For some people, it would be a dream job to travel across Canada and eat in some of the country’s finest restaurants.
For Canadian writer and international food and wine journalist, Andrew Braithwaite, it’s just another day at the office. He’s the official judge for “Canada’s Best New Restaurants” 2014 competition. For this annual event, Air Canada’s enRoute magazine seeks out Canada’s best restaurants launched during the past year.
There are thirty contenders for 2014, and it’s not enough to simply serve couture cuisine. To get on the esteemed top ten list, nominees must have contributed to dining culture and the Canadian culinary identity in some significant way.
This is Braithwaite’s second year judging the competition, which he admits is “a pretty cool job.” For a month, Braithwaite travels across Canada, anonymously dines at each restaurant, selects the top ten front-runners, and declares one as “Canada’s Best New Restaurant.”
Looking at his long list of publications, it’s easy to speculate why Braithwaite got the gig. He’s written about food and travel for prominent magazines and newspapers, including enRoute, Wine & Spirits, Departures, and The Globe & Mail. He’s also a certified sommelier and the author of An Inconvenient Fruit, an e-book about wine and travel launching later this month.
But what’s it actually like to hold the “Golden Fork”? From his home in San Francisco, here’s what Andrew Braithwaite had to say about coveting one of the coolest jobs in Canada:
Q: How is the list of the top new restaurants across the country created?
There’s a panel of experts from the food industry. Food critics, chefs, food producers (such as farmers or winemakers) submit their recommendations. Then, one writer is sent to eat at all the restaurants on that list and rank the top ten. I’m the fifth writer who gets to carry the Golden Fork, and this is the second time I’ve gotten to do it.
How did you get to hold the “Golden Fork”, as you call it?
I still don’t know. It’s a bit of a mystery how enRoute decides. It’s a pretty gruelling and demanding job, and the last writer decided not to do it. So I got an email from the Editor of enRoute, who asked if I wanted to take over. I’ve been writing for enRoute since 2008, not always about food but sometimes about travel. I think they liked that I was based outside Canada, so I didn’t have particular attachment or bias towards a specific Canadian city. It’s the first time I’ve eaten at the restaurants.
Some people might see this as a pretty cool job. But what are some of the challenges that you face?
For thirty days, I eat out every night in different cities across Canada. I get one night off in the middle of the trip to do laundry. I go through my photos and expand on my notes. A lot of my day is spent travelling, preparing for the next meal, or exercising.
I’ll usually only eat one meal during the day, and then go to dinner with another person. We’ll order as many things as we can, until the waiter gives us a look that says, “You know that’s a lot of food, right?” But we want to try as many things as possible on the menu. I eat dinner and keep a semblance of just dining with a friend, while sneaking photos and taking notes during the meal. I try to talk to as many different servers as I can. I waddle home, feeling really, really full.
Those are the good nights, when I only have one dinner. I have to cover more restaurants than days. If I’m in one city like Toronto, I’ll eat at all the restaurants on the list. There are five or six nights where I have to get in a cab and go to another restaurant.
Is there a method to the madness? How do you judge each restaurant?
I keep a spreadsheet with assigned points. It’s not all related to food and cooking – this isn’t a contest for best new chef or dish. It’s about a restaurant, and the two hours you’re there. You walk into a room, give them some money at the end, and walk out. So it’s a combination of all those things: factoring in everything like the food, service, atmosphere, and getting along with people at the restaurant.
In the end, a lot of it is about gut feelings on how a place makes you feel. My spreadsheet wouldn’t make sense to anyone but me.
For you, what makes a restaurant experience epic?
The most important thing: the food has to be good.
But it’s also the small things that a restaurant does that makes it special. The things that delight you, like the way the service or a dish interacts with you. There has to be some kind of design behind things – little touches that make you feel giddy and happy. Like when you see something that surprises you, or something that’s really well executed.
Some food critics talk about experiencing a visceral reaction during that moment of delight. I get kind of short of breath when something great is happening in a restaurant.
How much time do you spend travelling in a given year? How do you handle the travel?
For the Canada’s Best New Restaurant competition, thirty days.
But I also wrote six features for enRoute this year, and I write for other magazines too, where part of my job is travelling. In the last four months, I’ve been away from home more than I was at home.
It can be hard on my job and my life. Luckily, there are a lot of technological tools to help facilitate work on the road. I have two cats that really miss me, and every time I come home, they’re happy to learn that I’m not dead. They actually start punching me when I get home.
The travel is fun while I’m doing it; but towards the end of each trip, I really look forward to being at home.
What’s the best part about your job that would surprise readers?
It’s the way that I approach travel. A lot of people who are on the road for work say that it ruins travel for them. Travelling for my job — it’s usually to investigate a place, and it’s made me a better traveller. I’m less likely to get stressed, and I’m better at planning trips.
The part I like best is making appointments to talk with interesting people. When you’re a travel writer, you get that added perk that people are extra eager to talk to you. I like the trips better when I have a plan, and a chance to talk to people. It’s fun to have a mission when you travel.
What are some of the craziest things you’ve done for your job a travel writer?
On my most recent one, enRoute sent me to Patagonia to go fly fishing. It was something that I’d never done before. It was in this really remote part in Northern Patagonia. It was really fun till I fell over – the water filled my hip waders and killed my iPhone.
Do you have any tips for spotting a tourist trap on the road?
Maybe not spotting a tourist trap, but avoiding a health hazard trap. When I was travelling in rural India, our guide said to go where the local people are eating with their children. It has to be a place that’s busy, and full of families. If the food is good enough for local people’s children, then it’s a good bet.
The Top Ten list of Canada’s Best New Restaurants will be in the November issue of Air Canada’s enRoute magazine and at enRoute Digital Edition.