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Sunday 7 August 2011

Taste of Edmonton and Sip - the food and wine experience rant

I have a beef with both the Taste of Edmonton and Sip the food and wine experience
I don't usually rant... most of my friends have complained I'm too nice in my reviews (or politically correct) when I should have verbally slashed them into minced meat.  But I do have a beef with both the Taste of Edmonton and Sip.  What prompted this?  After a few conversations with a once prolific food blogger in Vancouver over the changing food scene... and how chefs and restaurants alike have moved away from the food and focused more on the commercial aspect of things. 

Am I exaggerating?  Does this sound familiar?
1) Restaurant X just renamed their menu because they use locally sourced or organic ingredients (without actually knowing HOW to use them) - there's a few out there that do use them well, but very very few.
2) Restaurant X plated something mediocre on a big plate and drizzle something for color with flavors that clash, but its pretty.
3) Restaurant X used sexy food words and techniques from different languages to fancy it up... when in essence it arrives as a simple piece of chicken or noodles etc...
4) Restaurant X pairs my food with wine (wait a sec... who drinks wine with Chinese food or burgers?) We'll just have to wait for McDonald's to start serving McWine LOL
5) Restaurant X will charge you 3-5x the amount a small traditional restaurant would charge you.. except the small honest venue would have better food and flavors.

Does "fusionizing" things magically make it popular? Hell yes (for a few months anyway).  Does it translate into money... yes. Does it mean the restaurants have to adulterate their menu to the point where centuries of cultural flavors vanish in a puff of smoke? Yes.  To become a big successful food anything, that's what it seems to take these days.  Even events like Taste of Edmonton and Sip have succumbed to this scourge...
Used to love Taste of Edmonton. Heck, I used to volunteer with setting up vendor's tents, selling tickets and of course, spending lots of money trying new foods every year. It was something I looked forward to - when it was going on, you can hop downtown after work to pick up a few tasty items and stroll around or splash in City Hall's huge fountain to cool off rather than face making dinner in a hot kitchen.

The Taste of Edmonton originated with good intent - the chefs of each restaurant would make a special dish and showcase a few of their regular fare.. with the intent of introing people to new restaurants without spending too much... $2 for a few bites, or $4-5 for a 1/2 sized serving you'd get at the restaurant - meet the chefs and if the new dishes are well received, they get added to the menu. As of late, its degenerated into a cash grab, you pay essentially $5-7 for a small bite of food, and most of the restaurants are westernized or chain restaurants. How about a chinese onion cake for $5 when you can purchase the same item at restaurant for $2-3? Or dry bland skewers with watery peanut sauce? Or a "bison" slider made with mainly ground beef the size of a small baby's fist charred to a blacked lump and served on kinda stale bread for $7? The chefs are nowhere to be seen - probably with good reason, I'd be tucking my tail between my legs in shame. There's fewer and fewer restaurants that maintain true to the Taste of Edmonton's original agenda - but they slowly get winnowed out year after year... integrity is not an inexpensive affair.

Sip - the food and wine experience
Again, something I used to look forward to, but I haven't completely given up on (yet). Its original intent was to expand on trying out new types of booze - new vintages from local and afar vineyards, new showings from microbreweries, a place for both the small budding brewers or distillers to showcase their product... and what goes better with alcohol tasting than pairing it well with food? Chefs would create unique pairings sometimes incorporating showcased wines into their foods, prepping their creations fresh in front of you. For the alcohol part, Sip has stayed true - you can try a few small glasses of wine, whiskey, vodka or beer for a few bucks rather than having to break the bank trying out a variety of bottles (and be disappointed with the ones not to your liking). The food part however has changed. Food items languish in chafing dishes, and some have resembled more like grocery store appetizer items we've accidentally left too long in the oven. Over the years, people line up at the dessert station rather than the hot food items served.. why? well, you really can't go wrong with ice cream and toss your own toppings on, or have cake topped with sauce and whipped cream. Where is the creativity, the passion, the tinny bit more work to imagine and create a dish you can assemble quickly while interacting with people... without it becoming unattractive and unappetizing as it slowly becomes one with the hot chafing dish? Sip has made its slogan into a joke... its a nice wine and booze tasting event, but the food.. is an experience most of us can pass on.

Kudos for those chefs out there that fight that degenerative, easy if short lived and lucrative slide. Kudos to those who use locally sourced and organic ingredients for what they are - a quality foundation for the excellent cuisine you create with thought, passion, and a nod to flavors and recreation of authentic traditional foods... Our quest for yummy foods continues!

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