“Are you okay?” René Redzepi asks a rapt audience of restaurateurs. The Danish chef is famous for Noma’s ingenious Nordic cuisine, but that’s not what he’s here to discuss. Instead, Redzepi reveals that while his Copenhagen creation was topping the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list for the third time, behind the scenes he was quietly having a mental breakdown.
Redzepi’s real talk is rare for the restaurant industry, but typical for the Terroir Symposium. It’s a unique meeting place where industry leaders from the world of food and drink get together to drop any artifice and inspire one another. For over a decade, this think tank has drawn heavyweights to Toronto such as Dominique Crenn, named the World’s Best Female Chef in 2016; Fäviken’s Magnus Nilsson; and Michelin-starred restaurant empire overseer Daniel Boulud. It’s an approach that’s worked so well, Terroir founder Arlene Stein is now moving beyond Canada and taking the formula around the world.
“When I tell German restaurant startups they need to take risks, like sharing the digits of their favourite foragers or opening up their kitchens for collaborative cooking sessions, they get it right away,” says Stein while serving Kaffee und Kuchen in her new Berlin home. But in 2006, before Generation Crowdsource, she was met with skepticism for even suggesting rivals assemble in one room, let alone give up their trade secrets.
“I saw an opportunity to enrich the entire industry if we all got together to learn from one another,” says Stein, who was then working as the director of catering and events at the University of Toronto’s Hart House. Over bottles of Ontario VQA wine, she and five friends (including a chef, a sommelier and a food magazine publisher) dreamed up their plan for the first-ever Terroir: a zero-budget undertaking with oversized ambitions.
Terroir is the French term used in viniculture to mean sense of place, embodying the notion that everything from the soil to the climate to the production methods used in a specific region (or winery) comes together to give a product its defining characteristics. “I wanted to represent all of us, from the farmers to the kitchen team,” explains Stein.
Year One saw 100 delegates gather for the symposium at the oak-pannelled Great Hall at the U of T. From there, Terroir went on to become the biggest food-and-drink gathering of its kind in North America, attracting speakers from all over the world to ever-larger venues, including four floors of the Art Gallery of Ontario. And those big-name presenters didn’t come for the speakers’ fees – the non-profit event offers none. “The appeal of Terroir for chefs who take the stage is getting out of their own kitchens,” says Stein.
Experiences beyond talks and panels were also added to the program, and presentations became ever more sophisticated. Sam Bompas, one half of the UK’s famous multisensory experience design team Bompas & Parr harnessed the natural electric charge of a dill pickle for a food-fuelled light show. Dali Bikich and Paul Azevedo of the Playlist Company broke down their scientific approach to curating restaurant playlists to enhance the gustatory qualities of a meal.
Despite overwhelming success, Stein made 2017 her final year running the Toronto incarnation of Terroir. While she will still act as an advisor to the symposium, most of her energy will now go into global spinoffs. They’ve already launched in Berlin and Budapest, with Warsaw and Tel Aviv in the works. “What’s exciting to me now is digging deeper into issues that affect specific regions in specific ways,” Stein elaborates, “like how communism shaped the food culture of Poland, or how young people in the Balkans are giving up office jobs to re-establish indigenous livestock on the plains.”
In these politically fragile times, Stein believes the new global direction of Terroir isn’t just about personal tales of triumph, but also about harnessing the power of gastronomic diplomacy. “The best of humanity comes out of strong and connected food systems,” she says. “After all, we are more peaceful and community-minded when we eat well.”