Tucked into the corner of a green-and-yellow-walled Mexican restaurant, James Chatto, Toronto Life‘s multi-award nominated food columnist, is the picture of grey England: black pants, black shirt, black-and-white tweed blazer, salt-and-pepper hair. His small black notebook is concealed under a rather large menu and he furiously scribbles, recording every ingredient in the three appetizers, three mains, and two desserts he’s selected. As the waitress walks out of hearing distance, Chatto explains his rating system while scanning the small room like a shopper at a Boxing Day sale: “There’s ‘wow wow wow,’ which I use for certain dishes but rarely an entire meal, ‘wow wow,’ ‘wow,’ ‘yum,’ and ‘oh dear.'” Unfortunately, the meal that follows is full of oh dears-a series of mushy samplings punctuated by a 20-minute interval of piercing sirens as the restaurant’s fire alarm malfunctions. “How long will this go on for?” Chatto cheerily asks a waiter. “The fire trucks are usually here by now,” the staff member answers, as though this is a routine question.
Chatto’s distaste for the meal is evident. “There’s a skin on my soup,” he says somewhat triumphantly as he examines a bowl of vibrant green liquid. “It’s terrible,” he says with a slight grimace, replacing fork with pen and opening his notebook. He examines each successive course like a detective at a crime scene, taking notes before, during, and after each bite. Eventually he concludes, with a hint of sadness in his voice, that he won’t be able to use this restaurant in his upcoming column on King Street West eateries. “I’m happier being positive,” the critic explains.
What does appear in Toronto Life is a succinct, 286-word unsigned review at the back of the book, giving the restaurant a disapproving one and a half stars: “While the dishes are more interesting than the usual Tex-Mex hybrid, they are a far cry from alta cocina.” Chatto offers a series of mild complaints, citing the restaurant’s “oddly rubbery” tortillas, “watery, bland red snapper,” and “Pablum-soft vegetables.” There’s no mention of the fire alarm-an experience many fellow reviewers surely would have highlighted.
While other food critics-for example Joanne Kates of The Globe and Mail and Jacob Richler of the National Post-write with caustic wit (Richler once referred to a restaurant’s vichyssoise as a “recipe out of the Weight Watchers’ cookbook,” while Kates has described another’s curried corn soup as bearing more than a slight resemblance to Dr. Ballard’s), Chatto is what another critic calls “an oxymoron, a gentlemanly journalist.” His style is more M.F.K. Fisher (a five-star legend in the food writing world) than Gael Greene (the acerbic New York magazine reviewer whose work Joanne Kates once modelled her own after) and his talent has earned him enormous respect across the industry. “He’s really the best in the business,” says Michael Totzke, who edits Chatto’s Gardening Life food column. Michael Stadtlander, proprietor of the critically acclaimed Eigensinn Farm, is equally positive: “He is very passionate about food.” Even Joanne Kates concedes that she loves his column. Only Steven Davey, food critic for Toronto alternative weekly Now, disapproves of Chatto’s style. “He writes like a prig with a pickle up his butt,” says Davey. He also suggests that Chatto accepts free preview meals in order to get his reviews out in a timely fashion, an accusation of ethical laxness that might drive another critic into a rage, or libel court. But Chatto just laughs off the accusation. “The last thing I need is a free meal.”
Today, it’s true that a free meal would hardly pose a temptation for the 46-year-old Chatto, arguably Canada’s most learned and literary food writer. In 2001, his Toronto Life writings on foie gras, roasted squab, and grilled filet of fluke garnered him two prestigious nominations. The first, for a James Beard Foundation Journalism Award, was an honour he shared with food writers from The Atlantic Monthly and Vogue. The second came from the Jacob’s Creek World Food Media Awards, the food and wine media equivalent of the Oscars. Chatto’s work made the awards’ final cut of 12 out of more than 1,000 entries. His 1998 memoir, The Man Who Ate Toronto, won a Heritage Toronto Award and was shortlisted for the 1999 Toronto Book Awards. A 2002 James Beard nomination has just been announced, and a new memoir about his experiences living in Corfu should be out in 2003. However, the route to becoming, according to wine journalist, author, and Jacob’s Creek awards judge Tony Aspler, the best writer on food in Canada, began with a serendipitous meeting over a free meal back in 1987.
As a young boy in England, James Chatto’s tastes tended to vanilla ice cream and yellow vanilla custard. His first restaurant meal was a dinner of fried chicken, corn fritters, and fried banana. Growing up in 1960s England, the son of an actor and a theatrical agent, Chatto and his family lived on London’s Kings Road. “It was quite hip and happening,” he recalls. Chatto’s father, Tom, died at the age of 62, but his mother, Ros, now in her mid-70s, still works as a theatrical agent in London. His younger brother Daniel, 44, also lives in London and is married to Lady Sarah Chatto, daughter of the late Princess Margaret. His palate expanded through the adventurous cooking of his mother (a Majorcan mixture of kidney and liver was a favourite dish) and visiting the various eateries lining the busy street. Chatto’s penchant for both food and drama was further nurtured by his godfather, actor Robert Morley, who at one time penned food columns for both Playboy andPunch magazines.
After studying English at Oxford on a scholarship, Chatto found success in a variety of fields. A stint as a saxophonist earned him a hit instrumental record (For the Love of Money) in 1976, and a year later he played Pontius Pilate (“I worked my way up from one of the apostles”) in a West End production of Jesus Christ Superstar. He also appeared in commercials for British Airways, Lux Soap, and Rice Krispies. Aside from the theatre, book publishing was also in Chatto’s blood. He’s related to the Chattos of both Chatto & Windus publishers and Pickering & Chatto booksellers, and he has written fiction since childhood. Chatto first turned to food writing after a friend in publishing rejected one of his novel manuscripts and suggested he write a cookbook instead. “She said, ‘We can always publish a cookbook at Christmas time,'” Chatto recalls. An avid cook (up until recently he did the majority of his family’s cooking), Chatto gathered together 60 of his best recipes-such as “Dragon’s Tail,” a rolled shoulder of lamb, and “Tongue in Cheeks,” a dish of sliced ham or tongue, wrapped around leeks and baked in cheese-which appear in 1981’s The Seducer’s Cookbook. However, Chatto admits that recipe-writing is not his forte. “I hate following recipes,” he says.
Working for his godfather as an assistant stage manager on one of Morley’s productions, Chatto first visited Toronto in 1977, immediately prior to his gig as Pontius Pilate. On this trip, he met his future wife and dining companion, Wendy Martin. Suitably, the two met at a King Street West restaurant and bar called Peter’s Backyard, where Wendy-a fine arts and English undergraduate student at Carleton University-was waitressing for the summer. Though Chatto returned to England soon after, the pair eventually reunited in London and returned to Toronto in 1981. To earn the rent for their St. Jamestown apartment, Martin worked at the Art Gallery of Ontario while Chatto wrote fiction. They married in Toronto in 1982 and relocated to the Greek island of Corfu to seek “a life of ease” in 1983.
Chatto’s philosophy of food and life was greatly shaped as a result of this five-year sojourn, where he grew olives and made wine. Chatto and Martin worked together on 1987’s A Kitchen in Corfu, which Chatto describes as a book of “food and place.” (He has also written two short stories, which have since been anthologized in American school textbooks.) During this time in Corfu, Wendy gave birth to two sons, first to Joe, and 18 months later, to Ford. Tragedy brought an end to the idyll in Greece when Ford died of leukemia in 1986, at the age of 16 months. The family returned to Toronto shortly after. Today, James, Wendy, 18-year-old Joe, and 14-year-old Mae live in north Toronto with two cats and an ever-evolving assortment of fish. Joe, who skipped three grades, is now studying archeology at the University of Toronto. Mae, who perhaps inherited some theatrical genes, wants to be a comedian and studies improv at Second City. Chatto recently brought her along on an interview for Toronto Life with former Kid in the Hall Mark McKinney. “I got big Daddy points for that one,” he says with a smile.
Following Ford’s death, Chatto ceased writing fiction. “It just felt wrong to make up emotions and to pretend pain and sorrow,” he says softly. Upon returning to Toronto, his first writing gig was a freelance piece for Flare magazine. Chatto was casting around for additional work when a friend introduced him to Tim Blanks, then editor of Fashion magazine. Blanks commissioned Chatto to write three food columns for Fashion, but the articles were killed after parent magazine Toronto Life vetoed the idea of a food section in Fashion. “James reminded me a bit of a hobbit,” says Blanks. “His laugh and his rosy cheeks hinted at Rabelaisian undercurrents-and I like a good undercurrent.” Impressed with Chatto’s work, Blanks introduced Chatto to Joseph Hoare, Toronto Life‘s widely loved and wholly eccentric food editor. “I thought he was a fastidious and charming man,” says Chatto of the man to whom he dedicated The Man Who Ate Toronto.
After lunching with Hoare at the King Edward Hotel’s Caf? Victoria in September of 1987, Chatto began writing for Toronto Life almost immediately. Marq de Villiers, at the time the magazine’s editor, introduced Chatto to readers in the April 1988 issue as an “author, actor, cook, sometime olive farmer and bon vivant.” In “Hello Trolley,” Chatto’s first column that appeared in the same issue, he rhapsodizes about dessert trolleys: “Theirs is an old-fashioned flamboyance, a style that now seems mannered and theatrical.” “Chatto Dines Out” became a regular feature, but Chatto has also written over a dozen non-food-related articles for Toronto Life, pieces whose topics range from Ronnie Hawkins to Elvis Stojko to Paul Bernardo. He has also written extensively on wine and travel in Toronto Life, enRoute, Food & Drink, and others.
Chatto’s great interest in not only food, but life, presides in his style. “Food historian” is a more apt approach than “critic,” as he’s as much concerned with the genealogy of the meal he’s eating as he is with its quality. “It’s English in a way, looking for the [professional] lineage of the chef,” says John Allemang, former Globefood columnist. “It’s more interesting than focusing on whether the salad is crispy or moist.” In almost every column, Chatto laboriously plots the origins of a particular dish or chef, interviewing, on average, six to 10 people. A 2001 piece on sushi is typical; Chatto excitedly wrote of the arrival of a new supply of wild Copper River salmon in Toronto, then traced what each sushi chef he featured created with the delicacy.
Chatto’s style also reflects the influence M.F.K. Fisher has had on his work. “There is a communion of more than our bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk,” wrote Fisher in The Gastronomical Me, over which Chatto admits he’s cried while reading. Fisher’s writing weaves together stories of food and human experience, as does Chatto’s. “He brings so much style and texture into the piece, it’s not only about food, but about life,” says Michael Totzke. Chatto agrees. “Food writing is like a diving board for me,” he says. “I use food as a platform to talk about many other things.” Aside from Fisher, Chatto also admires the work of British food writer Elizabeth David (“She really did change everybody’s ideas about food”) and Sunday Times food writer A.A. Gill. “He has a fabulous turn of phrase,” says Chatto with enthusiastic admiration, recalling one of his favorite lines. “He once described ice cream as being as smooth and cold as a Jesuit’s blessing.” While Chatto’s comparisons often favour the humorous (he’s described street food as the “cannabis in the stodgy brownie of life” and a venison shoulder overpowered by a crushed juniper berry crust as “conjuring visions of gin-guzzling Bambis”), their originality is refreshing. As food writer Lucy Waverman says, “James has the imagination to take food writing a step farther.”
Imagination is a definite asset in the dream job that is more job than dream. “You wind up having to find new ways to describe boiled carrots, and it’s not fun,” says Charles Oberdorf, a former restaurant critic who also edited Chatto’s work at Toronto Life. Some writers resort to overheated allusion.
“There’s a certain amount of pornography in food writing,” says Joe Fiorito, former food columnist for Hourmagazine and author of Comfort Me With Apples, a collection of his food columns. As Chatto tartly observes in The Man Who Ate Toronto, “Personally, I have no trouble telling the difference between chocolate cake and making love, but a surprising number of writers seem to get them confused.”
Chatto himself leans toward the intellectual, not sexual, in his references. In a January 2001 column on bistros, he devoted more than 100 words to the linguistic history of the term: “On March 31, 1814, while Napoleon and the remnants of his army gnawed their knuckles at Fontainebleau, Czar Alexander’s forces entered Paris… the Russian troops headed straight for the restaurants. ‘Food!’ they yelled, and when the chefs took too long (fussing with presentation, perhaps), they added a further imperative: ‘Quickly!’ In Russian: ‘Bistro!'” “You have to know a lot to get anything out of it,” says Allemang of Chatto’s work. Chatto’s columns can include references to Shakespeare, Michelangelo, and other historical figures-for example, he opened a column about restaurant suppliers with an anecdote about Giotto hanging himself due to poor-quality paints. “You have to try to be inventive without being too strange for the editor’s liking,” says Chatto. On at least one occasion he’s crossed over the strange line: a Toronto Life column he once wrote as a parody of the cryptic style of Argentinean author Jorge Luis Borges never made it to print.
Negativity is as noticeably absent in Chatto’s work as erudition is present. “His one fault is that he doesn’t know how to be mean,” says Michael Totzke. In a rare, critical column on things he hated about restaurants, Chatto fretted about his nice-guy style:”No one will take you seriously as a critic until you savage a chef or two.”Chatto honestly tried to deride pepper-mill-toting waiters, patio dining, and the ubiquitous background music of the Gipsy Kings. While Totzke loved the piece, he “didn’t find it nearly as wicked as I wanted it. James doesn’t want to tear anybody down.” In turn, the most negative thing he can summon up about Chatto is, “I always wanted to tell him, ‘You could trim that hair a little bit,'” Totzke says with a laugh.
Chatto’s theatrical background may partly account for his forgiving views on the restaurant business. “For a restaurant to work, everyone involved, from customer to cook, must play his part according to the rules, dutifully contributing to the harmony,” he’s written. Toronto Life‘s mandate is also a factor: “The magazine is about service, and most people want to know where they should go, not where they shouldn’t,” says Oberdorf.
Chatto confirms this theory: “I’ve got four weeks to write a column, and if I go to a restaurant that’s disappointing, and I often do, I don’t give it space.” By contrast, the weekly food critics are limited to writing about only where they have eaten that week. “The frequency of publication has everything to do with the difference in reviewing styles,” says Jacob Richler. “If I give a bad review one week, it’s no big deal to the reader, but no one wants to wait around for the new Toronto Life and find that Chatto says, ‘Stay home-this place is awful.'” However, Richler believes there’s some room for criticism in Chatto’s reviews. “He could write about the nature of failure now and then, too,” he says. “Too much praise cheapens the commodity.”
Others question the propriety of interviewing the chefs whose work Chatto is reviewing. The Globe‘s Joanne Kates says she adamantly avoids interacting with those in the restaurant business, ditto for food critic Steven Davey. “Our readers know that, and respect my objectivity,” Davey says. On the other hand, the Post‘s Jacob Richler says getting acquainted with a chef enhances his reviewing. “It allows me to better understand the industry.” Still, after eating out night after night, year after year, it seems inevitable that any food critic would become acquainted with those on the other side of the kitchen wall. “If Joanne Kates is being honest, she’s made some friends in the industry too,” says Charles Oberdorf.
Some may speculate that Chatto’s tendency to accentuate the positive has led him to his current editorial positions at both harry and Food & Drink magazines. “I was kind of surprised because no one cares less about clothes than he does,” says Michael Totzke about Chatto’s 2001 debut as editor of the classy matte magalogue for the Harry Rosen menswear chain. “But he can write about anything.”And John Allemang worries that Chatto is selling himself short as senior editor of the Liquor Control Board of Ontario’s Food & Drink mag. “He hasn’t been given the opportunity his talent demands,” he says. “Why isn’t there a novel by James Chatto now, or more travel writing?” Chatto’s eyes are wide open to the restraints of magalogue writing. “I went into harry on the understanding that this is a client-driven magazine,” he says. “With Food & Drink, it can be more frustrating, because I’m always obliged to write only about the wines that the LCBO carries.” Nonetheless, Allemang concedes that Chatto’s talent lends legitimacy to both publications.
As the fire engines recede and the Mexican restaurant is momentarily silent (except, of course, for the ringing of our ears) the “oh dear” evening ends with a half-cooked banana flamb?. Chatto, as always, is gentle in his criticism: “When a meal could be wonderful and it’s not, it disappoints me,” he says with a shake of his head. The waitress brings a brown paper bag of leftovers. “It was lovely,” Chatto declares gallantly as he heads for the door, bag in hand. Then he tosses the doggy bag in the closest trash receptacle. “I feel so wicked when I do that,” he says, grinning like a school boy who is trying hard to be bad.