What is Canadian cuisine? Launching on June 6, notable Canadian food writer and restaurant critic Gabby Peyton aims to answer this question in her debut book, Where We Ate: A Field Guide to Canada’s Restaurants, Past and Present. This celebration of 150 restaurants that have left a mark on the way Canada eats is a joyous representation of the incredible diversity of restaurants, people and stories that make up our Canadian dining history. We chatted with Gabby to learn more. —Noa Nichol
Hi Gabby! Please tell us a bit about yourself.
I’m a food and travel writer and culinary historian based in St. John’s Newfoundland and Labrador where I am the restaurant critic for The Telegram. I have been writing about food for more than a decade now, with bylines in The Globe and Mail, CBC, Eater, Chatelaine and Canadian Geographic and I am always planning my next trip — to eat.
Congrats on the upcoming launch of your book, Where We Ate! What was the inspiration behind it, and why should we read it cover to cover?
Thank you! The inspiration came from my desire to find the origin story of iconic Canadian foods. I wanted to find out how Donairs became the official dish of Halifax, how the California roll was invented in Vancouver and how a dairy surplus lead to the creation of poutine. While I was writing a column for the Food Bloggers of Canada website about these iconic foods, I thought that someday it could make a great book! Six years and many hours of researching and writing later, here we are! This book will be many different things for many different people — for the people who read this and recognize a beloved favourite restaurant, it will bring back warm memories of dinners gone by. For those who are still running these restaurants, it will bring out a sense of pride that their food has had an impact on the country’s dining scene. And for all the people that arrived in Canada and opened a restaurant, adapted dishes to make ends meet and who slowly cultivated our dining culture, they will know they hold a place in the history of where we ate.
So, what is Canadian cuisine, anyway?
One of my favourite professors in journalism school was always advising us “show don’t tell” and this is what I tried to do in Where We Ate. For decades, historians and media have attempted unsuccessfully to define Canadian cuisine and that’s because it’s just so multifaceted. It means something different to everyone, whether you’re a chef or a diner, so in my book, I wanted to show all the beautifully delicious differences in Canadian cuisine, not just tell people about it. Where We Ate is a cross-section of restaurants from across the country, and throughout time, that represents all the ways we have dined out.
As you ate your way across Canada, what were some highlights/hidden gems that you discovered, both in terms of history and cuisine?
Well in a perfect world, I would have eaten at all restaurants that are still open (there are about 80 still operational of the 150 featured in Where We Ate) but sadly COVID had other plans. Instead, I interviewed chefs, restauranteurs, historians and food writers across the country to hear what they thought about dining in Canada. I’ve been lucky to have eaten in about 25 of the open restaurants and I have to say the green pea soup at United Bakers Dairy (an iconic Jewish dairy restaurant in Toronto) and the fried potatoes on the special meat platter at the Afghan Horseman in Vancouver (the first Afghan restaurant in the country) were highlights for me — as was eating poutine at Le Roy Jucep in Drummondville, QC, one of the two places who lay claim to inventing it.
What are some of the “oldest” (longest-standing) restaurants in Canada, and what makes them unique?
Well, I think that being a long-standing restaurant is unique these days — especially after the past few years! Almost a dozen featured in Where We Ate closed during COVID while I was writing the book. But the Olde Angel Inn in Niagara-on-the-Lake is pretty special — it’s been open since 1789 and is supposedly haunted. The Rex in Welland, Ontario, is also special as it’s one of the earlier pizza shops in the country and has been open for more than 100 years, and so has Six Mile Pub in Victoria, which opened in 1855.
Are there any up-and-coming restaurateurs whose goal is to preserve some part of Canada’s culinary history?
There are two Indigenous restaurants in the book, Salmon n’ Bannock in Vancouver and Feast Cafe Bistro in Winnipeg, that are doing a fantastic job at showcasing an aspect of cuisine that is long overdue on the Canadian dining scene. Their dishes have been around long before any of us were here, so I think it’s really important to enjoy them and shine a spotlight on Indigenous cuisine. Salmon n’ Bannock just opened a second location in Vancouver airport, too!
What’s your favourite “Canadian” food/dish/meal?
This is such a hard question! There are so many fantastic dishes across the country I’ve enjoyed from the nori-topped hotdogs at Japadog in Vancouver to the iconic chickenburger at The Chickenburger in Bedford, Nova Scotia, but I would say my heart belongs to Ginger Beef, which was invented at the Silver Inn Restaurant in Calgary in the 1970s.