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Malcolm Jolley: Canada’s culinary scene is going to be just fine

Commentary

Andrew Coyne calls George Brown the forgotten man of Canadian history. Considering what happened to the reputation of his contemporary, and fellow reformer, Egerton Ryerson, being forgotten might be something of a blessing these days. In any event, the name of the man lives on among Toronto epicures since the largest culinary school in Canada is housed at the college that bears it.

I found myself at the doors of the George Brown College Hospitality and Tourism Campus in downtown Toronto recently for the first time in a long time. The building at 300 Adelaide East was built in the 1980s but was rehabbed and renovated about ten years ago into a state-of-the-art facility. From the street you can see students, wearing whites and toques, cooking in the kitchens that look like science labs, but with stove tops and exhaust hoods instead of bunsen burners and beakers.

In the door into a bustling and busy atrium, I walked past the classrooms with rows of stoves to the demonstration theatres. The one I found myself in resembled a set for a TV cooking show. And indeed the counter was televised with two remote-controlled cameras, and filmed by another held by someone on foot. At centre stage, as it were, was Michelin-starred Chef Ernesto Iaccarino.

A dashing man somewhere in his 50s, Chef Iaccarino hails from the hotel and restaurant Don Alfonso 1890 near Sorrento, where the Bay of Naples turns into the Amalfi Coast. He also hails, since 2018, from the Don Alfonso restaurant in Toronto, one of a number of extensions of the brand the Iaccarino family has established around the world.

If the Don Alfonso name sounds familiar to readers of this column, it may be because I wrote about the Toronto restaurant and its Canadian partners and patrons, Nick and Nadia Di Donato of the Liberty Entertainment Group, a couple of years ago. The restaurant was then in the second of what would turn out to be three locations, and in February 2022 was coming out of the trials of the COVID lockdowns with a full service and a prestigious award.

As I reported, Toronto Executive Chef Daniele Corona would consult with Chef Iaccarino, in Italy, before every service via the internet. At the time, it seemed like a fine-dining version of all the Zoom meetings we had learned to attend during the previous two years. Now, another two years later, it was good to see Iaccorino in the room with the dozen-odd students who would plate a version of the tuna dish that was going to be demonstrated.

The George Brown students whites assisting the demonstration had just returned from the Advanced Italian Culinary Arts program at the ALMA cooking school near Parma, Italy. In fact, this marks the twentieth anniversary of the exchange program. Chef Iaccarino is a big backer of the exchange and the school, not just because it’s his alma mater, but because he depends on highly trained young cooks with Italian experience to work in the Canadian kitchen.

The theatre was packed; standing room only with mostly curious students (I think) on their lunch break. Before Chef Iaccarino began assembling the dish, he spoke about the importance of the quality of ingredients, in particular to the Mediterranean dishes that are served at the Don Alfonso restaurants. Though we would see sophisticated techniques, everything was meant to bring out the essential flavour of the constituent foods.

The first step in deciding to open a Don Alfonso restaurant, he explained, was to investigate what ingredients could be found on the ground. Later, when he took questions from the audience, a young would-be chef asked how he came up with new dishes. He said, “I don’t want to use my mind,” meaning, he explained, that the ingredient must present itself first, and then the dish might evolve from that.

Chef Ernesto Iaccarino preparing food. Photo credit: Malcolm Jolley.

The tuna dish comprised six different steps, each (except for maybe one) pulling from a simple Mediterranean food. A brining preparation of a filet of yellowfin tuna which was torched to be seared. A fava bean spread that was cooked like a risotto. A mayonnaise with citrus. A herb oil with basil, parsley, and tarragon. A crispy fried piece of pickled ginger. A reconstituted “fake” green olive for a garnish. Put together, and eaten together, the flavours were complex, but each resonant in its own right.

There was another demonstration, this time of a vegetarian dish made with dried, hard durum pasta, the staple of Southern Italy. Featuring eggplant “meatballs”, tomato sauce, and mozzarella, it gets confected into a miniature model of Mount Vesuvius. We didn’t try it, but I remember having a version of it at the restaurant and enjoying it thoroughly.

Chef Iaccarino was perhaps most animated when the floor opened up to questions and he addressed the students on their chosen vocation. When he began to cook, he said, his goal was to elevate the simple foods of Southern Italy to haute cuisine. At the time he didn’t realize that since he fed people he had a responsibility to feed them well with food that was good for them and, now increasingly, good for the planet. “Your job,” he said, “is very serious.”

I wrote recently that you cannot taste wine through a screen. You can’t cook for people through a screen either. Nor, I think, really learn. The real charm of the event was its absolute situation in real life.

It’s good to see people showing up for class again. Battered and bruised from four years of turmoil, the hospitality industry, like its cousin the wine business, survives in no small part because of its commitment to education and hands-on instruction. There’s no choice, and the leaders in the sector understand it and invest in their future employees because they realize that their own future employment rests on it.

Sean Speer: The consequences of Canada’s housing-based inequality are immeasurable

Commentary

Eric Lombardi’s recent essay for The Hub on how Canada’s housing crisis risks transforming the country into a neofeudal society certainly touched a nerve. It reflects a growing (and compelling) view that one might describe as “the housing theory of everything” in which high housing prices have come to hold explanatory powers over various economic, social, and even psychological trends in modern Canada. 

His basic thesis—the inability of many young Canadians to enter the housing market without familial financial support is creating a new source of social bifurcation—is straightforward and supported by evidence. Recent polls in British Columbia and Ontario for instance have found that 40 percent of first-time homebuyers in the two provinces have depended on financial support from their families. 

These figures are consistent with new Statistics Canada research that shows that the homeownership rate for millennials and members of Generation Z whose parents themselves are homeowners is more than double those whose parents are not. Housing wealth, in other words, has increasingly come to beget more housing wealth. 

The bigger point—housing-based inequality is an interpretive lens for understanding broader trends including the public’s general sense of malaise—is one that the Trudeau government has quite possibly come to understand too late for its own political survival and one that Canadian policymakers more generally have failed to understand to the detriment of current and future generations. 

One of the indirect yet powerful ways in which these housing affordability challenges have manifested themselves is in the form of delayed family formation and declining fertility rates. The interrelationship between housing prices and family planning is somewhat intuitive. Housing costs—particularly in high-cost localities—are a major household expenditure and therefore necessarily influence our short- and long-term expectations including when to start a family and how many children that families ultimately ought to have. 

A well-regarded 2014 economics article put it this way: 

Rising home values have a negative impact on birth rates because they represent, on average, the largest component of the cost of raising a child: larger than food, childcare, or education. This implies that when the price of housing rises, the price of having children also rises. This price increase leads couples to delay childbearing or to have fewer children altogether.

This interplay between housing and family formation is having perverse effects in Canada. Unlike most peer jurisdictions, babies in Canada have become, in the words of demographer Lyman Stone, a “luxury good.” His research finds that higher-income Canadian families tend to have both higher desired and actual fertility rates. As he put it in a 2023 episode of Hub Dialogues: “Canada’s a place where fertility is uniquely, positively correlated with income, which is nerd speak for Canada’s a place where family is a sign of wealth and social class. If you’re rich, you can buy the right to have kids.”

Housing is a big part of this story—especially as it has become a leading indicator of income and wealth in Canadian society. Previous analysis for The Hub by Steve Lafleur for instance has shown that a household must now be among the top 10 percent of household income to even qualify for a mortgage in the City of Toronto. Similarly, research by TD Economics has found that wealth inequality in Canada is, by and large, a function of the differing outcomes between homeowners and non-homeowners, including both intra- and inter-generationally. 

It’s not a complete coincidence therefore that Lombardi’s essay was published the same week as new data from Statistics Canada that the country’s fertility rate hit an all-time low in 2022. At 1.33 children per woman, the country is not only 0.6 percentage points below the replacement rate, but its year-over-year drop was among the largest in high-income countries and Canada’s own history. The same analysis found that the average age of first-time mothers has increased from 27.6 years in 1976 to 31.6 years in 2022. 

Although these developments are undoubtedly multicausal, it’s notable that Canadian women tell consistently pollsters that there’s a gap between their desired and actual fertility rates. They’d actually prefer to have a number of children approximating the replacement rate, but there are different impediments standing in their way including high housing costs. 

Thiago Lang and Graziela Cariello feed their son 19-month-old son Pedro at their home in Barrie, Ont., on Monday, April 25, 2022. Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press.

As Stone has previously written

If young people are stuck in smaller houses than in the past, or in more unstable or expensive housing situations, it could reduce fertility…There is some good suggestive evidence that this may be happening… at every stage, the housing situation for young people disfavours childbearing more than in the past, which is almost certainly a major driver of low fertility today. 

Even if one accepts that Lombardi’s claims about neofeudalism may seem a bit provocative, his characterization of Canada’s socioeconomic context in which homeownership and child-rearing are increasingly expressions of (hereditary) wealth clearly resonates with a lot of young people (including members of The Hub’s staff) who are seeing both become the purview of their wealthier and more advantaged peers. 

Setting aside the economic and social costs of high housing prices and their effects on fertility rates for a minute, there’s something conceptually incompatible with the egalitarian promise of Canadian society for the “haves” to be able to own homes and have children and the “have nots” to have neither. These basic milestones of what has traditionally been understood as the “good life” shouldn’t be treated as luxury goods. A society in which they are—in which the aspirations to own a home or become a parent are understood as signs of wealth or social class—can persuasively be defined as neofeudal. 

As for the costs themselves, they can never be fully measurable. A full accounting of the opportunity costs of the births and lives that never come into being or the social costs of growing stratification will ultimately be greater than we can ever understand.