Opinion: OMG! Do we really need an office of gastronomy in Montreal? – Montreal Gazette

Posted By on September 22, 2021

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Surely some of our big-name restaurants require less support than, say, the local Haitian casse-crote.

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When Mayor Valrie Plante announced the creation of the Office montralais de la gastronomie (appropriately OMG for short) to aid restaurants to recover from the pandemic, a simple question was begged: What defines Montreals gastronomy?

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If we were asking what defines Quebec gastronomy, the answer would be easy. From tourtires and ciptes to cabanes sucre and the now mighty poutine, Quebec gastronomy was forged over hundreds of years and chronicled in the 1960s Jehane Benot bible LEncyclopdie de la cuisine canadienne, and most recently in Julian Armstrongs Made in Quebec. We instinctively know it and love it.

But Montreal gastronomy is different. For sure it shares a Venn diagram with Quebec gastronomy, but it encompasses so many other circles and influences. If you are returning to Toronto or New York from a trip to Montreal, you will immediately be asked if the bagels and smoked meat are as good as they say (better is the proper reply).

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Waves of immigration contribute to any citys gastronomical tour (although my own brethren Scots offer little besides blessed Scotch whisky). From century-old waves of eastern European Jewish immigrants and Italians to the more recent from the French diaspora such as Vietnam, the Middle East and North Africa, each wave has shaped our citys food culture, creating our citys unique flavour.

Shish taouk is as likely to be eaten on the go as poutine (I will not mention Montreal Michigan hot dogs; I was shocked to discover they are served with pride). Our pho is championed as some of the best outside of Vietnam and a food blog recently posted the 17 Restaurants Serving Terrific Tagines and Other African Foods in Montreal. One of the citys most sought-after high-end tables is Syrian.

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A friend recently commented that Montreal cuisine feels like it comes from a place, as opposed to Toronto cuisine that appears to come from everywhere. He suggested that even our Italian food tastes like Montreal Italian. I understood what he meant. I used to live in Little Portugal in Toronto, but I never ate Portuguese chicken like I do in Montreal. Not to say Torontos food scene is not great, but Montreals does have a sense of place that Torontos does not (full disclosure: I am a Torontonian, although I did support the Habs in the playoffs).

If we define Montreals gastronomy as having a sense of place, then that definition must include all that occupies that space. My fear is, regardless who holds office at city hall, whom the OMG chooses to support and promote will come to define Montreals gastronomy. In other words, follow the money and you will get a definition of Montreals gastronomy.

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We all know that Chinatown was the earliest and hardest-hit sector in our food community when the pandemic struck. Will Chinatown be front and centre in any promotion? I hope so. Surely our citys stars, such as Joe Beef, Toqu! and Au Pied de Cochon, which have garnered well-deserved accolades from around the globe, need less help than your local Haitian casse-crote. Will the recent arrival of Indigenous-oriented restaurants pre-colonial cuisine receive a nod, being the original food culture of Hochelaga?

Do we need help? Yes. Perhaps a business tax freeze for restoration or orderly construction with proper compensation for lost revenues. That would help. Our staffing problem, another one of OMGs mandates, is not exclusive to Montreal and is a self-inflicted wound the city can do nothing about.

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However, attracting clients is the least of our problems right now. One cookbook author recently commented on Twitter that she was unable to book a table in five restaurants last week. All this leads one to beg another question: Is the Office montralais de la gastronomie a solution in search of a problem?

David Ferguson is chef and owner at Restaurant Gus on Beaubien St. E.

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Opinion: OMG! Do we really need an office of gastronomy in Montreal? - Montreal Gazette

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