I’ve been thinking a lot about food since Michelin recently announced the awards given to restaurants in Toronto. When they announced the winners, I thought: how is it that I eat so much good food in Toronto and yet I have not gone to these places? Maybe I don’t know good food at all?
I thought about it more as I travelled to Montreal and ate on my trip. Two things I ate on my travels were pasta. This dish of pasta was part of a tasting menu at Cabaret L’Enfer on St. Denis.
And this was a dish of pasta I had while on the train from Toronto to Montreal:
The first pasta was good, as was the second. The first pasta was carefully handmade, precisely cooked, smartly accompanied with intensely flavoured sauces and extras and wine and finally presented artfully and with a detailed explanation. The second pasta was factory made, warmed up, accompanied with not bad wine and presented politely without much explanation. Given these differences, how can I say both were good?
While the first pasta was excellent and superior to the second in many ways, the second pasta was still good. The second pasta’s temperature was neither too hot nor too cold, it had mild but pleasant flavours, and it fit in with a nice variety of other food. Eating it, I was reminded of all the meals I’ve enjoyed while travelling on planes and trains, and that made me think of all the joy I’ve had while travelling. I was hungry when it arrived, and afterwards I was pleasantly full. While it was not exquisite like the first pasta, it was far better than any of the other food I could have picked up at a train station. In this context, it was good — very good — and I was glad I had it.
While the first pasta was excellent, it was in no way filling. When combined with the overall meal I was no longer hungry, but it was not sufficient on its own to satisfy my hunger, nor was it meant to be. It did not remind me of other joys, though I enjoyed it. And while the overall meal was excellent, it was also very expensive.
Perhaps food is very important to you, and any food that doesn’t approach Michelin level is not considered good by you. But to me, good food is dependent on context. A rich cheese is no good to someone who is lactose intolerant. A fine steak is undesirable to a vegan. Likewise, if you are famished, fast food you can have right now may be better than a rich stew that takes you hours to prepare. On a bitter cold day, a simple hot chocolate may taste better than the finest champagne. Or you may desire a chocolate chip cookie that reminds you of your mom’s cooking over a slice of gourmet cake. We eat with all of ourselves, and the more we bring of ourselves to the food we eat, the more good food becomes a matter of the individual who is eating it.
Good food is also dependent on qualities. The next time you are eating, think of all the textures and the tastes you are experiencing. Think of the temperature and the toughness, the sourness and the saltiness and the softness. How does it look in front of you? What are the colours? How hard is it to make? How easy is it to eat? What do you think when you are eating it? How do you feel right after you swallow it? Or an hour later? All those thoughts and feelings that you have will help you to better appreciate your food and its qualities. It will help you realize what is good food — to you — and what is not. It will make you appreciate fine dining, whether it is in a beautiful restaurant or eating at a cafe counter or on a picnic blanket.
Michelin stars do not solely define good food or fine dining. Only you, the individual, can do that. Bon appetit.