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Ottawa chefs prepare for return of meetings and conventions with new culinary offerings, services

With many of this fall’s conferences and conventions rescheduled into 2021, several of the city’s top chefs are hard at work planning new and safe ways of using food to bring people together.

“We are looking closely at everything from how we serve food to how we set up a room so that guests won’t lose the feeling of an intimate event, but will feel safe and spread out in the space,” says Patrick Turcot, the executive chef at the Shaw Centre.

When business and social events resume in earnest, attendees are likely to see several subtle changes. For example, culinary staff will be more likely to serve dishes to guests directly, with buffets and self-serve setups becoming less common, says Turcot. Similarly, charcuterie spreads and similar offerings that invite guests to make their own plates will likely be replaced with pre-portioned individual servings.

Kenton Leier, executive chef at the National Arts Centre, is also exploring creative ways of ensuring guests can gather safely without sacrificing any part of the event – least of all the NAC’s well-known culinary fare.

“While the food experience may look different, the overall quality and taste will be the same,” says Leier, who catered a handful of events over the summer before additional limits on the size of in-person gatherings were reintroduced. “I have a lot of confidence in the industry, and I know we will adapt and make the necessary changes to be able to do things safely for our guests.”

Providing clear directives on where attendees should gather and sit is also a priority when events return – a routine Leier and his team rolled out this summer when hosting an outdoor wedding at the NAC.

Where a typical event would see guests mingle over cocktails before a meal, NAC staff instead directed guests to their tables as they arrived. Louis Simard, the executive chef at the Chateau Laurier, expressed similar sentiments about the ongoing changes to meetings and events.

“You can expect that the sequence of service will be different and more streamlined,” adds Simard. “We have been nimble in our approach and we continue to look for any way possible to serve our guests and meeting delegates.”

The ingredients going into the dishes will also be carefully considered amid the growing emphasis on supporting local businesses, says Turcot. He plans to continue to use locally and nationally sourced ingredients to not only create exciting new combinations for guests – such as a blackened cod with soba noodles and lobster broth, or mac and cheese with duck confit – but to help support local area farmers and producers affected by the pandemic.

“It’s going to take some time before we get back to normal, but by working closely with local farmers, event planners and organizations across the city we will be able to earn back their trust and their business,” he says. “And we are very much looking forward to that day.”

A virtual kitchen party

While in-person celebrations may temporarily be on hold, some organizations are still finding a way to make food the centrepiece of their event – even from a distance.

The Great Canadian Kitchen Party is an annual cooking competition that brings hundreds of people together for an evening of food and drinks prepared by top Canadian chefs. The event – which typically hosts its local competition and Culinary Championships at the Shaw Centre – also raises money for Canadian musicians and athletes.

With large in-person gatherings out of the question this year, GCKP co-founder Karen Blair and her team brought the kitchen party experience into the homes of ticket holders instead.

“Chefs, restaurant owners, musicians and Olympic athletes who had dreams of competing in Tokyo have all had their livelihoods put on hold, so we knew we had to do something to help,” she says.

Virtual attendees – including more than 600 from across Ontario – were invited to order a takeout meal from a list of six local chefs competing in the event before tuning into an online broadcast of live music from performers across the country, allowing guests to still gather with their families and enjoy the perks of the Kitchen Party from the comfort of their homes.

And, while the 2021 Culinary Championships portion of the party – originally scheduled for next February – had to be postponed until 2022, the team is eagerly awaiting their return to Ottawa and the Shaw Centre, where guests will be able to come together to celebrate innovative menus from across the country.

“Ottawa has some incredible chefs and a very lively culinary community, so for us it’s a great fit,” says Blair. “We are sad not to be hosting there this fall, but we are looking forward to rejoining the community when it’s safe to do so.”