A little over five years ago, I moved here from Halifax; at the time I was 15, but I tried to make a habit of leafing through The Telegram when I could.
Saturdays became my most regular reading day when I discovered Karl Wells’ column. Karl’s commentary was consistently insightful and his writing top-notch, but his greatest impact on me was encouraging me to explore all kinds of food I had never tried before. His critical eye turned equally to all manner of restaurants, from pizza shops to steakhouses to those serving foreign cuisine.
I would read weekly and get excited as he tried Greek or Indian or the newest gastropub; my teenaged palate was still quite limited, but thanks to his skill and judgment as a critic, I felt comfortable expanding and trying new things when a restaurant had received his seal of approval. (I can still remember the venison carpaccio he described at one restaurant; it sounded so appealing I would have done almost anything to try it.) If I met him today, I would still thank him for giving me that ability. I’m sure I’m not alone; his many awards did not come for nothing.
However, I wouldn’t thank him for the turn his column has taken since some time last year.
Instead of the insightful commentary we all came to expect from Karl, we now find fawning reports of his power lunches with minor celebrities, overblown stories of exotic holidays long past, constant puffery about culinary award shows in faraway cities and profiles of almost nothing except the finest of fine dining establishments.
Karl has ignored a number of new restaurants and new menus in St. John’s in favour of this weak, often snobbish brand of journalism. He is doing the readers of this paper a disservice.
By previously presenting all the restaurants he reviewed on much the same level, he encouraged smaller, more casual establishments to reach for culinary achievements without stigmatizing them. In fact, it was quite uplifting to read his praise for some of those places and recognize what a good job he was doing, especially when he treated every high-priced restaurant in just the same way.
Now, instead of a continuum of restaurants which we could all enjoy, we find a web signifying high society and a constant tone of exclusivity. The experiences Karl formerly described were often accessible to all, and he was able to demystify even the most exclusive restaurants.
This is no longer the case. When he spends so much of his time linking dining experiences with celebrity, travel and his own high status, the feel of his column changes into something describing faraway experiences we commoners will never be able to achieve.
I have no desire to live vicariously through Karl; I’m quite happy with my life.
My girlfriend and I go out to eat at least once a week, and I can still hear Karl’s old manner in the way I think about food. For example, I’ve learned to actually consider the way my meals are presented and become more discerning about the cooking of fish and meat, and yes, the sense of adventure he instilled in me when I was 15 is still there.
But neither my girlfriend nor I have any desire to buy tickets to the Gold Medal Plates, have breakfast with a VOCM host or lament the closing of one fine dining establishment or another. We love restaurants that give us a good meal at any price. Karl used to do the same; he may well still in private, but it doesn’t show in his column.
Karl, you’re better than this. You encouraged me to explore and consider all the restaurants St. John’s has to offer. With any luck, this letter might encourage you to do the same.
Liam O'Keefe writes from St. John’s.