Sugi talk w/ Kengo Kuma

During an April trip to Japan, I interviewed one of my favorite architects, Kengo Kuma. He's a busy guy, so our conversation didn't begin until 10pm on a Wednesday night. Yeah, Tokyo is that sort of place.

Our chat took place in the rooftop conference room of his Minato-ku headquarters in Tokyo, a few blocks from where his design for the 2020 Olympic Stadium is currently under construction. Kuma-san got his assistant to bring us up a couple espressos, so I was pretty wired. But we got along quite well, not least because Kuma's calling card is his use of wood in construction and I happen to know a lot about wood – I'm descended from three generations of lumberjacks, and was born in a logging camp. (FYI: sugi is the Japanese word for cedar.)

After the interview ended, Kuma headed downstairs for another meeting and I picked up my wife from a nearby bar. We decided to pop in on the Big Echo Shibuya location, and put down our money for the karaoke chain's excellent late night all-you-can-sing deal. For 1900 yen each, we got to sing Springsteen and Tom Petty tunes at the top of our lungs until 5am while a nice young Japanese man brought us mugs of draft Asahi. Thank god for soundproof private rooms.

Here's the online version of my Q&A with Kengo Kuma.

Canada's Best New Restaurants 2017

By now you know the story: Air Canada's enRoute magazine sends me out on a five-week, 30-restaurant tour of eating across Canada. I pick my 10 favorites, and my reviews run as the tentpole feature of the magazine's annual November Food Issue. Somewhere in the middle of all that I pop a ton of antacids, partly due to the rich restaurant food and partly to mitigate the pressure of writing a story that more than a million Air Canada passengers will read at 30,000 feet.

This year marks my fifth time hoisting the Golden Fork. They even made a video trailer to promote the story! Keep your eyes peeled for a shot of my handsome backside walking stealthily into Lake Inez in Toronto's east end ...

The Top Ten was announced live at a gala last night in Toronto, with all the winning chefs in attendance. You can read the full story online here.

Defending my NMA title

At a ceremony last night in Toronto, I won a National Magazine Award for my "Canada's Best New Restaurants" feature. The Gold award came in "Service Journalism," which was a new amalgamation of several previous categories, including the "Service: Lifestyle" bucket that I won the Gold award for in last year. 

It was the 40th anniversary of the NMAF awards, with a bevy of changes to the program. They tried to throw more competitors into my Battle Royale, but I was too strong to be denied. Must've been all that meat I ate on the road ...  

I got the news of this huge honor via Twitter while standing outside the Orpheum Theater on Market Street in San Francisco, waiting to watch a musical. It was my second time seeing "Hamilton" during the show's SF run, and I couldn't have been more pumped. As the boys sing, "Immigrants, we get the job done."

Here's a full list of this year's winners.

Fuck you, 2016

Good riddance to a bad year. At least I'll always have this joke in my quiver: "I finally became an American citizen in 2016. I feel like I joined just in time!"

Canada's Best New Restaurants 2016

For the fourth year running (and the 15th in the history of enRoute's program), I ate my way across Canada and picked out a tasty Top 10 best new restaurants. That list hits seatbacks of Air Canada planes today, and I'm told that by the end of the month more than 1 million people will have read my story. No pressure.

The best new spot of the year is a Japanese-Italian joint in Vancouver's Chinatown, tucked away in a neon-lit second-floor space that's designed to evoke a 1960s Tokyo jazz cafe. Kissa Tanto wowed me off the bat with Wendy McGuinness's My Private Tokyo cocktail (a killer plum wine twist on the classic Amaretto sour), and sealed the deal with a tofu-whipped tiramisu that "could bring a ninja's nonna to tears." 

If you're too lazy to book a flight to Winnipeg for the sole purpose of reading a free in-flight magazine, you can read the online version here. Buon appetito.

Snøhetta's new SFMOMA

For the the September issue of Azure, I wrote a cover story about Snøhetta's sublime addition to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. I still remember exploring the SFMOMA on my first visit to San Francisco in 2006, when the museum was located in a postmodern, fortress-like brick building built by Mario Botta in 1995.

The Snøhetta addition manages to retain and improve upon Botta's original spaces, while expanding the museum upwards and into the back alleys of a SoMa neighborhood that had undergone drastic change in the intervening 21 years since Botta's building opened. I was fortunate enough to cross paths at the SFMOMA's official opening with photographer Nic Lehoux, a longtime Azure contributor and fellow Canadian who was in town to shoot the cover. We scouted the building together, marveling at how Snøhetta managed to make use of those gritty back alleys. A partial view of the glacier-like façade we discovered via Natoma Street links the project to the hardboiled era of Dashiell Hammett's San Francisco. 

Check out the full story, now available online at Azure's website.

National Magazine Award Gold

Third time's a charm: following a Silver award in 2014 and an Honourable Mention in 2015, my story "Canada's Best New Restaurants" for enRoute magazine won a GOLD award in the category Service: Lifestyle at last Friday's National Magazine Awards in Toronto.

It's a huge honour to be recognized with this most prestigious of industry awards, judged by the best of my Canadian magazine writer peers. I was unable to attend the ceremony in Toronto – I, uh, had dinner plans. But my sublime editor Sarah Musgrave, who routinely makes me sound like I actually know what I'm talking about, was on hand to accept in my stead. I can't wait until I'm old and poor and I have to melt the award down for its cash value. It's a gold statuette coming my way, right?

The full list of winners:

Canada's Best New Restaurants

The votes – aka my votes – are in: Pigeonhole in Calgary, from chef Justin Leboe, was the best new Canadian restaurant I ate at in 2015.

The Top 10 list was published yesterday by enRoute. My most memorable meals included a Noma-trained chef's cabin in the woods on Galiano Island, an Art Nouveau stand-up tapas bar on College Street in Toronto, and a vegetable-forward wine bar operated by a superstar female sommelier just across the border from Ottawa in Gatineau, Quebec.

It was also a pleasure to be the first critic in the 14-year history of the list to recognize a restaurant from Manitoba in the Top 10: chef Scott Bagshaw's Enoteca, located in the site of a former Quiznos in Winnipeg.

You can check out the full online feature here, including my top dining trends for 2015 and our Sommelier of the Year, DaiLo's Anton Potvin:

Gold award from the SATW

Imagine my surprise upon learning this afternoon that I had won a Gold award from the Society of American Travel Writers! I'm not American, and neither is the magazine that published my winning piece. But I guess it's like baseball: America invites a few Canadians to participate just so that it has a few more people to defeat. EXCEPT FOR 1992 & 1993 WHEN THE BLUE JAYYYYYYSSSS TAUGHT YOU AN IMPORTANT LESSON!!! BACKFIRED BIG TIME ... IN YOUR FACE!!!

Ahem. Anyways, I won a Gold in the Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Competition for work published in 2014 and 2015. The category is Special Packages/Projects, and the winning piece was my "Canada's Best New Restaurants 2014" feature for enRoute magazine. Here's a full list of the winners:$ravel-$ournali/2013-list-of-$inners

The most amazing part? I beat out Silver- and Bronze-winning stories from the New York Times and the BBC.


Swimming from Alcatraz

Last weekend, I swam from Alcatraz to mainland San Francisco. It was incredibly fun.

I didn't write anything about it, and don't plan to. It wasn't an assignment for publication. I did the swim because I wanted to do it. That's it.

The 1.5-mile swim was run by my club, the Dolphin Swimming & Boating Club. I finished 25th of 76 swimmers in a time of 42:59. The bay was about 63F, give or take. Nobody was eaten by sharks. Afterwards, we drank whisky in the sauna and then came downstairs to eat soup. 

Bring the Pain

In late April, just before I left for a non-working holiday in Peru with my wife, I ran an idea past her: "maybe I should just pitch this one little story?" She tends to like it when we have assignments to research on vacation, as long as they don't cramp our style too much. Which, given how obnoxious I am about turning over every last lead, they often tend to do. But Sarah was game.

When I wrote to my editor at the Globe and Mail's Travel section, her reply began, "This is such a bizarre pitch that I feel I must say yes."

What resulted is a piece that ran on the front page of the Globe's Travel section this past weekend, under the fabulous title "Bring the Pain." (Props to the page editor that came up with that one – I swear it was not I.) In the story, I zip around Lima eating ceviche:

The twist: I'm moderately allergic to citrus, and citrus juices are a pretty damn essential part of ceviche. But as much as lime juice makes me break out in welts, I'm even more allergic to not eating delicious things. You can understand the moral quandary this puts me in.

Spoiler alert: hedonism wins!

Eat and Vote

Continuing a fun little contest that debuted in 2013, the first year I wrote "Canada's Best New Restaurants" for enRoute magazine, this year Canadians can once again vote for their favourite dining hot spot among the 32 finalists for the 2015 edition of this prestigious list:

This year's grand tour took me from tiny Sooke, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, all the way to St. John's, Newfoundland on the country's opposite coast. I found finalists in seven provinces, and was lucky enough to make my first-ever eating trips to Manitoba and New Brunswick (Enoteca in Winnipeg and Port City Royal in Saint John, in case you're wondering).

My official "Canada's Best New Restaurants" Top 10 will be published in enRoute's November issue, where the magazine will also name the "People's Choice" winner. I've already picked and ranked my own winners and filed the copy, so now I just need to sit back and keep my mouth shut for three more months. Should be the best method to help shed those five extra pounds, anyways ...

Everyone Loves Snøhetta

For the June 2015 issue of Azure magazine I profiled the Norwegian-American architecture firm Snøhetta. The article posted online earlier this week:

It seemed a perfect time to take a deeper look at the firm as it moves into its third decade. In the past year, Snøhetta opened its first two buildings in Canada – Queen's University's Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts, in Kingston, and Ryerson University's Student Learning Centre, on Yonge Street in Toronto. I visited both buildings, and in February I also attended the opening of the firm's third office on 8th Street in San Francisco, joining an office in New York and the flagship in Oslo.

I had a fun time meeting the firm's two principals, Kjetil Traedal Thorsen and Craig Dykers. True story: Craig invited my wife to attend the office opening party in San Francisco, and I asked him what she should wear. "Tell her to come naked. That ought to cause a stir."

At the party, we drank a local porter on tap and ate Señor Sisig filipino-mex tacos from a food truck while a disco ball spun from the office's rafters. I heard from more than one Snøhetta staffer that their beloved leader Craig had a history of "losing" his pants at office parties. My wife, bless her soul, kept her shirt and pants on all night. It was a great party.

NMA nomination hat-trick

This morning, Canada's National Magazine Awards Foundation announced the nominees for the 38th edition of its annual awards. And I was beyond-blown-away to find myself a finalist for THREE pieces that I wrote for Canadian magazines in 2014.

For the second year in a row, I'm a finalist in the category "Service: Lifestyle" for my story "Canada's Best New Restaurants" in enRoute magazine. Last year, I was the Silver award winner in this category.

In the category "Travel" I had TWO pieces nominated among the ten finalists. They were both published in enRoute, Air Canada's in-flight magazine that apparently punches above its weight (at 30,000 feet, no less). My piece "Bright Lights, Tech City" about San Francisco from the August issue will be competing head-to-head against "South Side Story," a piece I wrote about the south side of Chicago for the magazine's October edition.

Good luck to all the nominees. But slightly less luck to them than to me. 

"A tale of people following a dream"

Last week, the Calgary-based wine writer and critic Tom Firth penned a very nice review for the food and drink website Eat North of my non-fiction novella, "An Inconvenient Fruit"

Tom called my book a "brisk read," which is really a compliment for a story that I designed to be read in a single sitting! I would have preferred the phrasing "zippy romp," but I'll settle for "brisk read."

I'll leave it to Tom to sell you on picking up a copy: "I think that anyone who enjoys a tale of people following a dream (and enjoys a nice glass along the way) will enjoy 'An Inconvenient Fruit.'"

Eating (and rowing) in Rio de Janeiro

For the January issue of Air Canada's enRoute, I ate my way around Rio de Janeiro, trying to keep up with an Olympian training diet.

The story, "Rio on 8,000 Calories a Day" – my traveling companion, Joao Canziani, bagged a bright shiny cover shot, and I may never see my byline under a more bang-on title for as long as I live – is a story about eating, sweating, and two brothers chatting across continents via WhatsApp.

At the time I traveled to Rio, in late 2014, my brother Michael was training with Rowing Canada and hoping to qualify for his second Summer Olympics in 2016 in Rio. Being the helpful older brother that I naturally am, I scouted the city's athletic venues and also did due-diligence on its, er, post-race opportunities. And being the unpredictable younger brother that he is, Michael chose THE EXACT SAME MONTH MY ODE TO HIM WAS PUBLISHED as the right moment to retire from international rowing competition. 

I guess the motto of the story is that you can lead a younger brother to feijoada, but you can't make him eat. Still, it's heartening to know that the boy calls his own shots in life. Way to go, my Olympian.

L.A. stories

A few weeks ago I hopped down the California coast to Los Angeles to research two stories.

The first appeared last weekend in the Globe and Mail's Drive section. I test-drove the new 2016 Mercedes-Maybach ... by which I mean I rode in the luxurious back seat. See, the Maybach has been designed with the backseat rider in mind. In other words, if you find yourself sitting behind the wheel, you're not a car-owner – you're the chauffeur:

My second dispatch was the kind of L.A. Story that Steve Martin could get behind. I went and saw a bunch of movies. But there were no multiplexes on the itinerary – I stuck to single-screen theaters from Tinseltown's golden age. I even managed to catch some pretty good flicks along the way, including Oscar nominees Selma, Force Majeure, Song of the Sea ... and a double-feature of Shaw Bros kung fu B-movies at Quentin Tarantino's New Beverly:

Fun fact: Los Angeles is actually Spanish for "The Angeles."

A Top 5 of 2014 projects

Welcome to 2015, everybody. It's nice to see you all here. Glad you could make it.

Before we sweep the past under the rug, here are five stories that I'm most proud to have written in 2014:

1. I'll remember 2014 as the year I published my first book. Sure, it was only an e-book, so I didn't get to kill any trees. And it was only 20,000 words long, so reading it probably only takes as long as the graceful draining of a fancy bottle of wine. But I spent two years researching and writing the story of a renegade band of winemakers who defy the wine pest phylloxera by growing own-rooted grapes. And it's the best thing I've written to date. I hope you'll check it out:

2. For the second year running, I spent a month eating my way across Canada and got to choose a top ten list of "Canada's Best New Restaurants" for enRoute magazine. Whenever anybody hears about this gig and tells me I've got the best job in the world, I don't do what I'd usually do, which is to downplay it and go all aw shucks and if you only knew. No, I own it and I say, "You're right, I do have the best job." Because it's the truth:

3. My first ever piece for American Express's haute-travel magazine Departures was a short one, but one of my best calls of the year: months before it opened, I previewed what turned out to be one of the biggest phenomenons of the global year in art. Ai Weiwei's exhibition "@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz" was conceptualized and built by the provocative dissident Chinese artist in Beijing, and shipped to the site of one of America's most notorious island prisons in SF bay. The artist wasn't unable to attend his big opening, sadly – Ai Weiwei was secretly detained by his own government for 81 days in 2011 and has still not regained the ability to travel outside China:

4. I wrote about architecture and design in Mexico City for the Globe and Mail's glossy StyleAdvisor magazine. The highlight of the trip was an exquisite lunch at Eduardo Garcia's restaurant Maximo Bistrot Local – housed in a former wheelchair shop that had been transformed into a serene, minimalist white space that the chef himself described to me as "very Barragan."

5. I wrote a travel piece about the city I call home. This I accomplished by using home-grown San Francisco technology to explore some exiting new corners of the city – with old friends and new ones alike – that I might not otherwise have noticed. I called the result, "Five digital postcards from the land of the new new thing." Even if technology sometimes makes us stupider, other times it can still make the world a brave new place to experience:

Have a great 2015 and thanks for reading.