After years of speculation as to why there are no Michelin-starred restaurants in Canada, the world-renowned guide has come to Toronto.
The first edition of the Michelin Guide Toronto, announced on Sept. 13, includes one two-star restaurant (“excellent cuisine, worth a detour”), 12 one-star restaurants (“high quality cooking, worth a stop”) and 17 Bib Gourmands (“good food at moderate price”).
Vancouver, Michelin said, will follow with the first selection announced this fall.
“This is an opportunity for all of Canada,” says Andrew Weir, executive vice president of Destination Toronto. “Canada’s a Michelin country. There are Michelin-starred restaurants in our country and that’s never happened before. So, it really changes the game.”
Chef Masaki Saito is no stranger to stars. Raised in Hokkaido and trained in Tokyo, he worked at Michelin-starred restaurants in Japan and Sushi Ginza Onodera — then with two stars — in New York City.
“Only here will you find shirako boldly skewered and grilled over binchotan, and only here will you eat melting slabs of chutoro buried under a blizzard of white truffles,” the Michelin inspectors said.
“Fish comes exclusively from Japan, and for the nigiri, assistants are quick to bring him his prized rice from Niigata prefecture, warm and tinged with his special blend of vinegars, after every round.”
Chef Patrick Kriss’s Alo and Alobar Yorkville (with chef de cuisine Rebekah Bruce) are among the one-star restaurants in Toronto’s inaugural guide. As are chefs Michael Caballo and Tobey Nemeth’s Edulis — where “the kitchen eschews fluff, focusing instead on creating harmonious (and delicious) dishes” — Quetzal, headed by chef de cuisine Steven Molnar, chef Rob Rossi’s Osteria Giulia and chef Masaki Hashimoto’s Kaiseki Yu-zen Hashimoto.
The digital guide (available on the Michelin Guide website and app) was set to launch in spring 2020, says Weir. But due to the pandemic, it ended up being five years in the making.
“We had to postpone to be able to fairly assess and reflect the quality of the restaurants as well as to give them enough time to recover,” says Gwendal Poullennec, international director of the Michelin Guides. “What is great is that we have a lot of homegrown talent.”
Michelin’s anonymous chief inspector adds: “The world’s kitchens are found in every corner of Toronto. It’s really an exciting food scene with people who are willing to try new flavours and experience new things.”
The 17 restaurants awarded Bib Gourmand status — “great food at a great value” — include Cherry Street Bar-B-Que, Enoteca Sociale, Fat Pasha, Favorites Thai BBQ and Grey Gardens. The price limit varies by country, but for the Toronto guide, a guest can have two courses and a glass of wine or dessert for less than $60.
Destination Toronto, Destination Ontario and Destination Canada partnered with Michelin on the first Canadian guide. The multi-year marketing partnership comes at a cost to the tourism organizations but Weir declined to speak to the financial details.
Weir expects the guide to benefit Toronto in several ways, including attracting more food-focused visitors to the city.
Through their research, they found that other Michelin destinations have benefited from increased local visits to restaurants as well, and a greater interest in restaurants overall — not just those in the guide.
When a culinary aficionado visits a city for three days, for example, they might have one meal at a Michelin-starred restaurant. The other eight will be elsewhere.
“This has always been about much more than the restaurants who are named in the guide and about supporting the entire culinary community, including local producers,” says Weir. “Because one of the things that Michelin puts a premium on is the quality and sourcing of ingredients.”
Drawing attention to high-quality local producers encourages restaurateurs to source more of their ingredients from them, adds Weir. “So, you see the ripple effect through the broader culinary ecosystem.”
Similar to TIFF, the guide also has the potential to draw attention to the cultural side of Canada, says Weir, which isn’t as well-known globally as the natural beauty. Becoming the first Michelin destination “puts Toronto squarely at the heart of that urban experience in Canada.”
For many of those who travel the world for food, a Michelin star signifies excellence. For restaurateurs, it can mean a significant bump in business. The late Joël Robuchon, the world’s most Michelin-decorated chef, told Food & Wine magazine that with each star, business increases incrementally.
“With one Michelin star, you get about 20 per cent more business. Two stars, you do about 40 per cent more business, and with three stars, you’ll do about 100 per cent more business. So from a business point … you can see the influence of the Michelin guide.”
Stars can also lead to higher menu prices. Examining New York City restaurants, researcher Carly Shin found that one Michelin star increased prices by 14.8 per cent, two stars by 55.1 per cent and three by 80.2 per cent.
In a survey of the stars awarded to American restaurants in 2021, Eater identified Michelin’s “comfort zone”: French, Italian, Korean or Japanese cuisines. Toronto’s selections show a similar tendency. More than half (54 per cent) of the starred restaurants are European (or European-leaning “contemporary”); 38 per cent are Japanese.
“What is absolutely key for the Michelin Guide is to be able to remain always open-minded,” says Poullennec, in response to the criticism.
Michelin’s international team of anonymous inspectors has knowledge of different cooking styles and travels the world, he adds. For Toronto, this team consisted of North America-, Europe- and Asia-based inspectors.
“We ask (for) no quota, no set of numbers. We just reflect with all selections, the quality of the restaurants,” says Poullennec. “Ultimately, the Michelin Guide is always working for the end user. I mean, the food lovers and gourmands.”
They make their selections based solely on five criteria, Michelin’s anonymous chief inspector explains: the quality of products, the harmony of flavours, the mastery of cooking techniques, the personality of the chef as reflected in their cuisine, and consistency between visits.
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If an inspector experiences Michelin star-level cooking, they would expect the next inspector to do so, and the inspector after that. If not, the restaurant wouldn’t meet the selection criteria.
“So, it’s not about cuisine type,” says the chief inspector. “It’s about all the restaurants that we’ve looked at and the restaurants that struck us as having the potential for an award. Those were then confirmed time and time again, based on the criteria.”
Michelin has been monitoring Toronto’s culinary scene since 2017. The decision to move forward with a guide was based not only on the current offering but the future potential.
“We have been impressed and inspired by the resilience of the local chefs throughout the pandemic. They did manage the storm quite well. Some of them even managed to emerge even stronger,” says Poullennec. “It’s definitely a good time to create awareness around the industry, to put Toronto on the world culinary map.”
Tapping into Michelin’s global audience of culinary enthusiasts is a significant part of the partnership, says Weir. “It’s not that our culinary scene is great because Michelin says it is. We know it’s great. That is an incontrovertible fact. Michelin helps more people become aware of that fact.”