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Charity cook-off tests kitchen skills of Nelligan O’Brien Payne, BLG, Gowling WLG, Edelman professionals

With bragging rights at stake, a group of Ottawa lawyers swapped their advocacy for aprons to participate in United Way Ottawa’s fun new Food Fusion cooking competition, held Thursday at Le Cordon Bleu Ottawa Culinary Arts Institute.

Nelligan O’Brien Payne, BLG and Gowling WLG all entered teams. So did Edelman, a global communications marketing firm with an office in Ottawa.

The first-time event raised roughly $18,000 through pledges, ticket sales and silent auction proceeds.

Organizers had come up with the concept of creating a cooking competition, to appeal to the professional sector’s competitive side while also giving participants an exciting new challenge.

“People want to do things that are experiential nowadays,” explained one of the organizers, Ryan Clarke, a government relations consultant at Edelman and a volunteer with United Way.

“We also realized that we’re dealing with a group of people in Ottawa, sort of that professional class that often want to issue you a cheque but then it’s hard to get them engaged.”

The idea for Food Fusion remained on the proverbial backburner until lawyer and United Way volunteer Craig O’Brien became a partner at Nelligan O’Brien Payne and was able to secure sponsorship from his firm.

He sees the fundraiser as the ideal networking event for young professionals as well as for the restaurateurs, who volunteered their time to mentor the amateur cooks and to judge their dishes. Participating chefs included Jesse Bell (The Albion Rooms), culinary consultant Ilan Dagan, Kyle Fewtrell (Tulips & Maple Catering), Jon Svazas (Fauna, Bar Laurel), Joe Thottungal (Coconut Lagoon), and Julie Vachon (Le Cordon Bleu).

From the reception areas, attendees – including United Way Ottawa CEO Michael Allen – could watch a livestream of the budding chefs in their respective kitchens located in the bowels of the building.

In one of the kitchens, Erin Lepine, a partner at Nelligan O’Brien Payne, was seen helping to plate her team’s octopus dish. She recalled how her husband had reacted with eye-popping surprise when she told him they were cooking octopus, which can be particularly challenging to prepare.

Lepine was happy with how the dish turned out but, after hours of standing on her feet and tediously peeling more cherry tomatoes than she could have imagined, she now has a greater respect for her husband, Duane Lepine, who is the executive chef of The Rideau Club.

“But we’re not going to tell him that,” she added with a sly smile.

The winners were Gowling WLG. The team credited Thottungal for being the brains behind the seared duck with butternut squash mash, blackberry chutney, beet slaw and sago crisp.

The lawyers had trained earlier in the week with Thottungal at his restaurant and, on the big day, were each assigned a specific cooking task in order to pull together the perfect dish.

Thottungal was really proud of his team but stopped short of offering its members a position at Coconut Lagoon, insisting that he already has many good people working for him.