Play food & wine celebrates a decade of putting 'people first' at anniversary bash

Owner Stephen Beckta credits success to making hospitality a top priority
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From left, Harley Finkelstein, COO of Shopify, with Maureen Cunningham and Stephen Beckta at Play food & wine, in the ByWard Market, on Thursday, February 21, 2019. Photo by Caroline Phillips

In the crowded and competitive restaurant business, 10 years is a lifetime.

Stephen Beckta, one of Ottawa’s biggest names in fine dining, and his team hosted a party Thursday night to celebrate the milestone anniversary of Play food & wine, a popular restaurant located at 1 York St. in the ByWard Market.

Play is one of three eateries owned by Beckta. Its sister restaurants are Beckta Dining & Wine on Elgin Street and Gezellig in Westboro. Combined, they employ 140 people.

The Ottawa born-and-raised businessman fell in love with the restaurant industry at the early age of 13 while bussing tables only a couple blocks away from Play, at the now-closed Malibu Jacks. There, Beckta found a place of belonging, as well as the desire to open his own restaurant one day. He did, at age 29, with his award-winning flagship Beckta, in 2003, followed by Play in 2009 and Gezellig almost seven years ago.

Today, Beckta runs the three locations with his “restaurant family” that includes managing partner Clay Cardillo and executive chef Katie Ardington.

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From left, Clay Cardillo, managing partner of the Beckta restaurant group, with owner Stephen Beckta and executive chef Katie Ardington at the 10th anniversary party held for Play food & wine, located in the ByWard Market, on Thursday, February 21, 2019. Photo by Caroline Phillips

There was a strong sense of kinship at the party, particularly with the presence of Ardington’s wee son Russell, as well as baby Iris, daughter of Play general manager Sarah French.

“There’s a great line, that hospitality is a team sport,” Beckta told OBJ.social. “Without that team, all pulling in the same direction and all sharing the same values that you do, it doesn’t succeed; people don’t feel cared for, they don’t feel that great experience that’s like being welcomed into someone’s home.

“Caring for people comes first,” he said. “Caring for our staff, caring for our guests, caring for our suppliers and our community.

“We care for people, and food and wine are just merely tools. They’re not ends in of themselves.”

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Katie Ardington, executive chef of the Beckta restaurant group, with her husband, Steve Ardington, and their three-year-old son, Russell, alongside Play general manager Sarah French, with her six-month-old daughter, Iris, (winning her first game of "you blinked first"), at the 10th anniversary party for Play. Photo by Caroline Phillips
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From left, Shelley Page, head of storytelling, editorial and strategic communications for the non-profit WE, with CTV News senior political correspondent Glen McGregor, and fellow guest Robyn Osgood, at Play food & wine, in the ByWard Market, on Thursday, February 21, 2019.
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Paul Meek, owner of Kichesippi Beer, with Jantine Van Kregten, director of communications for Ottawa Tourism, at Play food & wine, in the ByWard Market, on Thursday, February 21, 2019. Photo by Caroline Phillips
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From left, Rachel Baxter with her husband, Ottawa litigation lawyer Colin Baxter, and their daughter, Emily, with her fiancé, Jacob Jackson, at Play food & wine, in the ByWard Market, for its 10th anniversary party. Photo by Caroline Phillips

Beckta officially welcomed everyone to the party, substituting a chair to stand on for a stage so that he could reach those guests standing at the back of the room as he expressed his deep gratitude in his usual kind and classy way. “This means so much to me and to the people who work here every day,” he said while thanking the crowd for “all the amazing support that you have given us over the past 10 years.”

The 150 invited guests included Colleen Mooney, executive director of the Boys and Girls Club of Ottawa, of which Beckta is the board chair. Not to be missed was Beckta’s best buddy, Harley Finkelstein, chief operating officer of Canadian e-commerce giant Shopify. Its head office is located in the same office building, Performance Court, as Beckta Dining & Wine.

It’s been a big month for Finkelstein, who recently welcomed with his wife, Lindsay Taub, the birth of their second daughter, Zoe Rae. Realizing the folks at Play weren't the type to toot their own horn, Finkelstein publicly expressed his appreciation to the restaurant, on behalf of its loyal customers.

“I want to say something that Steve and Clay and Katie cannot say, which is that Play has become an institution in this city,” Finkelstein told the room. “You have raised the bar in every single culinary experience across Ottawa, and across Canada.

“Thank you guys so much for everything you do for us. You guys have totally created something so special here and it’s an honour for us all to dine here.”

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From left, Colleen Mooney with Danielle McGee, director of community relations for Mayor Jim Watson, and her husband, David Gourlay, senior manager of major gifts for the OSEG Foundation, at Play’s 10th anniversary party. Photo by Caroline Phillips

Also from Shopify was its HR boss, Brittany Forsyth, with the company’s new vice president of talent acquisition, Janeen Speer, previously with WestJet, lululemon athletica and Starbucks. Forsyth is also on the board of the Boys and Girls Club, as is fellow party guest Robyn Osgood, managing director of national public affairs firm McMillan Vantage.

There were a few faces at the party, including Beckta’s wife, Maureen Cunningham, who also attended Play’s grand opening bash. So did Carley and Oliver Schelck, who own The Urban Element culinary event studio, and Danica Robertson, principal at Martin Robertson Architects. It did the original design work on Play.

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Brittany Forsyth, senior vice president of talent at Shopify, with the company’s new vice president of talent acquisition, Janeen Speer, at Play food & wine, in the ByWard Market, on Thursday, February 21, 2019. Photo by Caroline Phillips
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Danica Robertson, architect and principal at Robertson Martin Architects, with her 16-year-old daughter Lauren, at Play food & wine, in the ByWard Market, on Thursday, February 21, 2019. Photo by Caroline Phillips
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Carley Schelck and Oliver Schelck, owners of The Urban Element, at Play food & wine, in the ByWard Market, on Thursday, February 21, 2019. Photo by Caroline Phillips

The past decade has been exciting for the culinary scene in Ottawa, opined Beckta. He could “count on one hand the number of good restaurants in town” when he first returned to the nation’s capital in the early 2000s, after gaining valuable work experience and skills in New York City.

“What I really love to see are that so many great independent restaurants have sprouted up,” said Beckta. “Young chefs, young restaurateurs, young managers are taking the risk to open their own shop, to hang their own shingle, and to be committed to this idea of caring for people through hospitality.”

— caroline@obj.ca