Life's a banquet for master Ottawa restaurateur Stephen Beckta

Area native dishes on his humble beginnings, his passion for the restaurant business and why there’s no such thing as an unreasonable customer
Stephen Beckta

Here’s a recipe for becoming a successful restaurant owner: Take a generous amount of talent, passion and ambition, let it simmer for three hard-working decades, and then garnish it with a personality that needs no extra seasoning.

At age 43, Stephen Beckta is the majority partner of the iconic Beckta Dining and Wine and of its two sister restaurants, Play and Gezellig. Beckta Dining and Wine landed on the 2017 list of Canada’s 100 Best Restaurants, which was voted on by leading chefs, restaurateurs and critics from across the country, and all three are on TripAdvisor’s Top 10 list of places to eat in Ottawa.

Mr. Beckta is also an Algonquin College-trained sommelier who’s worked in some of the finest eateries in New York City.

If mastery is a matter of practice, then Mr. Beckta has certainly put in his time to become one of the best in the biz.  

He started in the industry at age 13. While attending Cairine Wilson Secondary School in Orleans, he took on full-time hours to bus tables, wash dishes and cook, as well as serve once he was old enough.

Simply put, he fell in love with the restaurant business.

“It was the first place where I felt successful at something,” said Mr. Beckta during an interview at his flagship Beckta restaurant at 150 Elgin St., where hanging on the walls around him are paintings by local artist Andrew King.

For a kid who came from a broken home, the restaurant community was like his family.  

Mr. Beckta worked at a variety of joints, from the now-defunct Malibu Jack’s to Dunn’s Famous Deli.

“I loved the restaurant business more than school,” he said.

That might explain why he technically became a high school dropout. He was too busy to complete his final English course. It was only recently that he received his diploma in the mail after the school principal learned of his story and figured that his life’s work compensated for the missing credit.

In the 1990s, a broken heart sent Mr. Beckta on a one-way trip to Europe. He ran out of cash in Amsterdam and took a job selling tickets for Boom Chicago, a 250-seat American comedy dinner theatre.

So successful was Mr. Beckta that the owners promoted him to food and beverage operations manager. To prepare for the job, he read management books and watched VHS recordings of Star Trek: The Next Generation to learn about leadership from Capt. Jean-Luc Picard.

Mr. Beckta made his bosses a ton of money. But they fired him for his approach to handling his staff, who he says often showed up late and weren’t interested in their work but were, unfortunately for him, related to the owners.

Getting sacked taught Mr. Beckta his most important lesson: The means are just as important as the ends, and if you build a great restaurant culture, the profits will follow.

“I should have used persuasive skills, rather than yelling or screaming to get people to show up on time,” he conceded.

One of the traditions Mr. Beckta has established at each of his restaurants is a communal lunch and dinner involving the employees. They discuss the day, along with the menu specials and available wines.

“It’s a big cost to feed all of our staff every day,” Mr. Beckta acknowledged. “But it really sets the tone and the culture and the idea that people can never really care for others if they don’t feel cared for themselves.”

Beckta left Amsterdam following a minor bicycle accident (and his realization that he was living in a foreign country without medical insurance). He returned home before moving to the Big Apple to work for the likes of renowned Chef Daniel Boulud, followed by famous restaurateur Danny Meyer.

He came back to Ottawa for good, however, after meeting his future wife, management consultant Maureen Cunningham, at a wedding at the Canadian Museum of Nature.

In 2003, he got married and opened his first restaurant, Beckta, at its original location on Nepean Street in Centretown. A couple of years later came son Seanan, now 11.

Mr. Beckta’s second restaurant, Play, debuted in 2009, followed by Gezellig in 2012.

In 2015, he moved Beckta to the heritage building that it currently occupies. The relocation was meaningful to the restaurateur, who spent his early childhood living in apartments on and around Elgin Street.

His modest beginnings play a role in shaping his opinion on the topic of difficult diners (you know the type; they complain about everything).

For him, there’s no such thing as an unreasonable customer.

“You can’t look at it like that,” he opined. “It’s reasonable in their mind, and that’s the only mind that matters.

“Look, I’ve been more successful than certainly my background should ever have allowed me to become. I have a great team, three amazing restaurants, wonderful partners, an amazing wife, a beautiful son and a sense of financial security. I have already won the lottery.

“The idea that somebody is trying to take advantage of me just doesn’t compute. I feel like I have so much to give, so it’s very easy when someone tries to take from you. You just give to them, and then they don’t need to take from you anymore.”

Five things to know about Stephen Beckta

  • He, along with his executive chef and business partner Michael Moffatt and prominent caterer Sheila Whyte, are organizing Canada’s Table on Aug. 27. It’s a sold-out, four-course dinner with wine pairings for 1,000 people to be held outdoors on a closed-off, four-block stretch of Wellington Street in front of Parliament Hill. Twenty chefs will participate, half of whom are locals and half of whom represent five distinct regions of Canada. The dinner is part of a series of events happening in 2017 to celebrate Canada’s 150th anniversary.
  • He’s board chair of the Boys and Girls Club of Ottawa. The non-profit organization played an important role in his own childhood.
  • He’s a political junkie. “Politicians are, to me, right up there,” says Mr. Beckta. “They’re as exciting as having a Mick Jagger in for dinner.” Whom he’s had at his restaurant, by the way. There’s a wine bottle signed by the Rolling Stones perched on the same shelf as autographed bottles by Jean Chrétien, Jack Layton, Paul Martin and Tom Mulcair.
  • Among the local entrepreneurs who inspire him are his friends Tobi Lütke and Harley Finkelstein from Shopify, as well as Bridgehead owner Tracey Clark. Mr. Finkelstein has his own table at Beckta with a plaque that reads #hustle.
  • Mr. Beckta was the general contractor for Beckta, Play and Gezellig and does regular maintenance on his restaurants, proving that he’s as handy with a hammer as he is with a corkscrew.