Last call: Food writer Chris Dagenais bids adieu

I have made a point of taking chances with this weekly food column. Chancing a meal at a diminutive hole in the wall with an awning that has seen better days on the off chance that it is a hidden gem.  Chancing an order of some culinary obscurity that reads dubiously, at best, on a menu when other, more familiar dishes are available. Chancing a turn of phrase in a review that pleases my own ear but risks alienating a subset of readers who just want to get to the brass tacks of the meal experience at hand.

I have felt compelled to take these chances because nearly seven years ago (I am going to be a month short of that anniversary) the editor of this newspaper took a chance on me, an unknown entity familiar to the publication only tangentially. You see, I used to pitch stories to the editor, not write them. I was part of what the news world calls The Dark Side, a PR shill paid to drum up coverage for corporate stories of tenuous news value.

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From that same world, I knew the outgoing food writer, the inimitable Deana Lancaster, who held this post diligently for the better part of a decade and smoothly paved the way for those who followed. I originally hailed from a restaurant background too, but it was still a gamble turning over a popular column to a guy with a modest publication history. I had had a lengthy travel story on India published in these pages some years before taking over the Dish column. The rush of seeing my words in print, of reading the headlines and photo captions (neither of which are ever penned by the story’s writer, in case you weren’t aware) selected to accompany my own original content, was enough to make the idea of being a regular contributor very, very appealing; so much ego, so little print space.

I had a trial assignment before I was awarded the column as a Contributing Writer, the designation I have held throughout my tenure with The Dish. I was told to write up the season’s first Shipyards Night Market, focusing on the food trucks. It was a slam dunk for me because it was a topic about which I was already genuinely excited and it was easy to carry that subjective enthusiasm through to the column.

My first “real” review, which is to say, not a spec piece, was on the then-new Finch and Barley, a place about which I have written favourably on a few occasions but that has never once Tweeted, Instagrammed, Facebook posted or otherwise shared any of the words I have written about them. I mention this only because it points to an awkward and omnipresent self-awareness that has informed my approach to reviews. I hold the operators that run our local food and drinks businesses in the highest esteem. I know how demanding their days are and I so want to help, not hinder, their efforts by focusing publicly on what they do well, because what they do well has given me incalculable enjoyment.

And so when a column drops and there is nothing but the sound of crickets in its wake, I am left wondering if there was something about my phrasing that missed the mark, or if I got something wrong about a dish or the concept of the place. I have always felt invested in these reviews, even if, on rare occasion, the urge to be flippant or snide has won out in the writing.

In case you have not inferred it yet, or missed last week’s piece foreshadowing this outcome, this is my final Dish column. My initial wish was for it to be a glorious ode to the sensual experience of food and drink, an impassioned and lyrical piece packed with wit and pathos, simultaneously eliciting laughter and big, fat, empathic tears. That’s been a hard impulse to curb, if I’m being honest.

The realization I’ve made over time is that this column is not about me at all. My best work, the contributions about which I am proudest, are the columns in which I recede into the background, my words serving as the conduits through which the creativity and discipline of the subject comes to life on the page. It has always been about trying to do justice to the work of others.

For this reason, as I wrap up an important phase of my professional and personal development, I am compelled to thank everyone who facilitated the journey to here, the final paragraph of a chapter that, in my estimation, has no loose ends to tie. Thank you readers, who have invigorated me with your emails, your letters, your rants and recommendations; even those whose sole engagement with me has been to lament perceived egregious grammatical violations have inspired me to do better next time.

To our bold and determined restaurateurs, chefs, servers, hosts, bartenders, food runners, dishwashers, and front of house managers- thank you for shaping the inevitable chaos that exists behind the scenes into a seemingly effortless dining experience. I am proud to have been able to know so many of you better over the years. I think the scene that you have created here on the North Shore, a once too-often overlooked dining destination, is inspired as it stands right now, but has the potential to contend with the most celebrated culinary neighbourhoods anywhere.

And finally, thank you to the North Shore News, a deservingly much lauded publication that continues to successfully weather the seismic shift in news consumption that has marked the last two decades. I think I am allowed to say this because I am a freelancer and not a member of staff: reading North Shore News, engaging with its editor via letters, consuming its stories (let’s not trivialize them by calling them ‘content’) online, receiving the print edition at home, these are all ways to show support for journalism, for well-researched, verified, thoughtfully expository writing that shines a light into the crevasses of culture and helps hold us all to a higher standard of comportment. I am proud to have added a few words here and there to the news cycle but to borrow a phrase from Nabokov, to the real journalists of this publication: I am not the shadow of your shadow. Keep up what you’re doing, it’s important work.

And with that, I’m off for a bite to eat now, not as a reviewer, but as a diner, a civilian. Where, you ask? Ha! Nice try.

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