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Foodies: Are food crazies getting their just desserts?

michelle thompson The Globe and Mail

A friend of mine sent back the duck confit we ordered the other night in a restaurant in Toronto. He told the maitre d' it wasn't salty enough. He's a serious and discerning foodie, and I admired his send-back cojones even as I cringed with embarrassment. Perhaps it was the fact that we'd begun the meal with an $18 plate of horse tartare, an excess on any number of embarrassing levels. (Not least of which was my habit of saying "Hi-ho, Silver!" after each bite.) I understand his right as a paying customer to return the brine-challenged duck. But it felt like too much privilege by half, and one more glaring example of self-indulgent foodism.

There has apparently been entirely too much of that lately. A vocal band of critics has declared open season on foodies, organics, localism, and sustainability. Two decades in, the movement that created a new global food consciousness is being slagged as the enemy not just of common sense, but of humanity. The attacks fall into two camps.

One is practical. Global food prices, comatose for years, hit record highs again in January and February, raising the spectre of global food supply. According to the food movement's critics, the sustainable, the local and the organic will never be able to satisfy the world's hunger. A 14-page special report in The Economist last week baldly declared, as only a magazine that has been partly owned by a Rothschild bank can, that "the reaction against intensive farming is a luxury of the rich...It cannot feed the world."

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Then there are the aesthetic objectors to the food movement, a snippy bunch who claim foodies are elitest, cruel, economically fatuous and--according to their leader B. R. Myers, in a controversial diatribe entitled "The Moral Case Against Foodies," in last month's Atlantic Monthly--lousy writers to boot. Myers is a vegan (a detail he doesn't disclose in his essay), but his disdain is omniverous. "It has always been crucial to the gourmet's pleasure that he eat in ways the mainstream cannot afford," Myers writes in an opening salvo. Heaven only knows what he makes of the new breed of ultra-strict Manhattan restaurateurs who refuse to let customers drink espresso in paper cups or eat ketchup with their gourmet fries.

I have to admit, as someone whose culinary philosophy is summed up in the phrase yes, thank you, I will, that I too have qualms about foodies--or "food crazies," as they were once called. They can be judgmental about foods lots of people quite like (I'm not mentioning any names, but Kraft Dinner comes to mind), and they can display a tendency to wienerism . As a result I was slightly hesitant when I was invited to spend 10 days at Ontario's exclusive Stratford Chefs School. The Stratford Chefs School is a hotbed of elite foodie-ism, and teeming with people whose devotion to the pleasures of appetite is almost unseemly. The dangers were many. But someone had to make the sacrifice.

The first thing you learn hanging around chefs is that most of them disdain even the word "foodie."

This moment of clarity occurred to me in John Bex's pastry class. Seventy students enroll every year at the Stratford Chefs school, which over 27 years has developed a quiet but global reputation for producing high-end owner-chefs (as opposed to line cooks in hotel kitchens). The first-year students attend practicums in the kitchen and classes on everything from gastronomy to the esoterics of waiter movement (the hands of a server should never rise above his or her navel). The second years attend more classes, and then prepare 5 course meals for 40 diners every weeknight under the supervision of a string of master chefs visiting from around the world.

I decided to attend pastry class because I like to think I make quite a good pavlova. I didn't really begin to cook with any seriousness until I moved to Los Angeles in my thirties with my wife. California was a bountiful place. You could walk into the Hollywood branch of Whole Foods, breathe in mounds of fresh strawberries selling for 22 cents a pint, and come upon Roseanna Arquette, the actress, leaning into the dairy case in an orange velour catsuit. She gave new meaning to the word organic.

I was what Julian Barnes, the English writer, refers to as a "late onset" cook-eager, but lost without a recipe. My saviour was Great Food Without Fuss, a collection of easy but exponentially impressive dishes from well-known chefs. In its pages one Saturday morning I discovered pinch pie-essentially a bowl made of meringue-and, as an addendum to the recipe, the suggestion to fill the meringue bowl with lemon curd and whipped cream, and top it with fresh berries.

It was (and still is) the perfect dessert. It required some care-the meringue could be tricky, and you had to pay attention stirring the lemon curd-but the effect was out of all proportion to the effort required. Topped with fresh mint and raspberries, everybody who ever ate it loved it, and so it gave me great pleasure to make it.

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Needless to say, during my ten day stint as writer in residence at the Stratford School, I plunged into pavlovian lore. Learning about the pavlova in the school's library (a converted store room) was a way to think about food, and pleasure, and nourishment, while pretending I was learning history-specifically that of New Zealand, where the dish had been invented (though Australia seriously disputes this), possibly by the Davis Gelatine Co., some time between 1923 and 1926, after a visit by the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova, the first ballet dancer to tour internationally. (She was the daughter of a St. Petersburgh laundress, and unlike most of the short and athletic dancers of her time, was tall and languid and floaty.) The original pavlova was made with kiwis, aka Chinese gooseberries, or sometimes with tamarillos, the so-called and quite repulsive-looking New Zealand tree tomato. Other versions employed pineapple (too sweet, I thought) or pomegranate arils (oh yes).

Of course I couldn't stop there. The history of the pavlova led me to the history of dessert in general, which in turn wound around to the history of pastry and Carême. Marie Antoine Carême (1784-1835) was an early practitioner of French grand cuisine and Europe's first celebrity chef. His destitute father abandoned him at the gates of Paris at the age of 15; by the end of the day, hungry, he'd found his way into a job in a chophouse. He was a bit of a madman: he considered confectionery to be not just a branch of architecture, but its main branch, and spent hours buildings ships and palaces out of sugar and marzipan.

After Carême was appointed patissier to Tallyrand, people began to suggest that the frantic, ever-shifting state of Europe between 1780 and 1840 had as much to do with Carême's desserts as it did with Tallyrand, who liked to negotiate late in the evening, over sweets. George IV tried to lure Carême to England, but as he found London's fog too depressing, he went to work for Czar Alexander in Russia instead, and then took the top job at Baron de Rothschild's estate. (The banker offered Carême a position for life, but he wanted to live out his days in ordinary surroundings, and died broke before he turned 50. Money meant nothing to him, another way in which he was a model for many chefs today.) He is credited with inventing croquembouche and milles-feuilles, and even made an ancestor of the pavlova called a vacherin, an eighteenth century version of baked Alaska. I will spare you the vast history of meringue, except to say that in the Loire valley to this day they are still known as "pets," or little farts, henh henh!

I mention these details because it's the stories and people that surround a meal or a dish that make it memorable, far more than the fare itsef. The great food writers have always known that writing or talking about food per se, about the actual taste of something, is like writing about the sex act: it's an intensely private sensation that doesn't last long, and so should be attempted rarely, if at all. This is what foodies (and especially restaurant reviewers) sometimes forget: they miss the meal for the food.

Which brings me back to that morning in the pastry kitchen over which John Bex, the school's chief pastry instructor, was presiding. Bex is famous: he was pastry chef at the Dorchester Hotel in London and the Four Seasons in Toronto. He has created desserts in Michelin-starred restaurants. Like Carême, he began his apprenticeship at 15. He's now 57. He looks like the dictator of a small, humid country, except slightly taller.

All around us students were melting sugar through its six stages of tackiness and delicately tempering chocolate within a two degree margin of error to make after-dinner mints. (Pastry chefs are the detail freaks in a professional kitchen.) Others were standing in front of the $35,000 bread oven, injecting puffs of steam and watching baguettes rise through its glass doors-"Mennonite TV," they called it. Implements hung in readiness everywhere. There were 14 whisks strung from one stretch of wall alone.

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"Would you ever make a pavlova as a dessert?" I asked Bex. "Or would that be too basic for you professionals?"

Bex looked at me as if I were a cockroach that had suddenly scuttled onto his chilled marble pastry counter. "Look," he said, "if you're a chef and you get to the point where you can't appreciate a hamburger, you shouldn't be a chef."

Which was a reassuring and counter-elitist answer, but its implication wasn't lost on me, the great pavlova maker.

"Are you saying a pavlova is the hamburger of desserts?"

"Oh, sure."

At that moment I understood the dilemma of professional cooks. The more knowledgeable they become, the more they have to push through their knowledge to be accessible. The students felt this keenly. They more they learned about the traditions of the kitchen, about Neolithic table settings or the Roman invention of the napkin ring (the host supplied the rings, guests brought their own napkins) or the 17th century's obsession with ozmasome (back when chefs analyzed beef broth the way we do troubled teenagers) or the pleasures of heritage pork, the more rarified their knowledge became--and the more isolated they felt from amateur cooks. "No one ever invites me over to dinner now," one young chef explained. "They think I'll judge them."

But the young chefs I met were anything but food snobs, marinated as they were in the new localized, sustainable cuisine. They were as interested in where the food they cooked came from and how it was grown and at what cost and by whom, as they were in what they could do to it--in its politics, which is a new development, as well as in taste and aesthetics, the traditional concerns of chefs. Their favorite condiment was sriracha sauce, ordinary Thai hot sauce (also known as cock sauce, for the famous rooster on the bottle). They knew how to whip up an Escoffian demi-glace, but they talked more about breakfast because that was the only meal they got to eat consistently (they ate demi-glace over fried eggs). Nor were they above eating at (and enjoying) McDonald's. They engaged with whatever food was placed before them, on as many levels as it permitted. The food movement at its best is a broad church, high and low, sustainable and industrial.

Did I mention the meals the student chefs cooked for their patrons? Shaved foie gras with peach marmalade, pistachios and grilled bread. Ligurian corzetti with mushrooms and dried figs and spiced bread and pecorino. Roast squab with turnips and cherry mostarda and goat's milk blue cheese, finished with a dessert of coffee cream and sambuca foam. Did I mention there is a global food crisis? Quince and pumpkin cream.

I did not need to eat any of this. I admit I experienced bolts of rogue shame, mainly because each dish gave me, but only me, such pleasure. Nabokov said something about that: that a work of art is meaningless to society, it is only important to the individual. But that stroke of meaning can prod the individual to become involved in society: that's the theory of engaged eating.

Still, some of the critics who are souring on the food movement believe the sophistication of modern cookery (especially as enacted by celebrity chefs on TV) is one reason the food supply still feels remote and precarious. "We've replaced the time we used to spend cooking food with watching people cook food on TV," Fiona Yeudall, director of Ryerson University's Centre for Studies in Food security, told me one afternoon. We certainly don't eat together: twenty per cent of the food consumed in North America by people 18 to 44 years old is scarfed in the car. "It's getting away from food as a part of life, as conviviality, as a bodily concern," Yeudall added. "When food becomes a commodity"--even a foodie status symbol--"you lose something."

But alienation from what we eat is as much a hallmark of industrial food production as it is of fancy food fripperies on Iron Chef. A few days after I spoke to Yeudall, I called Michael Pollan, the author ( The Omnivore's Dilemma, In Defense of Food, etc.) and god of the food movement. "One of the earmarks of industrial eating is eating alone," he said. "Go to the frozen food aisle at your store and you'll see frozen entrees designed for adult men, entrees designed for teenaged girls, entrees for women dieting. If you can break people up into those pieces and sell a different entree to each one, you've sold a lot more food than you would have if you'd just targeted Mom and let her decide what everyone's going to eat."

It is true, as the anti-foodies say, that the small-scale sustainable/organic/localist habit can create expensive food. (The anti-foodies love to go after Alice Waters, the mother of organic eating and owner of toney Chez Panisse in Berkeley.) But the fact that North America's best and healthiest food is expensive has as much to do with subsidies as it does elitism. Furthermore, Pollan continued, "a great many social movements in this country have begun with elites, with people who have the time and the resources to devote to them. You go back to abolition, women's suffrage, the environmental movement. That's not unusual."

On afternoon in Stratford I visited Antony John, who runs Soiled Reputation, an organic vegetable farm. John charges restaurants $22 for a pound of his organic salad greens. (The restaurants make 15 salads out of it and charge upwards of $9 for each one.) John refuses to make excuses. He's so proud of his soil near Stratford-once a huge glacial lake-he claims his 50-odd organic vegetables deserve an appelation d'origine contrôllé as much as any wine does.

Antony John's production methods may not be able to feed the world's hungry. But they have raised the standard of what a salad can be; and they have attracted 120 bird species to his farm (organic operations are weedy, hence heaven for habitat-challenged avians), which is half again as many as he found 20 years ago when he took over what had been industrially-farmed land. He sees himself as one solution, rather than the solution, to the world food crisis. "The North American model of agriculture is like weaving a spider web with only three strands," he told me. "I think we need to look back and build complexity into the system." At least four very recent studies--from the British government, the UN, the University of Michigan and Worldwatch--hint that small-scale, sustainable, less ecologically damaging farming methods can double current food production.

The truth is, as irritating and precious as foodies can be, Big Ag can be just as self-indulgent. Dire warnings of a global food shortage that can only by solved by concentrated, rules-free industrial farming? Does that sound vaguely...familiar? Reminiscent of...oh, I dunno, the oil industry using rising prices to scare the public into thinking offshore drilling is our only salvation? Can you hear Eat, baby, eat! being chanted in the background? Maybe it's to distract us from the huge holes in industrial farming's case for an ever greater commitment to its methods.

Yes, 5 per cent of Canadians are hungry all the time, as are a billion people worldwide. But the global food system already produces twice the calories the world needs (a billion people are also obese); the bigger problem is distributing the food we have to the people who need it. Yes, crop yields are falling and the world needs to produce 70 per cent more food for what will be 9 billion mouths by 2050. But that is less than half the increase in food production the world has managed in the past forty years, mostly without the benefits of current genetic breeding techniques. Yes, the world needs more maize, but half the grain grown in the US is fed to animals, and at least another 32 per cent goes to ethanol production (which produces only 8 per cent of the country's fuel.) As the Economist notes, that maize harvested as food would boost supplies well over 14 per cent.

Then there's food waste. Up to half the food the world produces is thrown away or rots. (Half of all the salads and a third of all the bread, for starters.) "There's an awful lot of slack in the system," was how Michael Pollan put it before he hung up.Save half that waste, and world food production soars 25 per cent. But that would require that we learn to cook leftovers. Too bad they aren't sold pre-packaged.

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