A Chef's Perspective on Ottawa [General]

2010 Jul 12
Hello all I am currently an executive chef in Ottawa (where I'm from doesn't matter just say that we are well rated and in the byward market). I recently moved here from the Toronto area and was dismayed at the lack of culinary appreciation in Ottawa. The scene here seems to be less about good food and more about praising some defunct "superstar" chefs. Many reviewers (and yes my restaurant has been reviewed and quite well at that) seem to want to hob knob with these chefs and simply shun their nose at any new talent at arising in the city. Furthermore, it seems that Ottawa simply wants their chicken, salmon, and beef. Call the police if I ever but botaraga, quail, or any tropical fish on my menu. The lack of culinary appreciation will drive every new talent out this city.

I am not saying there are not great resturants in this city such as: Murray Street, Sweetgrass, Domus, and hell even Ahora. Just seems this city doesn't want any of us here.

Just my frustrated two cents.

2010 Jul 12
This is surprising news for me. Maybe my glasses are rose coloured but I had the impression that Ottawa was impressively embracing new restaurants and new restaurant visions as they have been showing up on the food scene. Atelier and ZenKitchen come to mind. I get the impression that as the recession hit, Ottawa kept eating! Gone are more traditional French dining like Le Cafe Henry Burger and Le Jardin. There are a lot of places that people might pick first before going to say a good old staple like Mama Teresa's. As a non-public servant I have been in awe at the rate my public servant neighbours do enjoy eating out. I also like that their tastes are eclectic. It can be Fil's Diner. It can be Petit Bills. It can be Play. It can be Fraser's Cafe. There is no singular palate.

I don't want to dwell on the defunct "superstar" chefs because I just can't imagine who these folks are. My superstar is the late Kurt Waldele for what he did for bringing a definition to the phrase "Canadian cuisine". What I do marvel at is the amount of homegrown talent we have here. Chefs formally trained, then well mentored, well developed and then had the courage to branch out on their own. I am so impressed with their guts to do that. And look at all the successes we have in this arena.

I have no limits to what variety I will eat. Well, yes I do. I am not fond of eating bugs and I probably won't go for seal. But I have willingly tried kangaroo, alligator, emu. I do like beef, chicken and salmon. I will happily go for tropical fish, quail, venison, bison, etc. My only condition is that it has to be very well prepared.

I wish I could print more money to eat out more often.

I am very interested in hearing how others feel about New User 2844's observations of the Ottawa food scene. I hadn't a clue but then I don't have my finger on the pulse. (But I do have my hand on my fork!)

Is there something I can do as a food lover in response to this post?

2010 Jul 12
I'm surprised by this as well. Granted, I'm vegan, so I'm not eating any of the meats that you list, but I do enjoy trying a variety of different styles of restaurant and different cuisines. I find it amusing that your post comes on the same day that the Washington Post article about Ottawa's burgeoning restaurant scene was brought to our attention.

I'm sorry to hear that you're finding your work here frustrating, but I hope that you stick with it and give the city a chance. I've been told by friends who have done a lot of moving that it can take a full year to fully feel comfortable in and get to know a new city. Maybe that applies to getting to know a new clientèle as well?

2010 Jul 13
Well, I just came back from Korea...the "chef" at McDonald's seems pretty legit to me...

2010 Jul 13
I'm not surprised by this at all - it is always easier to blame others than to blame yourself. Most people do it most of the time.

2010 Jul 13
They can be a sensitive ,touchy bunch of ass hats
sometimes (I've met lots of them) :-)

2010 Jul 13
Is this serious?

2010 Jul 13
Chimi, I just put it through google translator to translate from taranna, and here is what I got :

"Waaaaaaaaa!!! I just came to your steenking backwater from THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE(tm). Why are you not lining up at my door? Waaaaaaaa!!!"


2010 Jul 13
I'm sorry that you feel that way about our dining scene. There are a lot of different palates to cater to here in Ottawa, some adventurous and some not, although I see no reason to believe that they're any different from the palates in Toronto. There may be fewer people but, on the whole, Ottawa is just as appreciative of its culinary scene as any other major city.

I worry that the negative attitude conveyed in your post can't possibly lead to constructive dialogue, which leads me to question why it was posted in the first place. It appears to me that you aren't interested in figuring out the issue, and finding a solution to your problem.

Ottawa Foodies caters to the clientele you would want to attract with botaraga, quail, and tropical fish. That's a powerful resource to take advantage of when trying to determine what works and what doesn't here.

Perhaps it would have been more beneficial to phrase your post in a way that leaves room for dialogue? For example:

Hi Ottawa Foodies,

I'm an executive chef at a restaurant in the Market and, after having spent several years in the Toronto food scene, I've been finding it challenging to construct the menu here the way I would have previously.

I feel that the dishes I really want to showcase (such as those involving botaraga, quail, tropical fish, etc.) may not sell well enough for me to justify keeping them on the menu.

There are several adventurous eaters in Ottawa, as this site can testify to; however, given the smaller population I fear that there may not be enough interest to be able to keep more eclectic choices on the menu. Has anybody had any experiences with more "eclectic" protein choices in Ottawa? I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on what has worked, and what hasn't.


Mystery Chef.

I, and I'm sure several others here, would be more than happy to provide you whatever advice we can, either here or outside of the forum.

2010 Jul 13
Zym - too funny!

Everyone else - stop apologizing, the g'damn Canadian politeness is killing me.

Re: Botaraga, I'm assuming he meant bottarga, which I would love to eat at a restaurant in Ottawa. So serve it, and maybe I'll show up and order it, and then I'll come on here and review your food and tell all of my bottarga starved friends (Sicilians, they're a feisty bunch) resulting in more people showing up at your establishment perhaps leading to, one day, 'funct' Chef Superstardom for you. Mass praise & worship will help your bruised T-Dot ego, resulting in lower shrink bills. This is a win-win scenario. Live the dream, man.

I need a g'damn coffee.

2010 Jul 13
Well said Momomoto. Perhaps The Mystery Chef missed a recent article in the Washington Post about our 'happening' scene?

On another note - is anyone else sick of anonymous drop-ins who leave their comments and run? If you would like to be taken more seriously, create a user name and add a photo. Getting really tired of the Hit-and-Run style of some of these posts...

Not sure where you got the impression that those types of restaurants - Sweetgrass, Murray Street, and Domus "aren't wanted". I personally have been to all of them (a few times) and they are usually quite busy - even on a week night - yes, in stodgy Ottawa - imagine that!

As a born and raised Ottawan, I take umbrage at your comments. We are proud Foodies - which is how you found us! Perhaps it's time for YOU to step up to the plate and put some good food out there instead of crying about not being able to serve what you want.

Just MY $0.02

2010 Jul 13
I'm gonna defend our poor disillusioned chef friend here. We have only recently become more of a happening scene foodwise. Food in general is becoming more creative, and to be fair most of the restaurants mentioned anywhere in the post are no more than 5-6 years old (correct me if I'm wrong). Also we have 2 Million less people than Toronto or Montreal and nowhere near the density so just using numbers we're not going to be on par with those cities.

Stay here New User 2844, I want to hear the good and the bad about ottawa's food scene.

2010 Jul 13
Momonomoto is correct I should have worded my post in that direction. It feels as though Ottawa would rather see a mushroom flatbread than creativity. I will admit many of you seem educated about food and I would love to have you as customers, but are there enough of you to really do inovative food? That's a serious question not sarcasm!

Thanks guys ( and gals) for your responses

2010 Jul 13
New User 2844 - as per my original response, I think it is just as much up to you to figure out what YOU are doing wrong. Don't blame the world for your problems - concentrate on the part of the equation you have complete control over - yourself. If what you present at your restaurant is in any way similar to your original message above - I think we've found at least part of the source of your problem.

2010 Jul 13
If there weren't people willing to shell out for different stuff, places like Zen, Atelier and Fraser wouldn't be doing very well. I've never set foot in Atelier, but I've seen the other two packed throughout the week. I'm sure they, and their staff, had to bust their asses to get where they are, but the same can be said of success in any field. Get ass busting, and if it flops, blame crab people.

2010 Jul 13
i currently live in ottawa as well as toronto and enjoy the cuisines in both cities and understand your frustn. the customer base is much different in ottawa where a majority of the city is employed by the fed govt with unionized stabler jobs + typically the cost of living increases each year. and no surprise toronto is more private sector-based and riskier and job security more exposure to market flux. hate to generalize but toronto is more multicultural, cosmo, glitz & glam; whereas, ottawa appears to be more conservative and more resistant to market swings. the average earning power is less in ottawa but they'll never be poor; whereas, riskier toronto has the potential for higher earning power but you can be shot down to zero in a snap. this also affects people's choices to dine at restaurants which has to be considered a luxury, not a necessity. i can empathize that it can a greater challenge in ottawa for a chef who fully wants to showcase their skills and imagination for the above and many more reasons that can go on and on but it's not impossible:

here's an anecdote worthy for thought: my neighbor was trained at CIA. she always argued that servers made more money with tips but were disposable in a snap of a finger and that is it is gruelling for the limited age window for young chefs as they all want to make it to executive or own their own resto. year after year she divided the salary by the hours required in the kitchen, she made less than minimum wage. as the opportunity cost is the best alternative forgone; she quickly decided to still stay in food but go with a commodity that has high margins and targeted good locations with below average commercial rent. she opened 2 second cup coffee shop franchises and honed her business skills as well as refining her personality to gear toward exemplary employee relations and customer service. no word of a lie within a short few years, her net worth grew to over a million and she's succeeding, is able to live life and raise a family. she showcases her skills with dinners through family and friends and travels 4 months each year just to learn new cuisines and new cultures.

this is just one example but it's not impossible to find some sort of niche (directly or indirectly to your culinary passions) that can assure higher business success against the local competition. and this doesn't just apply to the food industry!

2010 Jul 13
Hell you say!
I am a fellow Chef
been in the industry almost 40 years now
have cooked in Cali, SLC, Miami, Phoenix, Seattle and now in Canada

while I was a bit in culture shock when I first moved here, I have rolled with it

first off the $$ base in Ottawa is not T.dot's but does not mean the good citizens of this town do no appreciate good food

perhaps not the high falooting stuff that passes in the larger cities in the world
but good honest flavours well presented with or without pretentiousness is always appreciated

in my 10 years here in Ottawa, I found my food is appreciated once the warm up to my message; which is big strong bold flavours that leave no place to hide then when not looking I slap them with something subtle like an oyster & chive beurre blanc
lol a bit of ying and yang
perhaps if Ottawa is too backwoods to you, off to T.dot and don't look back

2010 Jul 13
Agree with much of of what is being said.

I too am a former Torontonian and in some ways really miss the adventure, diversity and enormity that is in the 416/905 areas. You can not only find anything there but you can find it in abundance. Instead of whineing that its not the T-Dot, why not explore? Five hours away and its a very different place. Each city has its own culinary identity. Get to known what is out there. Keep an eye out for niches and trends. Get to know your clientel. Yes, its a small scene but its more grass roots. The possibilities are diffiterent. There is a growing relationship between cooks and their suppliers. Farmers here seem more accessible and because it is often on a smaller scale are open to ideas and trying new things.

I think we appreciate food but I also think that you need to appreciate that perhaps your customers may have a different mindset, there is a culinary conscience that seems to be on the rise. Correct me if I am wrong but the trend seems to be moving away from exotic and far away proteins and towards, knowing where your food comes from, supporting farmers and utilizing local ingredients and in some cases heritage breeds of animals.

The success of BearBrook, Fridays Organic Burgers, the Elk Ranch and so many more meat suppliers (deer, elk, buffalo, wild boar, ostrich, emu, llama, wild turkey, ducks, geese etc.) and the rise in awareness and the number of suppliers and sellers seem to say otherwise. www.ottawafarmersmarket.ca Local cheeses are also on the rise www.ottawafarmersmarket.ca Stop sticking with the same old and reinvent yourself. Learn and grow from the experience.

2010 Jul 13
Here is a tip for you mystery chef - ditch the tropical fish completely and use something local. I dunno what it is like in taranna but here in Ottawa local food is in.

2010 Jul 13
Am I the only one who is skeptical about a ‘talented' chef who blames a town and the lack of ‘exotic’ ingredients for his apparent failures?

2010 Jul 14
Put up or shut up. If you're going to slag Ottawa diners and, by extension, the wonderful chefs that have been pushing Ottawa into the national dining scene, don't hide behind 'New User 2844'. So Toronto is a bigger city with more dining options than a city a fifth its size, colour me shocked.

I smell troll.

2010 Jul 14
I don't know enough about the restaurant scene in "the old days" (maybe pre-2005?) to say whether new and exciting things have failed because everybody thinks they're too weird, or because we're just not large enough to sustain the market, or because nobody's really tried. I'd like to hear what people's experiences or thoughts have been.

2010 Jul 14
It's partly just the size and demographics of the city. I'd also suggest Ottawa isn't given to embracing fads and the flavour of the month as quickly as other cities. As someone said above, we eat what we like. We're educated and well-travelled and aren't particularly impressed by something just because it's "new".

But I think that's all giving a bit too much credit to New User 2844. Has anyone really noticed a lack of quail in Ottawa? And, as Zym said above, is it really such a horrible thing that we're not importing fish from 2000km+ away just for the heck of it?

2010 Jul 14
As a resident of Ottawa since the 1980's the food scene here has come along way. My earliest recollections of the restaurants then focussed mostly on pub fare. During the 90's we saw a wave of food trends go through the city - British pubs came and went then sushi places came and went, etc. Although some of these restaurants continue to endure I am pleased to see our restauranteurs are expanding and now offer a variety of cuisines. My only beef and just a minor one is that we have only a few ethnic restaurants in Ottawa compared to the choices I had when living in Montreal and it's something I never really got used to. On a positive note Ottawa has access to alot of local products - locally raised meats and vegetables, locally made cheeses and breads, etc. and a number of restaurants are taking full advantage of it - kudos to them! I would be hard pressed to think of restaurants in Toronto or Montreal that do the same. Even though our culinary tastes in Ottawa have traditionally been conservative we are indeed expanding our culinary palette IMO. Change comes slowly but I am optimistic our restaurant scene will continue to grow in years to come.

2010 Jul 14

A lot of hostility to someone just speaking their mind! Why be so defensive, Ottawa?

Ottawa is a small provincial town and we are not big warm and inviting people. I understand why user 2844 feels the way he does (just read the responses to his post).

The restaurant scene is growing and many of these restaurants have well prepared food but, it is my not so humble opinion that so many of them are incredibly boring - menus that put you to sleep.

I have had a lot of good meals here, but I have not gotten really excited about any of them. Our restaurants are like our universities, 3rd tier by world standard. We do not have a French Laundry or anything even close, and I admit and accept it without resentment. That is why they invented airplanes.

Locally raised meats and vegetables are great, but does that mean we cannot enjoy foods not from here? 2844, we should invent a word for food xenophobia :)

2010 Jul 14
I am going to call you about your statement regarding Ottawa's universities. I am not too familiar with U of O, but Carleton has some internationally renowned programs. I am also quite sure U of O has distinguished itself in some fields. Exactly how are those qualified as 3rd tier universities?

I guess the warm weather is attracting the trolls....

2010 Jul 14
"I guess the warm weather is attracting the trolls..."

I am sorry, I forgot to mention name calling. Is that another local virtue?

Yan, the universities is a bit off topic and I don't wish to derail this thread, but to briefly answer your question, a few good programs does not make a university first rate. The Ivy Leagues are generally first rate, as is Stanford, Berkley etc. University of Toronto, UBC, Queens in Canada are really good 2nd tier.

2010 Jul 14
Monty, Chimi, I'll meet you under the bridge with the bacon popcorn :-)

2010 Jul 14
(I apologize in advance for the off-topic nature of this post, but ignorance has a terrible effect on my appetite)

PZind, it seems you probably haven't spent much time in any post-secondary institution. The idea of evaluating the quality of education of a particular institution as a whole rather than specifying one a particular degree is ludicrous. University fund and specialize programs in which they excel. Can you compare U of O with Carleton? Well, not if you want to go in journalism or medicine. Both these faculties are exclusive to different universities, at the local level.

Now why exactly would you rate Harvard or Stanford as far superior universities? Is it because the name rings a bell from all the times you've watch Legally Blonde and Van Wilder? Why rate UBC and U of T as 2nd tier universities, when St-Thomas in N.B. hosts one of the best B.Ed program in Canada? Why not RMC? It has a world class program on Defence Management and War Studies...

The bottom line is that there really is no way of determining the overall value of an institution as the sum of all its components. University is really what you make it to be. I have students who couldn't care less while others work contentiously and strive to learn more and get the most out of their education. Will they get less from going to a "3rd tier" university than a "conferrable C" student going to Stanford? Doubtful...

2010 Jul 15
Let's agree to disagree. This should be fun banter and you are getting nasty.

William F . Buckley once said that the politics in academics is so vicious because the stakes are so small.

Hope you get your appetite back! :)

2010 Jul 23
I 100% agree with Mystery Chef. I myself moved here from Hong Kong, where the food is more than something to just fill your stomach, and have been nothing but disappointed by the lack of delicious cuisine. Ottawa does, however, have a wide variety of ethnic food to choose from, but they often lack authenticity. The food has become very “North American” to suit the taste buds of Ottawa. The other more traditional and common choices, like steaks and pasta, are grossly over priced for the quality of food. I understand that this is a civil service city, but not everyone here is on a civil service salary.

Lastly, I did recently read the article in the Washington Post praising Ottawa’s “hip new scene.” The writer of the article was originally from Montreal, and growing up he always viewed Ottawa as a dull boring place. However, on his most recent visit, he rediscovered Ottawa. Of course Ottawa seems hip and trendy now, it’s grown and become a city with a small town feel to it, but it still fails in the culinary arts department.

2010 Jul 23
Well, shite.

I dun' apologize for our lil' city not bein' up to yer' standards. Maybe you should try the ol' Wellington Gastropub or, perhaps, Atelier, an' holler at the rest of us folks to let us know how yer food was.

Or, when in doubt, do what I do. Add fixins!


2010 Jul 23
Sorry a bit late to join in this discussion but...

I am not sure what to make of the "Mystery Chef" comments. In fairness, Ottawa has come a long way (10 years ago it was a pathetic culinary backwater), but it still isn't a foodie paradise.

It is to be expected of a "capital city" I suppose (many bureacrats = conservative tastes). Wash DC experiences the same, as do most countries I have visited.

I agree with the recommended approach (Momomoto). Sure, if I saw quail on a menu I'd try it. I might not go for tropical fish (not because it's odd), but like many foodies I am in to "local" ingredients and prefer to support my local producers (agree with Pasta Lover). Many sucessful restaurants in Ottawa (in TO and Mont as well) share this philosophy, why not try it? Food flown in from half way around the globe isn't necessarily better - that notion is a bit passe.

2010 Jul 23

that was awesome!

2010 Jul 23
Washington does have some very exciting restaurants, Mini Bar is as really exciting and fun as you can get. Zagat lists 36 restaurants with ratings of 25 plus in Washington and their list is not complete. To be fair the greater Washington DC area has over 5 million people so we don't really stand a chance.

Ottawa is not on the radar screen internationally. Opiniated About dining lists the 10 best restaurants in Canada and Ottawa does not make the list.

( www.opinionatedaboutdining.com)

The best 10 of the mid atlantic states Washington DC gets 7.

I am also a big supporter of local producers, but I still prefer more than less choice and I think that the more competition produces better selection and quality, so I encourage eating imported products as well. Food flown in from half way around the globe isn't necessarily worse either. I like my French unpasterized cheeses, even though I also eat the local ones.

Anyone manage to eat at all ten? I have done only 3, sigh....

2010 Jul 24
I never order chicken in a restaurant and rarely order beef or salmon, I would much rather order something completely different or new.

"Ottawa is a small provincial town and we are not big warm and inviting people." As someone who moved here from Montreal, I'd have to agree - people are pretty darn uptight here, but I'm not sure how that would translate to people not being adventurous with food. I've made new friends here who enjoy new and different foods as well.

Based on the comments I hear about Atelier for example, I know that there are Ottawa folks who like the different!

However, I find Ottawa is becoming a city and many do not seem to be adapting well LOL.

2010 Jul 24
Person from Toronto complains that Ottawa is not Toronto.
Person from Montreal complains that Ottawa is not Montreal.
Person from Hong Kong complains that Ottawa is not Hong Kong.

Instead of complaining about what Ottawa is not, try to spend some time to discover what Ottawa is. It has its own character. Dining options are more varied than, say, most comparably-sized American cities, and we are not swayed by shallow fashion and pretentious ego-driven swagger masquerading as cuisine. We are surrounded by tremendous producers of fresh, local ingredients and Ottawans value them. Successful and acclaimed Ottawa-based restaurants and chefs know this.

2010 Jul 24
But, we do have far, far, far, FAR too many chain restaurants that produce mediocre and overpriced food and are staffed by people who don't really care long-term whether the restaurant does well or not!

Sorry, just had to rant for a bit. All better now. :-)

2010 Jul 25
Undoubtedly true, but you could say the same about Toronto and Montreal! Ottawa is not unique to this rant.

2010 Jul 25
I just finished reading these posts ...

*hides under bed*