"Whoever's in the charge of promoting Canada abroad completely has their heads up their asses," offers Anthony Bourdain, in the opening of last night's Toronto-centric episode of The Layover. "It's all bears swatting salmon. I'm not doing any of that."
It was a brusque, Bourdain-ish start to the "badboy" (ugh) celebrity chef's Toronto tour. Per format, Bourdain landed at Pearson with 30-ish hours to spend in Toronto, during which he managed to cram in about a dozen meals, with second and third unit cameras capturing a whole sub-class of culinary curiosities that Bourdain doesn't actually chow down on.
It's always a bit weird when your city is given the network TV treatment, reduced to fit one or another narrative for the sake of 24 our 42 minutes of television. See: last year's broadcast of America's Next Top Model, which had contestants dropped into the Big Smoke and literally doused in maple syrup during a fashion shoot.
There are a few production gaffes cropping up in the Layover episode, albeit stuff only an attentive local would notice. For example, Bourdain namechecks Little India with an accompanying shot of Bacchus Roti Shop, which is in Parkdale. (And it's called "The Indian Bazaar" and not "Little India," right?) Also, The Comedy Bar isn't really in the Annex. Nor is Palmerston a neighbourhood. But otherwise, it's to Bourdain's, and his crew's, credit that the Toronto episode of The Layover largely eschewed broad caricaturing, siding instead with the (maybe just as standard) Toronto narrative that there is no Toronto narrative.
The Layover painted Hogtown as a liminal city: a mish-mash of cultures, a bric-a-brac of flavours, a network of hidden gems buried just beneath the surface of the city's initially daunting, less-than-endearing façade. "It's not a good lookin' town," Bourdain says, honestly, while being driven through the downtown core en route from the airport.
"They sort of got the worst of the architectural fads of the 20th century," Bourdain goes on. "It looks like every public school in America, every third-tier city library, Soviet chic, butt-ugly, glassbox." Most Torontonians would probably ‘fess to this. But like making fun of someone's family or someone's girlfriend, we're still entitled to get defensive about Bourdain's scorn, regardless of whether he's right. I mean the guy - effusively verbose and largely insufferable, ever eager to flaunt his half-hungover punk rock pedigree - is hard enough to like as it is.
Nonetheless, Bourdain ends up convincingly enamoured with all those charms that may not necessarily reveal themselves on a taxi ride through the financial district. Filmed way back when a TTC ride only cost $2.75, The Layover catches Toronto just as the current culinary wave we're all enjoying seemed to be cresting. Places you probably read about in papers and magazines and websites like this one a year or two ago were at the top of Bourdain's list (The Black Hoof, Poutini's, Ronnie's), shuffled in with standbys like the Carousel Bakery in Saint Lawrence Market, where Bourdain starts his trip with a peameal bacon sandwich.
Perhaps the most memorable moments of the episode don't really concern food at all, but rather Bourdain's attempt to flex that self-conscious punk muscle. For an extended section of the episode, he thumbs through vinyl at Hits and Misses, chatting with owner Pete Genest. As one of Toronto's legitimately fantastic establishments which didn't feel at the same time like a gentrifying agent gobbling up the character of a prized neighbourhood (rather, Hits was itself gobbled up), it's nice to see the shop showcased, even as Bourdain makes a point of noting that as of air-time, it will have closed. Now the space sells picture frames.
For what it's worth, Bourdain himself is not oblivious to the tides of gentrification and over-exposure that seem to wash across Toronto's cooler establishments. Sipping a beer on the patio at Ronnie's, he addresses the camera directly, in hopes of preserving the spot's pseudo-secrecy. "Despite our intentions our show serves a destructive purpose," he laments, half-sincerely. "So don't come here."
Bourdain also pals around with Damian Abraham, Mike Haliechuk, and Jonah Falco of Fucked Up, who take him on a cool kid-certified bar crawl through Kensington Market, with stops at Cold Tea and Thirsty and Miserable (Abraham mentions that he played his first show there, presumably back when it was still Planet Kensington). "You seem to have caught the Brooklyn spore here," Bourdain says, referring to what he perceives as the "DIY" character of a lot of the Toronto spots he's ferried between.
If anyone really sums up Toronto in the episode, it's Falco, who cites the city's resourcefulness. "Toronto is fiercely loyal to itself," he says, driving at something that really defines the lively city that scuttles around in the shadow of those garish Bay and Front skyscrapers.
A Gardiner-eyed view of Toronto may reveal a pretty sterile, pejoratively Canadian place to idle away a layover, all bank towers and bungled waterfront development. But pound a little pavement, put out a little politeness, and the city will pay you back in kind. It's not such a terrible place to call home. Great food, too.