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Taste test 

Every year, a little booklet appears all over Nova Scotia and trumpets the virtues of the restaurants included therein. These restaurants belong to the Taste of Nova Scotia Society, and all pay for admission to the Society and its book, geared towards the tourism market. So, can what amounts to paid advertising (on the surface) be considered a legitimate guide for quality restaurants in the province? It surprises the cynic out of me to learn that for the most part, it can.

You see the ubiquitous Taste of Nova Scotia crest all over the province, at restaurants and inns and tourist chalets. The oval logo sports the Bluenose, salmon and squash, among other famous local products, and is touted as an indicator of quality. TONS is composed of two sister organizations, the Quality Food Program and the Society. The TONS Quality Food Program is the grassroots part of Taste—a guild of local food producers and processors that includes such diverse members as River View Herbs, Rosemary’s Chocolates, Valley Flax Flour, Chris Brothers Meats and Alexander Keith’s Brewery. The focus is on quality, and members (who pay a fee to join) exceed industry quality standards.

Since its inception in 1994, TONS has worked to develop joint marketing initiatives that develop and promote the local food industry. There’s no doubt that piggybacking on such large corporations as Keith’s Brewery helps out deserving smaller, cottage brands like Rosemary’s Chocolates; there’s strength in numbers and its good to see provincial government funding support (by almost 50 percent) promotion of our culinary accomplishments.

Then there’s the second half of TONS, the TONS Society, composed of restaurants that feature TONS products on their menus. These are the restaurants that pay for membership and inclusion in the booklet. Each year I see restaurants on this list that I certainly wouldn’t consider “quality.” I’m not convinced it’s the best idea to feature local products in a bad restaurant as way to promote your thing to tourists.

I wonder if there is any legitimacy to the program at all, and contact the Society to find out how restaurants are accepted, and what the process and criteria are for earning the Society badge, and speak with executive director Heather Mackenzie. She goes through the steps for me:

“First, there’s a lengthy application prospective members must complete,” she says. “Then they are given two incognito assessments and they must score 80 percent. These extensive reviews are based on food quality, presentation, service, ambience, everything from the front door in.” The reviewers are so secret that “not even my board of directors knows who they are.” They go at least once a year, usually twice, and are “involved in the food industry and very skilled.” That’s all the information she will give on reviewers but it satisfies my curiosity for two reasons: there is more than one visit, and there is a checklist. Food is very subjective, and a detailed list helps create a more objective rating; having two different reviewers (which they do) also prevents one person’s bias from affecting a rating.

I take a closer look at this year’s member list, and count the entries in Metro. Of the 20 Metro entries, six are what I would consider “iffy” either because they focus on volume more than quality (Murphy’s on the Water), or because I’ve reviewed them and found them to be just plain bad (MacAskill’s). Along with the expected hotel restaurants like 44 North and Georgio’s, there are some truly excellent, not so obvious destinations, like Fid. Indeed, the only jaw-droppingly horrific entry on the whole list is the Sou’wester, the restaurant that sits at Peggy’s Cove in all its overpriced, overcooked, offensively stereotypical splendour.

“Culinary tourism is a trend that is becoming more important than ever,” Mackenzie says, “as travellers become more knowledgeable, and develop more educated palates.” To that end, Taste of Nova Scotia is now in the early planning stages of a new cuisine and wine strategy that will allow them to present the province’s food and drink even better on the international stage.

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