City Bites

CHEW ON THIS: Why the Canadian Celebrity Chefs Event left a bad taste in my mouth


Grand-scale food events have become very popular lately. Look at the number of people who attend Bon Appetit, Feast of Fields, and Gold Medal Plates. And it would seem our appetite for grazing and star-gazing knows no bounds. On paper at least, the recipe for success is simple: take a bunch of people, bring them close to chefs making great food, and let them wander around taking little tastes of everything. We can fill up and feel good because the money goes to a good cause.

After attending several of these spectacles, I am beginning to observe some interesting patterns. Guests seem to spend most of their time waiting in line, there are never places to sit, and one ends up being exposed to some of the rawest elements of human nature. People run from station to station trying to gulp down their fill — or perhaps their money’s worth — often without the help of proper cutlery. Meanwhile, it appears to be no picnic for the chefs, either, who are expected to mass-produce complicated dishes using strange and mobile kitchen equipment. Snatching up food, balancing plates, napkins, and refillable glasses while eating in transit — such behaviour runs contrary to the sensibilities of any self-respecting foodie under normal circumstances. This is the stuff of buffets and fast food. It is also the stuff of food television.

Which brings me to The Canadian Celebrity Chefs Event that took place last week. The brainchild of Michael Blackie, the chef of the National Arts Centre, this full-day extravaganza promised something different: eight celebrated chefs from across Canada were paired with eight of Blackie’s favourite homegrown talents to create culinary magic together. The public (me included) paid between $75 and $175 to be a part of this meeting of culinary minds. Some big people were there: chefs like Brad Long and Anthony Walsh from Toronto. The Food Network, a sponsor, sent along the Thirsty Traveler, Kevin Brauch, to add extra star power to the event.

With all that has been written about the event since last Monday, little has been said about the food. And I know why. For me, it is unforgivable to invite hundreds of people to a full-day food event and give them little to eat. But that’s what happened. With nothing but a cup of coffee until noon, word came that there was indeed lunch. Visions of Blackie’s famous take on General Tso chicken, a sushi station, fresh salads, danced in my head. Instead we got some snack-sized sandwiches (some of which were greasy, others fishy) and some petits fours. Oh, and water.

Do you know how it feels to sit in stadium seating for nine hours smelling caramelized shallots and seared pork belly? At one point, I couldn’t take it any longer. I found myself sneaking out between demos and pleading with a server at the NAC Café (which was closed for a private function) to let me in the green room to buy some M&Ms from the vending machine. Thank goodness for the toonie in my pocket, I may not have made it until dusk.

When the reception time came, I was in for an even bigger disappointment: the food was overwhelmingly terrible and terribly overwhelming. I realize it is politically incorrect to say so — after all, these are our nation’s top culinary talents, right? Well perhaps it might have paid for these fine cooks to actually taste their dishes before demonstrating and serving it to 700 people. Watching Atelier’s Marc Lepine tasting his own dish for the first time during the morning demonstration, I was tipped off to what was coming: even he seemed unimpressed. How should we feel? The audience was told repeatedly that the chefs had only met the night before and these dishes were conceived a month earlier over the phone, by email, by facebook. And it showed.

Which brings me to my final point: did anyone think about what the experience would be like for us eaters? Eight different dishes, six of them seafood-based, all main courses and all equally complex. How about bison hash or ravioli? How about lobster or sweetbreads? Instead it felt like a fusion of every item ever featured on Iron Chef all at once. We were served oysters, scallops, lobster, pickerel, mussels, squab, foie gras, bone marrow, bacon fat, bacon foam, bacon hollandaise; roasted garlic; risotto, ravioli… you get the idea.

What a shame. All that extraordinary talent, all those beautiful ingredients, and it all added up to a meal from hell.

In the aftermath of the event, I’ve come to realize most food events aspire to offer us an extension of what we consume on TV: the kitchen as spectacle and the chef as superstar. Drawing us out of our yoga pants from in front of our TVs and into Ottawa’s own Kitchen Stadium, the Celeb Chef Event inadvertently developed the premise for a new reality show: one where you starve people all day while dangling beautiful food in front of them before giving in and letting them gorge to their heart’s content.

It makes me wonder if it wouldn’t have been better to stay at home watching back-to-back episodes of Iron Chef; at least there I can get up and go to the fridge when I’m hungry.

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  • Craig

    I am not disputing what you are saying about the NAC event but I think we should be more positive about the fact that some Chef in our community is trying to raise the culinary bar. It was the first year of the event and I think making recommendations instead of critizing would be better.

    Don’t you think that it is a worse tragedy that most Ottawian’s eat at box restaurants like, Swiss Chalet, Montana’s, etc? What bothers me is the fact we are fast to critize our culinary local industry, instead of helping.

    Our City has so much to offer but people are happy to eat drive through meals or go to restaurants with owners from other cities or countries. Please take the fact that your job is not just to criticize Bhutan also to get people out of their yoga pants and support our local restaurants and industry.

  • agjackk

    I do not disagree that the event was a let-down but not on the terms you discuss here. I simply feel as though ‘celebrity’ should have been taken out of the name and it be called Canadian Culinary Event. Either way I think you particularly need to step back and look at all the food you were offered. Turn the tables and see how magnificent your dish would taste after 3 hours of pumping out 500 dishes without any kitchen tools. And if you are a foodie, which you sound like you want to be, being served “oysters, scallops, lobster, pickerel, mussels, squab, foie gras, bone marrow, bacon fat, bacon foam, bacon hollandaise; roasted garlic; risotto, ravioli” is a treat, not torture. Come on!

  • Ed

    I attended both the all-day session and the evening tastings. We took a taxi there and back and so the day cost us $400. For us, spending that amount of money should have equated to a major treat. The daytime show was terrible – I expected to learn something and to have the dishes explained to me. As it was, the “celebrity” chefs seemed to have so much fun with their inside jokes and about how they were up until 5 am partying that the audience, at times, (i.e. the paying stiffs) seemed to have been forgotten. There were times when they had to be reminded to tell us what ingredients they were using. And the less said about Kevin, the better except to say he was gawd-awful. The day-time show was unprofessional and showed a decided lack of respect for the folks who shelled out the cash. I do not have a quarrel with lunch – it wasn’t advertised so the fact that there was one was welcome. The food at night – some good, some bad. Obviously, the plating for 700 is not going to be as meticulous for 700 as it was in the demo portion. If the show for next year follows the same format, I won’t be going. Kudos to Chef Blackie, though, for getting the ball rolling. He is to be applauded for what he tried to do. Maybe next year the chefs will be grown-ups who will show more respect for the audience. And please – a few seats would be nice and wouldn’t it be nice if the line-ups were shorter?

  • Renato Bartolli

    the event was superb, at least chefs are working together to promote our sleepy town. if you were hungry you should have gone out for a few minutes and ate on elgin and come back.

    as a reviewer u should be more experience and not try so hard to be like a michelin critic that’s been done just understand the bigger picture and HELP our city instead of writing silliness.

    ciao ciao

  • Mike

    Shawna. I can see why you had to qualify your absolutely valid critique as not being politically correct, because of people Craig and Renato, whose comments slam you for being honest and for not being a PR flak for the event. I hope you can slough off this drivel. I didn’t attend the event but was told by a close friend who did that it was a waste of time and money. Maybe because people here expect to be given standing ovations for just showing up, quality is of no real importance.

  • Christopher

    Good for you Shawna for letting your honest side out. You are helping the city by not hiding the fact that there is some bad food in Ottawa. And if you don’t say something…chefs get lazy and so does the food.
    Ottawa Chefs need to be told when its bad or when its great.

  • Anton

    The cooking presentation should be in a bigger space. The chefs should be cooking at the same time, the people should have the choice to choose the dish and chefs they want to be watching, the time should be around 2 hours so there would be a rotation option for the spectators.
    The evening was worth the dollar spend, even without the cooking show.
    8 great combinations of dishes pared with wines from Canada. For only 175.00 each.

    And by the way you gave every chef in your report a clear “no good” I would say you made yourself an even bigger no good in saying that.
    The talent of these chefs is rated by people which know food, as well as there own limits.
    Chapeau to the chefs of this evening.