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CITY BITES INSIDER: Connor McQuay to head up 150-seat Italian resto in Gatineau’s Hilton


At the end of March, Back Lane Café’s Connor McQuay announced his departure after two years as chef in charge. The 28-year-old’s new gig? Executive chef at DoubleTree by Hilton in Gatineau. He admits it’s going to be a steep learning curve, going from running a 40-seat café to launching a new, 150-seat Italian restaurant, as well as managing the hotel’s second restaurant and banquet facilities. As McQuay hustled to finalize the menu at Sopranos ahead of its May opening, Ottawa Magazine caught up with him just long enough to discuss his new direction.

Connor McQuay

Connor McQuay in the Back Lane Café kitchen


City Bites: How did this new job come about?

Connor McQuay: The owner of the hotel, Pierre Heafey, was a regular at Back Lane and got to know me and my cooking. He wanted to open an Italian restaurant at the Hilton. At some point Pierre asked George [Monsour, owner of Back Lane] if he knew of a chef who was talented enough to run his hotel operation and run a restaurant at the same time. That’s when my name got put in the mix. It all happened so quickly. I went into work one day this spring and George said ‘I think I should let you go and do this.’ Within a week I had a job offer from the Hilton. A week after that I was moving into this new adventure.

The Doubletree by Hilton in Gatineau

The Doubletree by Hilton in Gatineau

CB: You previously worked with Chef Michael Blackie in a large operation at the NAC. What did you learn from him?
CM: I still consider Michael Blackie and John Morris to be mentors. When I was going in for the interview for the Hilton job, Michael was the first person I called. I asked him what I was getting myself into and for advice on how to sell myself because as an executive chef I have never been in such a big company with so many different venues.

CB: What will you be running?
CM: There will be the new 150-seat Italian restaurant, Sopranos, which opens May 1 if all goes according to plan, as well as the casual Bistronome. And banquets and weddings. Oh, and the golf course. It’s a big jump from Back Lane Café!

CB: So it’s a huge learning curve.
CM: It is. But being the age I am — 28 — I see this as a stepping stone. Michael Blackie told me that opportunities in this industry are big stepping stones — it’s hardly ever a gradual climb. You get to one spot and you plateau there for a bit and then a big opportunity comes your way and you have to decide whether to go for it.

CB: What have your first couple of weeks been like?
CM: I’ve been figuring out staffing. Opening up Sopranos is top of my agenda. But I also have to get my head wrapped around banquets and we already have 30-odd summer weddings booked. It’s going to be a pretty big staff!

I’ve also been going full speed contacting suppliers — figuring out who I want to use and in which direction I want to take the food.

CB: Anything you can tell us about the menu at Sopranos?
CM: My background is Canadian-Irish-Italian so I’m really having fun. There are definitely ideas from Back Lane coming this way. We’ll be making our fresh pizza dough inhouse — I’ve got six different pizzas on the menu. Right now, I’m working on 15 different pasta recipes. Gnocchi will be definitely be made inhouse. And other pasta. The menu will be quite large. It’s hard to write a small Italian menu!

It’s broken down like a typical Italian menu: antipasto, then risotto, then pizzas, then pasta, then fish and meat dishes and, finally, dessert.

CB: What’s the price point?
CM: Pretty medium, especially the pizzas and pastas. The most expensive item is the rib-eye steak and that’s $28. We’re looking at $9-$14 for antipasto and $13-$22 for pizza, pasta, and risotto.

CB: Are you looking beyond the hotel crowd with Sopranos?
CM: Totally! Hotel guests alone aren’t enough to support a 150-seat restaurant. I want Sopranos to become a place where residents from Ottawa, Gatineau, and Aylmer come by for fresh, Italian food. I want Sopranos to be the Italian restaurant in the area.

CB: What are you most excited about?
CM: The opportunity for a broader audience to see me as a chef. It’s great to be able to put my food out there. Hopefully it opens even bigger doors for the future.





OPENING SOON! Former rapper Flip Kuma to launch Glebe restaurant Earl’s Variety


Liam Vainola has teamed up with chef Jason Brault, formerly of Tapastree and the Granville Island Hotel in B.C., to launch their Glebe restaurant.

By Fateema Sayani

Six years ago, those who followed the local music scene were intrigued by a rapper by the name of Flip Kuma. He was a soot-voiced softie who had semi-weepy lyrics, but delivered them with a clipped vocal style that made him sound tough and real.

The MC released three albums by the age of 25 and had dreams of running a rap label. Never one to stay still stylistically, Flip Kuma did a 180 with his side project called Virgin Blonde Fantasy, where he sped up the BPM to produce “the gayest electro ever” à la Chromeo. His music made for some good nights at the clubs. Then music fans didn’t hear much from the man known as Liam Vainola.

Turns out, Vainola was tiring of the club scene and trying to impose some discipline on himself (the working title of his last album was The Underachiever’s Feast). So he dropped music and started working his way up in various restaurants around town. He learned kitchen skills and front-of-house management with stints at The Ritz, Carmen’s Veranda, 73 North, and The Fourth Avenue Wine Bar, all the while saving up to open his own place.

That dream turns into reality on November 1 when Vainola, 30, will open the doors of Earl’s Variety, a neighbourhood eatery located under the green awning on Strathcona Avenue in the Glebe.

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CLOSING: Castlegarth closes up shop as owners pursue new ventures

Get there while you can! It will come as a shock to many that Castlegarth’s Matthew and Jenn Brearley plan to close the doors on their restaurant at the end of September after 11 years operating the top-notch rural eatery at White Lake. While Matthew is headed to a new food project at St. Paul University, Jenn is launching a lunch catering company with friend Julie Harrison.

A photograph of Matthew Brearley at a sold-out 2012 CityBites event at the urban element to celebrate the release of the best-selling cookbook by the owners of Montreal's Joe Beef.

Matthew’s Plans
First it was U of O, which in October 2012 scored the first Première Moisson bakery outside Quebec. Now St. Paul University has jumped on the tasty brainfood bandwagon, signing a three-year deal with the urban element to supply its café and catering needs.

No more trucking food in from off-site, Café Urban boasts an on-site kitchen, headed up by three key chefs, including Matthew Brearley. Brearley teams up with Sean Shannon, who cooked at Castlegarth for the past six years, and Geneviève Corriveau, who has been mentored by John Taylor at Domus.

The move marks a new beginning for all three chefs — and a departure for the urban element, currently best known for cooking classes and private catered events at its Parkdale Avenue headquarters. Owner Carley Schelck has said she’s excited to branch out, introducing a model that, she hopes, will change the whole mindset about food quality in the campus setting.

Passing by St. Paul U.? You’re in luck. The gourmet café is open to the public for breakfast, lunch ($7-$9), and dinner ($8-$12). Takeout available. 223 Main St., 613-236-1393 ext. 2555. Matthew is also collaborating with Lanark County on developing a food hub — a marketing entity that would work with farmers to plan crop plantation, advertise their produce, and deliver to buyers (including, one assumes, St. Paul University).

This portrait of Matthew and Jenn was taken in 2010, when Castlegarth took top spot in Ottawa Magazine's annual "where to eat right now" edition. Photography by Christian Lalonde / Photolux

Jenn’s Plans
The company name is Spread, the tagline “coveted lunches delivered to you.” Jenn Brearely and Julie Harrison launch their catering company on October 1, delivering high-quality (and imaginative) lunches for offices and meetings.

Run from offices in Chinatown, the company charges a $20 delivery fee in central Ottawa and $30 outside the core. A quick sampling of the 8-item sandwich menu gives a sense of the thought that has gone into creating a fine luncheon: pastrami, sauerkraut, and Russian dressing; grilled steak, mozzarella, and chimichurri; roast paprika chicken with creamy dill, lemon, and honey coleslaw; and queso fresco, pickled jalapeños, poblano peppers, salsa rona, and cilantro. All sandwiches are made on Nat’s Bread.

The salad lineup includes the likes of cashew, lemon, and ginger coleslaw with toasted sesame seeds and cilantro; and German-style potato salad with bacon, dijon, white wine, and parsley. Homemade cookies, tarts, and crumbles round out the meal.

The couple say they’re looking forward to embracing new challenges — and working more regular hours, which will allow for more time with their kids.

Book Your Spot at Castlegarth
The restaurant, which will close for good on Friday, Sept. 27, is open for dinners from Wednesday to Sunday. The Brearleys are currently organizing a celebratory five-course dinner that will be served on each of the last three nights the restaurant is open (Sept. 25, 26, and 27). It will be based on the couple’s favourite dishes over the last 11 years.

Menu ($65 per person):

— Fois Gras Torchon with Summer Preserved Peaches
— Kudla Farms Egg Yolk Ravioli with Housemade Tesa & Fresh Herbs
— Grilled Mackerel with Squash Galette with Bloomfield Farms Arugula & Romesco
— Duck Breast with Cumin Spiced Sungold Cherry Tomatoes
— Gagan’s Apple Fritter, Chocolate Doughnut with Nectarine Glaze




BREAKING NEWS: Chef Jamie Stunt says goodbye to Oz Kafe and thanks Ottawa for the amazing ride

This afternoon, we received an email from Oz Kafe‘s chef Jamie Stunt, the wonderkid who won silver at this year’s Canadian Culinary Championship in Kelowna. We’ve been watching his unique career unfold since we named him one of the city’s up-and-comers in 2007. Since then, the no longer anonymous Jamie Stunt has become one of the best known, most respected and universally adored chefs in town.

On the jumbotron, winner of this year's Gold Medal Plates Jamie Stunt (centre). Photo by Anne DesBrisay.

Here is the note he sent around this afternoon announcing his departure from Oz Kafe. We can’t wait to see where he turns up next — fingers crossed it will be in Ottawa!

“It is with a heavy heart that I must announce that I have decided to leave my position as chef at Oz Kafe at the beginning of July.

It has been an amazing seven and half years watching the restaurant grow and I am certain that it will continue to thrive once I am gone. I feel extremely lucky to have found such a wonderful place to work and in Ozlem Balpinar, such a supportive and awesome person to work for. 

The very able and talented Simon Bell will be taking over as chef and I look forward to frequently coming to Oz as a customer to eat his food and enjoy the restaurant as a guest. 

As for myself, I will be taking the summer off to recharge my battery and spend time with family and friends. I also plan to do some travelling as well as some apprenticeships to expand my skill set and better myself as a cook.

It’s been a truly amazing time working at a truly amazing restaurant and I would like to thank everyone I have had the pleasure to work with, the awesome clientele, the suppliers who brought such great products and the countless chefs who have graced our little kitchen in collaboration[ so much talent in this city!]. 

Thank you Oz and thank you Ottawa.”



SWEET CRAVINGS: Introducing Valrhona’s blond — a totally new chocolate obsession

You've seen dark and milk chocolate but what's that above the white chocolate? That's blond, an entirely new category of chocolate created by Valrhona.

First there was milk, dark, and white chocolate. Now there is blond.

Invented and launched recently by Valrhona — one of the top chocolate companies in France — blond chocolate, dubbed Dulcey, began its life as a happy accident.

The story has the ring of a fairy tale: the head chef at Valrhona’s chocolate school, Frédéric Bau, put some white chocolate in a bain-marie to melt it, and then forgot about it.

Ten hours later, he followed the beautiful aroma back to the kitchen where it had taken on the characteristics of caramelized milk. It developed a gorgeous blond colour and an unusual toasty flavour that lingers on the tongue.

“The taste of Dulcey has an emotional dimension that makes it a very unique chocolate,” says Quentin Chapuis of Valrhona Canada. “It reminds a lot of people of the butter biscuits they ate when they were kids.”

Valrhona first rolled out the product by getting it into the hands of some of Canada’s top pastry chefs, including the chef at Maison Boulud in Montreal, Thomas Haas in Vancouver, and Nadège Nourian, a fourth-generation pastry chef with two shops in Toronto.

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CRAFT BEER + ARTISAN CHEESE: Beau’s partners with Gunn’s Hill Artisan Cheese to create a new beer-washed rind cheese — just in time for the Great Canadian Cheese Festival

Shep Ysselstein, the owner and operator of Gunn's Hill Artisan Cheese has partnered with Beau's to make a beer washed-rind cheese that will change with the seasons .

I guess the monks in the Middle Ages knew something that many of us are just starting to figure out: beer and cheese taste great together.

Back in the day, artisan monks brewed beer and made cheese in monasteries for their communities. Typically washed rind cheeses are bathed in saltwater brine; the washing helps break down the curd from the outside. It’s fun to imagine the day the monks discovered that they could use beer to wash the rinds of cheese during the aging process to influence the texture, aroma, and flavour of the cheese.

Flash-forward to today, to a small cheese plant near Woodstock Ontario, where the next chapter in the history of beer washed-rind cheese is being written.

There, 30-year-old Shep Ysselstein, of Gunn’s Hill Artisan Cheese (located on his family’s third-generation dairy farm nestled in the rolling hills of Gunn’s Hill Rd. in Oxford County, Ontario — the Dairy Capital of Canada), has been working over the past few months to create a cheese using Vankleek Hill’s beloved brew, Beau’s.

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IN DIGESTION: Best bites from Ottawa’s 17th annual Bon Appetit

As a first-time attendee of Bon Appetit, I appreciated the relaxed and hospitable ambiance of the food and wine show that took place on Tuesday evening. It was a stark contrast to the intensity of other endless-grazing events like Gold Medal Plates in which the chefs are competing to create the best dishes of the night.

The ox tongue pastrami was brined for 2 weeks, smoked for 16 hours and steamed for 3 hours; topped with Juniper Farms sauerkraut, Gruyere sauce, Russian dressing on Rideau Bakery ry

Not just a welcome relief from bun-centric slider overload, this dish hit all the right notes: fresh, crunchy, spicy and light. I didn't want it to end.

Still, I couldn’t help but to rank some of my favourites bites of the night:

GOLD: It’s a tie between…

Les Fougeres‘ tandoori-spiced grain-fed mini chicken burger served on spring salad with fresh herbs and peanuts (left)

…and Social’s ox tongue Reuben on rye (right).



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FOOD-FUNDING 101: Local food entrepreneurs want you to put your money where your mouth is

Farmer Rosemary Kralik is using crowdfunding to save her farm from foreclosure

Crowdfunding — the popular method of online fundraising for startups — is becoming the next major financial model for entrepreneurs. Kickstarter is the biggest platform, but there are dozens of clones, imitators, and innovators helping little guys get the cash they need for everything from the making of indie films and funny T-shirts to self-publishing novels and creating a line of hats for cats.

But what about helping a young chef pay for his new food cart or helping a lone farmer buy enough hay for a herd of yak to last until the pasture grows?

Yes, there’s crowdfunding for that.

WHO: ROSEMARY KRALIK, farmer, Tiraislin Farm

GOAL: $26,000


When Oz Kafe chef Jamie Stunt won the Canadian Culinary Championships with a dish featuring succulent yak meat from Ottawa Valley’s Tiraislin Farm, the nation’s culinary elite were introduced to the extraordinary work of 68-year-old farmer, Rosemary Kralik.

Known to her customers at the Ottawa Farmer’s Market affectionately as “The Yak Lady”, Kralik lovingly raises Tibetan yak among dozens of other species free to roam on her property. In order to pay the bills, Kralik has increasingly had to rely on her artistic talent — painting and drawing, creating portraits of animals and humans on commission — after a series of unexpected events over the last few months threatened the survival of her farm. There was drought, rising costs of hay, vet bills for an injured dog, and tractor repair costs.

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FOOD TRUCK FEVER: Taste the trucks! Wednesday, May 8, 12-1:30 p.m. at City Hall; plus the owner of Relish reveals his Top 5 tips for new mobile vendors

Samples of boa (Asian steamed, filled buns) from the Gongfu boa cart are being prepared in the kitchen at the Piggy Market. Owner Tarek Hassan is making 250 mini-buns for Wednesday's launch.

Are you ready for a taste of some of Ottawa’s new food truck menus? Come to City Hall on Wednesday for the official launch of the new generation of street food vendors. Philip Powell, the City administrator of the new licenses, confirmed the launch is on, but he didn’t say which trucks and carts would be in attendance.

I get the sense that several of the new vendors are scrambling to put everything into place to launch their businesses this month. They have had just a few months from the time they got the green light back in February to the time they are expected to hit the streets. As the appetite for street food builds to a frenzy, some truck-owners are experiencing natural delays related to equipment and permits.

But the show must go on. The trucks and carts that are ready will roll on over to City Hall this Wednesday with samples galore.

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EXCLUSIVE SNEAK PEEK: Bottles of Harvey & Vern’s, Ottawa’s own soda pop — coming soon to a shoppe near you

When word got around that Paul Meek, the face of local brew darling Kichisippi Beer Co., was in the process of starting up a line of “olde fashioned” soda called Harvey & Vern’s — let’s just say the city’s gourmet geeks were like kids in a candy store.

Make no mistake. There’s no alcohol in this relatively wholesome product, aimed at adults. While the reputation of mega-pop brands like Coke are under tremendous scrutiny these days for contributing to obesity and other ill-health conditions, Meek says the message is — if you’re going to drink soda, you want it to be all-natural.

He admits they weren’t legally allowed to call the product “all-natural,” so the bottles tout another one of its virtues: Canadian Original.

For food business owners like Ben Baird who just launched a food truck, Ottawa Streat Gourmet, the idea of serving locally-made, natural cane sugar-sweetened cream soda and ginger beer (the first two flavours in the line) just hit the spot.”I’m very happy to serve a product that is made with integrity of ingredients,” says Baird. The fact that these sodas contain no high fructose corn syrup — the devil of our food system —impressed him the most.


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