Affordable luxury: DineCasa service puts private chefs in your kitchen

On March 3, chef Brenden Johnstone took over Janelle Zhao’s polished Westboro kitchen.


For the first time in weeks, the scent of a home-cooked meal filled the house. Every burner was hot as Mr. Johnstone alternatively whisked a roasted oxtail demi-glace and stirred dehydrated mushrooms into a risotto broth.
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With 12 people coming for dinner, Mr. Johnstone was on the clock to have the first course on Ms. Zhao’s teak dining room table by 7:45 p.m.

Despite hosting a mid-week birthday party, Ms. Zhao was a vision of relaxation as she awaited her guests with a glass of red wine. Other than pulling out some bowls and plates, she hadn’t had to lift a finger.

Home cooking

DineCasa pairs freelance chefs with hosts looking to impress their guests with an in-home gourmet meal.

The brainchild of Ottawa foodie Sabrina Leblanc, she launched the business in January after a stint on Next Gen Den, a web version of Dragon’s Den for young entrepreneurs.

She said the idea grew from her own busy life: she rarely hosted dinner parties, because it meant buying, prepping and cooking the food – for better or for worse.

“I’m not a great cook, but I’m a huge foodie,” Ms. Leblanc said.

The idea is simple: on the DineCasa website, hosts can plug in their budget, number of guests and style of food.

They can choose from set menus or request more customization.

Once the date and menu are set, the host simply offers up their kitchen to the chef, who will arrive, ingredients in hand, to cook a fresh gourmet meal for four to 50 guests.

For Ms. Zhao and her husband Sam Cormier-Iijima, having a chef do all the heavy lifting put the joy back into hosting.

“I get anxiety if we have to cook for even a small dinner party,” Ms. Zhao said. But with a chef in her kitchen, “I can look forward to the day instead of dreading it.”

Enter Mr. Johnstone, who served a three-course meal that began with his signature beet and goat cheese garden salad. His entree was a rack of lamb marinated in a dijon and port rub and served on a bed of mushroom and parmesan risotto, with asparagus spears on the side.

The meal included homemade ciabatta buns with hand-churned butter, followed by a croquembouche puffed pastry dessert.

It cost $40 per person.

Affordable luxury

Ms. Leblanc said there’s a gap in the Ottawa catering market for small dinner parties, and this fills it in a glamorous yet affordable way.

“You think having an in-home chef, its high end, its luxurious,” Ms. Leblanc said. “(But) we make private chefs accessible and affordable because they are just building their portfolio, so they’re offering very reasonable prices.”

For Mr. Johnstone, the gig is a chance to get creative, a break from following someone else’s menu at his day job.

“Once a month I get to make something of my own design and it kind of feeds my need for that,” Mr. Johnstone said.

Using someone else’s personal kitchen is itself a creative exercise. With no site visit beforehand, Mr. Johnstone has to have faith his client’s kitchen will meet his needs, although he does bring his own knives and some pots and pans, as well as a mobile induction burner.

For guests, it’s all part of the show.

“The coolest thing about this is the experience,” Ms. Leblanc said. “Impress your guests.”

This story originally appeared on on March 6.

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