James Chatto is his name and he’s gained the world’s fame! (It’s Friday… a rhyme is always in order.) If the moniker plucks a string in your memory, maybe it’s because James is one very well-known Canadian author, writer, critic, foodie… the list goes on.
Starting out in jolly-old London, England, James grew up in one of the world’s most historic cities, beaming with culture. Entering the scene as a singer and saxophonist, he did not shy away from the spotlight. However, even with a promising career as an actor, James made the ambitious move to retire from that dream at the young age of 26 and move to a remote village in Greece. After years of farming olives and making wine, James, along with his Canadian wife and kids, made his big move to Toronto.
It was just after settling in The Big Smoke that James started writing about food, wine and restaurants for Toronto Life. As a published writer, along with numerous freelance works under his belt, he then became food editor for Toronto Life Gardens. For all you LCBO Food & Drink magazine diehards, you may also recognize his wine and spirits column, not to mention his creative consultant and senior editor position he holds.
After some seven cookbooks and three food-related hardcovers later, James proudly re-released his original 1998 classic gem, Man Who Ate Toronto. The book chronicles the history of Toronto’s restaurant scene from the 1950s onward and also serves a memoir of his career as a restaurant critic. Let’s hear what this self-made man has to say based on his experiences among the restaurant scenes in Toronto and beyond…
When and why did you start writing about food?
In 1980, in London, England. I had written several novels but the manuscripts were repeatedly sent back by publishers. Eventually one of them (who had attended dinner at my flat) suggested I write a cookbook for Christmas and promised to publish that. It was a slim volume in every sense of the word, using my mother’s recipes, but it was a foot in the door.
What do you love most about food?
Most of all I love growing it. There is more satisfaction to me in a good crop of olives or almonds or plums from my handful of trees in our garden in Greece than in anything to be found in a restaurant. Even picking herbs or rhubarb from our tiny urban backyard in Toronto is immensely gratifying. After that there’s the fun of alchemical change in the cooking process. And finally texture, colour, temperature, aroma, taste, aftertaste – the greedy joys of eating.
What do you do when you aren’t writing about or eating food?
I write about wine and spirits, clothes and travel, work on my own private projects, go on clandestine trips with my wife, tend the garden, do renovations, count my blessings.
Do you cook? If so, what’s your speciality? If not, why?
I cook a lot. Never from recipes. Best responses recently to venison stew, pasta with pine mushrooms, pot-roasted poussin, cauliflower cheese.
What’s your favourite type of food(s) and where do you go to get it?
Fish and seafood over meat every time. Currently I go to Hooked in Kensington Market – expensive but very fresh and righteous. Also meat pies from Sanagan’s Meat Locker, also in Kensington Market.
What’s your hidden gem?
I wear a peridot in my navel.
What’s your go-to restaurant?
Starfish – for the oysters and whatever else Patrick MacMurray has coaxed from the deep.
What’s the most memorable meal you’ve ever had?
There have been many but it’s probably my first dinner at Nekah, Michael Stadtländer’s Toronto restaurant, circa 1988. The restaurant was 20 years ahead of its time and I had never tasted such refined, sophisticated, profoundly delicious food in North America. I wrote about it at length in my book, The Man Who Ate Toronto (republished this month).
What’s the one restaurant you have to try before you die?
Still haven’t been to Nihonryori RyuGin.
What’s your biggest restaurant pet peeve? (play nice)
If a restaurateur’s playing a hand, I let him play it, but I don’t enjoy deafening music, insolent service, over-inflated wine prices or endless delay.
James Chatto’s book, Man Who Ate Toronto, makes the perfect holiday present (or personal collectable). You can snatch up a copy here.
Editor’s Note: Indigo seems to be sold out of Man Who Ate Toronto, however you can order it via phone or in person from The Cookbook Store (located at 850 Yonge Street) by following the directions found here.