by Ryan Bigge
On March 4th of this year, I waited over 20 minutes in -12 degree weather for three sliders, at $3 per, from the West Side Beef Company. No matter how you crunch those numbers, the result is some very bad math.
It’s rare that a coddled cultural journalist faces anything more hazardous than a paper cut or an open mic poetry night. So it was a shock to find myself huddling beside a propane-powered heater, trying to get warm enough to enjoy the street food on offer. The heaters came courtesy of the Toronto Underground Market (TUM), organizers of a giant underground street food event that was being held at the Evergreen Brick Works, a former factory converted into a public park.
The sliders were quite tasty (if a bit salty), but the cruel anticipation detracted from the overall experience. What kept me going were the hundreds of other people partaking in this mass delusion. Tickets to enter TUM cost $10 (not including the food for sale fromabout 30 different vendors, of course) and the 2,000-person event sold out a week beforehand.
As I would later learn, some foodsters lined up well before the doors opened at 5pm. By the time I arrived at 6:30pm, a taco from uber-popular La Carnita would have cost me an hour of my life, not to mention $5.
Under normal circumstances, even passionate food people would say that paying a cover, lining up for an hour and risking mild frostbite for tacos or small circles of beef is stupid. They’re right. But these are not normal circumstances. As the perpetually sold-out frenzy that TUM has become clearly indicates, all the cool kids are starving for street food. From Toronto to Vancouver, with stops in Brooklyn, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles, we have become obsessed with “indie food.” Enabled and amplified by social media, we chase rumours of pop-up restaurants and line up at high-end food trucks peddling artisanal smoked meats the way we once would line up for tickets to see our favourite bands.
In July of 2010 my friend Mark Slutsky, a food critic and indie filmmaker, posted on Facebook that he “is realizing the extent to which making food is the new being in a band.” Two months later, TheAwl.com published an essay entitled “The Dumpling Effect: The Trouble with Coolhunting your Dinner” by Brent Cox. The trouble, as Cox describes it, is whether or not to tell people about very delicious $1 dumplings. Is it better to keep them a secret so you can selfishly enjoy them or tell the world online and bask in the accolades? Substitute $1 dumplings in the previous sentence with “all- girl garage band The Dumplings” and you realize this is the age-old debate about exclusivity and snobbery, only transferred to a new medium.
Last May, the first issue of newly redesigned Toronto alt-weekly The Grid (formerly Eye Weekly) featured a bartender and a chef on its cover — instead of a local musician, an actor, author, filmmaker or comedian. The foodster subculture is now vibrant enough to support indie magazines, including Lucky Peach, published by McSweeney’s and ACQTASTE, a Canadian magazine about “food culture and lifestyle.” But unlike the zines of yore, ACQTASTE costs $18. That’s a lot of cheap dumplings.
Last summer I was at Porchetta & Co., a small Toronto restaurant that sells delicious pork sandwiches and not much else. I watched three young guys in their early 20s pool together their remaining spare change so that they could try the soup. They were dressed in classic scruffy, record shop shirts and jeans. The leader of the three foodsters went up to the counter and asked what was in the soup.
“It has a number of root vegetables along with truffle oil and cream,” explained the chef.
“Okay. I get it,” said the foodster, nodding his head. “It’s like peasant-y and non peasant-y mixed together.”
But really, what I heard was, “Okay. I get it. It’s like witchcore meets yacht rock.”
A month before I finished the first draft of this article, New York magazine published a look at the foodster trend. It profiled a 20-something woman named Diane Chang who has a Tumblr blog where she pairs a meal she enjoyed with a song. The author of the article, Michael Idov, compares her foodster obsession to indie rock: “Just like the music of, say, Drag City bands on a Nineties campus, food is now viewed as a legitimate option for a hobby, a topic of endless discussion, a playground for one-upmanship, and a measuring stick of cool.”
Food trucks now roam the streets of major cities, piloted by chefs with names like Fidel Gastro and cooking collectives called the Gourmet Bitches. Carol Dudar, an artisanal (a.k.a. fancy) donut maker who works under the name Bake Lab, distributes about 250 donuts to 10 or so restaurants and cafes in downtown Toronto every weekend. According to her, lineups and scarcity are a significant part of the appeal. “Obviously I want to sell more donuts,” she says. “But if you sell them at every café, then you lose the cachet. It’s a challenge I’m trying to figure out. How do you reach more people without flooding the market?”
As indie culture loses its physical tangibility through digitization, the desire for something rare and limited has shifted to food. Chefs sell out at TUM, because food is a finite resource. You cannot find a torrent for a La Carnita taco.
As Len Senater, founder of The Depanneur explains, “I worked in a digital communications agency for many years and part of me wanted to do something more tangible and more social.” The result of his passion for food is a restaurant which acts as a venue for a rotating cast of aspiring chefs trying to build a following. Or, as The Depanneur’s tagline puts it, “A place where interesting food things happen.”
I like food, but I cannot swallow foodie rituals. I have never taken a photo of a meal and posted it online. Yet I have participated in numerous “indie food” experiences over the past few years, propelled by curiosity and gentle peer pressure. I’ve had the $1 dumplings in Manhattan’s Chinatown that Cox is most likely referring to, and enjoyed the pork buns at Momofuku Noodle Bar on more than one occasion. I’ve chomped on artisanal donuts in Portland, Seattle and Brooklyn. I have a weakness for elaborate, semi- expensive cocktails.
But what if I’m just deluding myself? What if, without realizing it, I’m one local farmer away from taking the plunge into an all-consuming food addiction? To find out, I attended something called The Group of Seven Chefs Prohibition Party in April. It cost $80 per person, which meant I overheard someone say “Do I know you from U of T law school?” The night offered tasting plates from seven different chefs, along with three cocktails, a pint of smoked cask beer and other delights. Almost everyone was dressed in 1920s-era clothing, although the innumerable photos taken with smartphones pretty much ruined the illusion of being at a speakeasy. (At one point I spotted a prep cook using his iPhone to immortalize a dish he had just made.)
The event was built with good intentions, but the evening never really coalesced into something beyond standing around awkwardly, waiting for the next dish to arrive. The highlight was talking with a woman waiting in the drinks line who noted that a recent TUM-inspired event called UNO “was like going to a rave. Except I never went to an actual rave back in the day.”
I had some very flavourful smoked IPA cask ale, which included a small piece of candied bacon in
every glass. I also enjoyed some boar from Perth County. It was smoked, then soaked in red wine, then cold smoked, then smoked again and then cured for 11 months. I swear this is what I wrote down in my notes moments after talking with the guy who had smoked this poor boar eight ways to Sunday. And yes, he had a huge beard plus a full sleeve tattoo on his left arm.
Shooting sustainably caught fish in a double- smoked bourbon barrel sure is fun. But it’s important to look past the ridiculous Portlandia elements in order to focus on the serious problems the event highlighted. Indie food can be expensive and exclusionary. And it often lacks the community infrastructure that is so crucial to subcultures.
Senater is working hard to change that. The Depanneur is unafraid to be ridiculous and ambitious and affordable and accessible. Past food events include Porknography (a nine-course meal, with each recipe featuring pig), a drop-in Ital dinner (Rastafarian-informed vegan cuisine that avoids the use of salt), and a black and white meal with a black and white dress code. For Senater, the goal is to enable creativity, spontaneity and originality while removing any element of elitism or luxury or decadence. (As he jokes, “This may be detrimental to our long- term success. Sometimes I get the feeling that if I charged three times as much I’d be way busier.”) Seating about 20 people, Senater wants to foster the atmosphere of an intimate social supper club, rather than a restaurant.
Paul Jenkins, meanwhile, is an indie foodster who likes to add a pinch of social commentary to the food he serves at TUM. He works under the name The Royal Tree Beaver, creating meals that comment on Canadian identity, such as butter chicken on waffles. He calls this Canadian-Canadian food, a concept that is about a “strange and unorthodox fusion of cultures as much as the food itself.” Jenkins likes to draw parallels between the tech world and the indie food scene. “TUM, in effect, is a restaurant incubator,” he says. It’s simply a different expression of creativity. “Food is your medium, rather than a piece of software.”
The chefs who cook for TUM or The Depanneur are by financial necessity DIY. Opening your own restaurant is expensive. Serving wildly creative or downright strange meals is not a recipe for success. At the March TUM, Jenkins broke even, and he had to take some vacation time in order to prepare for the event.
“Foodies are not going anywhere and the damage they do is negligible,” concludes Cox, he of the cheap dumplings conundrum. “Tracking down gbegiri and stalking the most authentic taco truck is [a] lot less time-intensive than starting a band or a zine, two erstwhile leisure pursuits of those of a specific age.”
As someone who used to be in a band and publish a zine, I find indie food to be less substantial. I realize I’m biased. But food is temporary by its very design, although to be fair, a concert is as ephemeral as a meal. But being asked to compare my favourite concerts with my favourite meals is like comparing, well, apples
to oranges. Maybe I’m eating the wrong things – or I lack the necessary food critic language to properly convey my food experiences.
Still, it’s exciting to see a new subculture surface, especially one that hasn’t entirely solidified into a predetermined set of gestures and logic. The indie food apron is not yet a straightjacket. As Senater notes, “The Depanneur is purposely designed to prevent chefs from making anything too pretentious. We can’t do elaborate foams or laser cut nitrogen whatnot.” And what it means to be an indie chef is also changing. At the end of our interview, Jenkins mentions plans for an EatEasy, his take on a speakeasy. Not like the Group of Seven Chefs event I attended, but something more backyard lo-fi and semi-legal. Jenkins promises that his EatEasy will be “a bit more underground than the Toronto Underground Market.”
It would be idiotic to suggest that street food has “sold out.” But right now it’s not particularly underground either. Perhaps nothing indie can ever be entirely hidden in the age of Twitter and Facebook. But we can do better than clogging social media with photographs of kimchi tacos.