- Jessica Hartjes
Year-end articles are supposed to be all about lists of best restaurants, dishes, drinks and experiences. I could easily spend a few thousand words sermonizing on the greatness of Highwayman, the fried chicken at Backoos, Goseface Killah and summer afternoons under stringlights at the Stillwell Beergarden, but why bother? That run-on sentence has the same effect as colourful descriptions of why I love those things. Those are the best things of the year! Agree or disagree. It doesn't matter because this was my experience, not yours.
The experience we all share, though, is how the food community exists around us. And, even in the midst of these wonderful new things that pop up like roses in a pile of dog shit, it is stagnant. It is problematic. It is a ballgame where most of the players are benched inning after inning. And, sure, a few people manage to knock it out of the park, but for the most part our team is playing poorly. Because Nova Scotia seems to be fine with the status quo.
I want to see things change. To continue the baseball analogy (though I know literally nothing about baseball other than there is no crying in it) we are always going to be minor league. And that's OK. Halifax will never have to worry about setting the pace or driving trends. If we happen to stumble into the limelight, hey great! Good to see ya, donair! But, the first and most basic thing we have in front of us is a real opportunity to shape our little corner of the world into something quietly wonderful.
To do that, we've got to change the way we do things. The first step is for people like me, people who need to stop writing and talking about the same stuff. There is a real lack of inclusion in what is—even though it's far from the ivory towers of cities like New York or Toronto—a highly marketed food community. And what we are selling is something incredibly white, incredibly male. The idea of authenticity is hauled out in lots of discussions, but there is all-too-rarely an acknowledgement of the authenticity of the Nova Scotian experience for immigrants, for restaurateurs who are specializing in regional cuisines, for the new hands that are stirring the pot, shaping our culinary identity. Hell, as a city we barely even ever talk about women in food.
This is not to say that we shouldn't honour traditions and celebrate the vibrancy of, say, our Acadian heritage. But we can do that and, at the same time, choose not to diminish the authenticity of the voice of a Korean or African or Italian or Chinese or Australian chef who is cooking with Nova Scotian ingredients and local inspiration.
We need to be better about giving the appropriate attention to chefs like Shigeru Fukuyama. He's an incredible local success story, a chef who helped elevate Japanese food in Halifax and who will, next year, celebrate 15 years of creating memorable experiences for diners at Sushi Shige. Or Ami Goto, who with the creative and casual izakaya model at Kitsune Food Co. is breathing new life into that same cuisine. We need to support small businesses like Jamaica Lee Style Cuisine, Cafe 98, Hot Plate The Sizzling House and Backoos, places that can often open and close without a single mention while high-profile restaurateurs throw tantrums when their new signage isn't given 400 words of breathless prose.
We need event planners to stretch their idea of viable talent and look beyond restaurants where middle-aged white men have added pad Thai to their "globally inspired" menus in lazy shows of inclusivity or attempts at being savvy. We need some new goddamned winners in The Coast's Best of Halifax Food poll.
I am beyond tired of the aesthetic that marketing organizations and business associations are fashioning to lure in tourists, essentially BCCing locals on the memo and telling us how we should define food here. I get it, chowder sells. People love lobster.
But what if events, festivals and marketing organizations pivot away from their timeworn and oft kitschy attempt at defining Nova Scotia? What if there was, like, an ounce of nuance? What if the definition started to hinge on the innovation and creativity of people who are the doers and makers of right now? What if our identity wasn't totally built on hanging onto Marie Nightingale's apron strings or wearing a kilt?
And as we look inward—and have our Zoolander "who am I?" moment—I don't want us to put on blinders. Because we don't live in a vacuum. And as much as I think creating an inclusive sense of self for ourselves is important, I also know that the ability to have restaurants with reputations that can compete nationally and be a part of a greater conversation about great food in Canada is equally important.
And we are just absolutely not good at this. This is another place we need to bust the status quo, because pushing forth the same five chefs at events in Nova Scotia and abroad, on morning news shows in segments sponsored by food and product councils, in magazine cover stories—chefs who are no longer at the vanguard of our city, a city that has truly come into its own in the past few years—is lazy.
In the past two years we have scrambled onto some national Best Restaurant lists, and in almost all of the cases it has not been because of any marketing group or agency who has their finger on the pulse, making sure that new restaurants are getting their due. Those groups have been too busy feting the same old chefs they always do at one local circle jerk or another. What real, relevant profile our restaurants have in other cities is because of restaurateurs who literally did it themselves. Who put the work in and dared to be exceptional and relevant and built a word-of-mouth following with peers and travellers.
Or what if we switch focus to how Nova Scotia prioritizes exports over access to local food. Why don't we have easy access to fresh fish roe here? Why do we have a dynamic seafood industry with so little of that dynamism trickling down to the markets here? Hana Nelson's work as an independent fishmonger at Afishionado should be a signature business in Halifax, an easy model to duplicate. It should not be so complicated to get fresh seafood to Nova Scotians.
But between federal and provincial regulations and crown corporations that prioritize singular bottom lines over actually servicing locals, there are very few systemic accommodations that allow restaurants and bars to be a part of a national or international conversation as it is happening. Instead, Nova Scotia always ends up futilely trying to engage in a conversation with the echo of what other cities were talking about five years ago.
Back to this year, though. From the moments of promise like plucking newly minted Nova Scotian grape hybrids off the vines in the Annapolis Valley to real movement—actual excellence—like pintxos at Highwayman and that chicken at Backoos, this is not a year I would totally write off. I, like any good glutton, just want more. And, more than that, I want better.