Our chefs present Ottawa cuisine — in Niagara

Our chefs present Ottawa cuisine — in Niagara

Food and wine aficionados celebrate Ottawa Valley theme dinner Saturday at Canadian Food & Wine Institute

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L-R, Ottawa guest chefs Norm Aitken (Juniper Kitchen & Wine Bar), Steve Mitton (Murray Street Kitchen.Wine.Charcuterie), John Taylor (Domus Café, Taylor’s Genuine Food & Wine Bar), Pat Garland (Absinthe Café) put on a special Ottawa Valley theme dinner to rave reviews from 90 guests Saturday at the Canadian Food & Wine Institute, Niagara College. 

PART ONE: Ottawa chefs on the road

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NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE — MAR 31 14 – 11 AM — I’ve frequently pondered in 15 years as a professional Food journalist what exactly distinguishes cuisine across our vast and varied country. Often I’m able to identify broad strokes rather easily, but sometimes the precise detail of regional nuances eludes me.

IMG_0631While it’s not challenging to appreciate geographic and cultural influences in, say, the Maritimes versus the great plains of Saskatchewan, or the richness of aboriginal cultures to the east, west and far north, compared to more recent arrivals from Europe and Asia, I’m usually stumped when asked what exactly identifies cuisine in our nation’s capital. It makes me think.

Yes, the Ottawa Valley supports and nurtures some of the finest, award-winning artisans in the world — from fine cheese makers and superlative bakers to an eclectic variety of award-winning craft brewers.

Our heritage breeds of livestock are justly given top billing at some of the finest tables in the region.

Owner-operated restaurants captained by thoughtful chefs are reforging links from farm to fork, the likes of which haven’t been seen since the Great World Wars.

And, more than ever, we’re seeing respect for ingredients where thoughtful cooks are keen to use every edible part of beast and fowl. It is a new twist in modern thinking, a return to yesterday’s values and frugality, one that eschews waste while celebrating simplicity in its basic, honest preparation.

But, returning to the question, what really distinguishes food from kitchens in Ottawa from, say, plates in Western Quebec? In Central Ontario? Prince Edward County?

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Above, top, chef Steve Mitton of Murray Street Kitchen greets dinner patrons Saturday at the fourth Chef Signature Series meal held at Benchmark restaurant at Niagara College. Bottom, Canadian Food & Wine Institute dean Caig Youdale is emcee for the night. Behind-the-scenes action in the kitchen was videotaped and broadcast live online, and displayed on large screens in the restaurant, as Youdale interviewed chefs to keep the program lively and informative.

That answer I hoped to find last weekend in Niagara-on-the-Lake, where the Canadian Food & Wine Institute at Niagara College invited four Ottawa chefs to present one of five “Chef Signature Series” dinners in the college restaurant lab, called Benchmark, before some 90 paying food lovers and oenophiles.

A most appropriate venue, Niagara College, founded in 1967 in Welland and since expanded to other parts of Niagara, today boasts full-time enrolment of over 9,000 students and more than 15,000 Continuing Education registrants annually.

Its culinary arts program alone has some 500 full-time and apprentice students, making it “close in size” to Algonquin College in Ottawa, says Food & Wine Institute dean Craig Youdale.

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Top, Canadian Food & Wine Institute dean Craig Youdale with chef Michel Olson, whose recipes I’ll follow up in a later post. Bottom left, Niagara College second-year student Benjamin Lillco; right, chef Olson.

Here, students come not only to learn the ways of the kitchen and service, but may also learn how to brew in the Teaching Brewery, or vinify at the campus winery. Niagara College beers and wine are served in the restaurant, which visitors can taste and purchase at on-site stores. Now, how cool is that?

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Top, chef Norm Aitken of Juniper Kitchen. Bottom, chef Pat Garland of Absinthe in Ottawa.

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Top, chef Steve Mitton of Murray Street Kitchen; bottom, chef John Taylor of Domus Café and Taylor’s Genuine Food & Wine.

niagara6Left, Juniper sous chef Line Lefebvre lends a helping, ah, knife. Right, chef John Taylor with Pat Garland in background.

Ottawa’s all-star cast included Patrick Garland, chef/owner of Absinthe Café, Norm Aitken, chef/owner Juniper Kitchen & Wine Bar, Steve Mitton, chef/owner at Murray Street Kitchen/Wine/Charcuterie, and chef/owner John Taylor of Domus Café and Taylor’s Genuine Food & Wine Bar.

Of those, Aitken and Mitton are former students of Youdale while attending the Culinary Institute of Canada in Charlottetown the late 1990s.

Youdale has his own roots in the nation’s capital:  Beyond being an Ottawa native, he apprenticed at the Fairmont Château Laurier in 1989-90, was garde manger and pastry chef at the former Clair de Lune restaurant in the ByWard Market (1991-92); and was chef at the former Tete a Tete restaurant in Westboro (1991-93) before moving to Calgary.

The chef’s signature series at Niagara College is nothing short of brilliant — one I hope Algonquin might consider, where guests are invited to work with students on culinary theme nights. “Niagara is a great location for the culinary arts given the local combination of wine, agriculture and tourism,” Youdale says.

“Obviously we’re in the middle of wine country, and Niagara Falls is only 20 minutes away. The area supports diverse agriculture, from grapes to tender fruit.”

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Chef Pat Garland’s opening dish: Italian Wedding Soup with duck consommé, wild boar meatballs, goat ricotta, raviolinni, poached quail egg, brunoise of root vegetables, tomato, zucchini.

“The day-to-day work of students involves curriculum and lab work, which is important,” Youdale says.

“But what they don’t otherwise get is exposure to what is happening in the food scene today — not just with local chefs, but visiting chefs from elsewhere to get a peek at what the world is doing.”

To that end, guest chefs are assigned 12 students and four faculty chefs to assist.

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Second course by chef John Taylor: Warm Ontario Smoked Rainbow Trout with celeriac remoulade, sheep milk ricotta, Halls apple butter, fried pavé, Cavena nuda and tender shoots.

“It’s great to see the diversity of what various regions have to offer,” says second-year student Benjamin Lillco, 19, who I spotted sculpting a gazillion fresh vegetable balls for Garland’s first-course soup.

Lillco, incidentally, is a junior team member representing Niagara College at the 2016 culinary Olympics in Germany, and is going to Scotland to compete in 2015. This fall, he’s competing at the Luxembourg World Cup. He also works part-time at Benchmark restaurant on campus, so exposure to visiting out-of-town chefs to him seems second nature.

“We come because we appreciate the creativity of different chefs,” says dining patron Mike Goll, who drove in with wife, Susan, and friend Blake Ireland from Burlington.

“You get some insight into the chefs and what they do,” Ireland adds. “And, at $359 for the series or $79 each dinner, it’s good value.”

Now in its second year, the Chef Signature Series of five dinners for 2014 was kicked off in January with 10 professionals from the college’s food and wine program, then continued in February with a second dinner featuring six outside chefs from the Niagara region.

In March, the college invited five Toronto chefs. Last weekend it was Ottawa’s turn, and on April 12 the series winds up with a barbecue and craft beer festival bringing in five top barbecue personalities from across North America. For details, the link is here.

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Third course by chef Steve Mitton: “The Whole Hog.” That’s confit shoulder in crêpinette (wrapped in caul fat), trotter croquette and toasted oat sauce, cured loin, tongue, apple and parsnip salad, maple-cider and soy vinaigrette, smoked bratwurst, ham hock caraway cabbage and mustard.

“The other thing with these signature series dinners is  we want to help and support food cultures in other cities,” Youdale says.

niagara8“We want to bring what’s happening in, say, Ottawa, to the community of Niagara and to the college, where hopefully our visitors will get more exposure, so people from here may visit their restaurants in Ottawa.”

Photo, right: What did chefs do before phone cameras? You gotta wonder …

Youdale says his former students, Aitken and Mitton, were immediately enthused when be broached the idea a few months ago. They, in turn, recruited Garland and Taylor to round out the menu.

“Among your Ottawa chefs,” Youdale says, “you’re seeing a real grass-roots desire to connect with farmers, to showcase ingredients.

“Chefs are trying not to over-complicate things, and to me that’s a good thing about the Ottawa food scene right now. In Ottawa, I also notice chefs are getting together to talk about food, to share ideas, to exchange information, which I don’t think you see as much in other cities.

“Ottawa is big enough to offer diversity, but it’s not too big to prevent chefs from getting together and interacting,” Youdale says.

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From chef Norm Aitken, the finale Ottawa Dessert,” which reminds him of the Rideau Canal skateway. That’s maple toffee presented in an ice tower, Ottawa Valley cider brulée, and Great Canadian Beaver Bite.

Saturday’s dinner opened with a superlative, subtle and nuanced Italian Wedding Soup by chef Garland of Absinthe, followed by Ontario smoked trout by Taylor, varied pork charcuterie by Mitton, and dessert by Aitken. Details of each dish are listed in the captions, above, under the food photos.

Getting back to the original question, what I took away from the chefs is anything but definitive.

In short, Ottawa Valley cuisine is what chefs say it is, period. More often than not, it is the signature food they serve and love at restaurants in the nation’s capital, limited more by their own creativity if not whimsy and not so much constrained by geography — although that has influence, too.

“My whole-hog dish today represents our restaurant and what we do on Murray Street,” Mitton says. ”It’s exactly what I cook all the time and I think I represent Ottawa well in the city.

“It’s great for me to get away, spread your wings, particularly this far away with a group of people who may not know the food you do. To represent Ottawa with a great group of chefs in an honour,” Mitton says.

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Hors d’oeuvres from Ottawa with love, served before the meal Saturday. Clockwise from top, chef Pat Garland’s squid ink tortellini stuffed with smoked cod with preserved lemon, sauce American (seafood bisque), fennel red onion salad; chef John Taylor’s salt cod fritter with Scotch bonnet pepper sauce; chef Taylor’s quail lollipop with sage ketchup.

Says Garland, of Absinthe: “I don’t know much about Niagara College, although I sell Niagara wines in the restaurant. So this was an opportunity for me to see the facility.

“My dish — wedding soup — represents what I would serve at Absinthe, and I represent Ottawa. Ottawa food offers a super eclectic mix for sure with its huge immigrant population and influence from Asia to Italy, and through the Mediterranean. We do well with farmers who provide everything from proteins to vegetables.

“Ottawa is a smallish city so you have a lot of agriculture. As we improve, so does the diversity of our ingredients,” Garland says.

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Hors d’oeuvres clockwise from top left: Chef Pat Garland’s pork butt and maple pogo with smoked chili chutney, baconaise, radish sprouts; chef Norm Aitken’s honey garlic crispy short ribs; chef Steve Mitton’s garlic maple-glazed pork belly on blini; chef Mitton’s head cheese deviled eggs garnished with hardened yolk, dill.

Taylor was among the first in Ottawa who deliberately showcased local ingredients, working with area producers to present seasonal food at Domus Café years before it became the norm. Again, the trout he served with sheep milk ricotta and local Hall’s apple butter simply echoed what he does every day.

True to form, Taylor also presented Saturday a hull-less “Cavena nuda” grain developed by Agriculture Canada — think of it as a hull-free oat that looks and tastes a bit like rice, is gluten-free, which he cooked, then fried to crunchy and salted to embellish the plate.

For dessert, Aitken looked for inspiration to the iconic Rideau Canal skateway.

“When I think of Ottawa, what comes to my mind in March is the canal, maple syrup toffee, last year’s apple cider and deep-fried pastry. Those are quintessential Ottawa food treats I’m showcasing here.

“So, I’ve made an individual ice tower by freezing water in ramekins. I’ll pour hot maple syrup on top to set the toffee, then I made a cider brûlée, a caramelized gel cap, and deep-fried pastry on the side,” Aitken says.

“We’re here to represent Ottawa. We have connections with culinary schools across Ontario because that’s where our staff comes from. This gives us an opportunity to meet and greet instructors and tomorrow’s chefs.

“We’re here to represent Ottawa at our best.”

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Next post PART TWO: Recipes with celebrity chef and Niagara instructor Michael Olson

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Twitter: @roneade

Email: ronlorne[at]hotmail[dot]com

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Twitter: @roneade
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