as the smaller Relish Cooking Studio both of which offer cooking class series in charming, well-equipped settings customized for the purpose. Even tiny Beamsville, to the south of us, has the well-reputed Good Earth cooking school.
So, what do we need to do to draw these strands together, find those missing ingredients, and establish ourselves on Canada’s culinary roadmap? What do we need to do to bloom?
I spoke recently about my ideas for some sort of culinary hub and/or Summit with Marc Skulnick, the Editor who has re-vitalized Hamilton Magazine, and Michael Stauffer, the thoughtful Dundas-born Chef at Celli's (with locations in both Ancaster and Burlington). They had plenty to say in response, including some specific suggestions for the City of Hamilton from Chef Michael.
I’ll also try and connect with “Dave”, the Hamilton Dishcrawl “Ambassador”, to see what motivated him to bring together “neighborhood restaurants, local chefs, regional food producers and fellow food enthusiasts”.
So read on in a couple of weeks… And in the meantime I’d welcome your reactions and thoughts.