Dominique Lamberton explores the city’s food trends and the strain they put on students’ bank accounts
Fresh cheese curds and crispy hand-cut fries smothered in hot, rich gravy. Hailing from Quebec, poutine has been a Canadian classic since the 1950s. But the customary ingredients are no longer doing the trick for some of Toronto’s trendiest restaurants. Move over cheese and gravy, make way for guacamole, bacon and beef chilli.
Poutine’s not the only classic dish undergoing changes. Traditional beef burgers with all the fixings — lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle, ketchup and mustard — have also been altered, though they’ve been the standard since poodle skirts and juke boxes in the swinging diners of the 50s. But now, the city’s dining hot spots have revamped burger options to include lamb, bison and veggie patties with toppings ranging from goat cheese to grilled pineapple to roasted red peppers.
Toronto is a food haven — with more than 10, 000 restaurants to choose from and countless options bordering our campus, eating out is hard to resist. But are trendy foods blowing our budgets, steering us away from our kitchens, and dictating what and where we eat? Can we, as strapped-for-cash students, afford to pay the bill at establishments tempting us with their ‘cool’ cuisine?
For students on OSAP, sampling the newest trends in the Toronto food scene is especially difficult. OSAP provides a food allowance of $7.50 per day. This means a single student has $52.50 each week for food — a reasonable sum if spent on inexpensive groceries. However, the coined ‘OSAP diet’, doesn’t leave spare change for an $8.99 pulled pork poutine from campus-friendly Smoke’s Poutinerie (Dundas and George), or a $9.99 lamb burger at W Burger Bar (Yonge and College).
W Burger Bar is nearing its first anniversary and its success is illustrative of the growing trend of the gourmet burger — one that is a leading trend among students.
W Burger Bar owner Sean Woolf is sitting at his bar while servers in baby pink t-shirts zoom past him delivering plates of vegetables and dip, a complimentary snack every table is served. The restaurant is packed and the music is pumping.
Woolf says their location is halfwaybetween U of T and Ryerson, a strategic decision. Students flock there and stick around until the restaurants closes at 2 a.m. Woolf studied the market, was aware of the trends and developed his concept accordingly — great burgers for great value.
A hormone and antibiotic-free beef burger costs $6.99 and is personally customized with as many complimentary toppings you like at no extra charge, ranging from cranberries to cilantro yogurt.
Creative alterations being made to classic foods make it hard for trend-following students to keep their wallets closed and their cookbooks opened.
Fourth-year arts and contemporary studies student Michael Searle admits to spending more than $100 a week eating out. He lives in Kensington Market and says the convenience of going out to grab a quick bite, combined with the abundance of dining choices near his house — including trend-friendly joint, Big Fat Burrito — make cooking at home an unexciting choice. Even with a part-time job, his budget is shot after choosing trends over frugality week after week.
Ryerson professor Hersch Jacobs, from the faculty of Geography, teaches the elective Food, Place and Identity: The Geography of Diet. Jacobs sits in his office in Jorgenson Hall, a large ceramic hamburger rests on the coffee table and empty chip bags taped to his bookshelf dangle like clothes hanging to dry.
“Food permeates virtually every aspect of life,” says Jacobs. “It’s a source of pleasure, peril and survival. We have to eat and we recognize the dangers involved with eating, but it’s connected to pleasure.”
Food trends, are similar to trends in any other industry, Jacobs says.
“Trends come from the imagination of charismatic leaders in the industry. They create a template, and ideas diffuse to others.”
Gourmet grilled cheese, gourmet poutine, gourmet burgers, gourmet macaroni-and-cheese, burritos, organic, vegan and gluten-free fare are all current trends that BlogTO publisher Tim Shore has identified. Shore helps keep Torontonians up-to-date on the latest trends with timely food reviews and top-ten lists on the popular site.
With the emergence of restaurants and shops attempting to reinvent classic dishes, there have been an influx of bizarre foods breaking onto the market.
In the past couple years cupcakes have re-surfaced as a popular food trend rather than just a celebratory dessert and the flavours are becoming more diverse.
“Cupcakes might have been a trend from a few years ago. In the last year it got a bit more specific and ‘mancakes’ came into trend,” Shore says.
Created by a Liberty Village cupcake shop, For the Love of Cake, mancakes are exactly what their titles implies — cupcakes for men.
“In an attempt to change the view that cupcakes are girly, we decided to create cupcakes that guys could appreciate.” The shop’s website reads. So they incorporate ‘man-worthy’ ingredients like beer, whiskey and bacon into cupcakes that appeal to the Y chromosome. Variations include Guinness chocolate and maple bacon.
Bacon is another trend, according to Shore. It’s also listed on Toronto Life’s ‘Seven food trends we love’ which the magazine publishes in April every year. The trend is more about revamping the meat’s common uses rather than simply indulging on it as is. Think bacon-infused alcohol, bacon cream and chocolate-bacon toffee, according to the list.
The notion of rethinking and making-over common food, most frequently seen with comfort food, is a trend Jacobs identified as ‘nostalgia’.
“Hot turkey sandwiches, meatloaf, ramped up mac-and-cheese, it’s nostalgic; a tip of the hat to the food of your childhood.”
And for the ‘OSAP diet’ peers among us, there is hope. You can get these nostalgic comfort foods for less than $7.50 at what
Jacobs describes as the least expensive
restaurant in the city — Gale’s Snack Bar on Eastern Avenue.
If the location isn’t a big enough clue, hipsters beware, this is not a trendy-looking restaurant. But if this nostalgic trend is something you’d like to try out, a hot turkey sandwich will set you back $3.00.
“Gramps is in the kitchen,” Jacobs says, “and his granddaughter runs things out front.”
Of course it’s the trendy restaurants that are the most detrimental to student bank accounts, not the family-run, greasy-spoon diner east of the DVP. Guu Izakaya, a new hotspot within stone’s throw of campus has everyone talking. Shore, Jacobs and Woolf
all mentioned the new eatery on the corner of Church and McGill.
Aside from its impressive exterior, which makes the Indian take-out place next door look rather sad, Guu Izakaya features dishes designed for sharing, another hot trend Jacobs mentioned.
“Tapas, small bites, appetizer-based menus; portion size is a trend right now,” said Jacobs.
In addition to these food-specific trends, Jacobs identified the tendency among a growing number of chefs and restaurants to be increasingly ingredient conscious. It’s what Jacobs calls the holy trinity — organic, local and heritage. It’s a result of the increase in health-conscious consumers, with local and organic food becoming more accessible and vegan and gluten-free choices becoming more widespread, customers desire close to home, unmodified ingredients.
“It’s about putting food on the plate that is honest, letting people know who made it, who grew it; food with integrity,” says Jacobs.
Woolf sees the importance of this trend and the growing preference towards fresh, locally sourced ingredients.
In addition to working with small local farms that raise hormone and antibiotic free beef, they make their own preservative-free buns every morning and cut their own fries.
“People can taste the difference,” Woolf says.
While all of these trends are an indication of the dishes and ingredients customers desire, as well as an illustrative account of what’s working in the food world, Shore thinks that ultimately, eating is simply a social behaviour.
“Sure, nourishment is important. But food just serves as a backdrop to a social gathering among friends.”
Whether you find yourself at one of the city’s hippest restaurants with a group of friends or simply cramped in your basement apartment all together, the experience of coming together to share a meal is the longest standing trend of all.
While we shouldn’t feel guilty about treating oursleves from time to time, the countless, ever-changing dishes the city offers can provide inspiration in our own kitchens. And our budgets will thank us.
Photo: Lauren Strapagiel