The Usual Suspects
Reality TV may paint the restaurant industry as full of egos and rife with gladiator-style rivalries, but in Ottawa, the industry seems to be defined by collaboration and camaraderie. Even so, slim profit margins and long hours often define the business. How do small local restaurants give back to their communities?
Look around on any given week in the capital region and there’s likely a collaborative event or two to be found. There are pop-up dinners in spaces that aren’t restaurants, or chefs popping up in restaurants that aren’t theirs. There are wine tastings and beer pairings, pasta classes, night brunches and events that feature a whole neighbourhood. It may be to support a chef who’s gone out of town to compete, or to support an agriculture producer who’s had a rough season. Whatever it is, the goal tends to be good food twinned with a good cause. Look a little closer and chefs’ names will likely start becoming familiar; these are some of the usual suspects.
As a capital city with a small-town feel, it’s not surprising that the region’s restaurant community would be especially tight knit. “It might be the usual suspects,” Marysol Foucault explains, “because we know that we have fun together.”
For Foucault, owner and chef at the small-but-mighty Edgar in Gatineau, collaborative events often don’t feel like work; it’s a treat to see other chefs at work and to get creative with peers in the business. As for putting in more time to work these events — after six days a week of running Edgar’s small kitchen and powering through legendary brunch services — she says it’s all about giving back what she can. “We’re not rich people, right? We’re cooks. If you have visibility, you need to use that. And for me, the best way to use that is for charity, to raise awareness.”
Foucault has given herself a goal to donate her time to a few of these events every year, but says that she can’t say no when a cause really touches her heart: cancer research, women’s shelters and helping kids, among other worthy causes. For the past two years, Foucault has been among the chefs cooking for the Night Brunch at the Bridgehead Roastery where proceeds go to the Ottawa School Breakfast Program. “I wasn’t fortunate as a kid, so something like a breakfast program — I probably would have loved that,” she explains. For chefs who are looking to make a difference, but don’t know where to start, she suggests starting small and working to help causes that resonate with you.
Patrick Garland, owner of Absinthe in Hintonburg, is also a proponent of using his visibility and connections as a chef to help his community. Though it requires careful budgeting, Garland believes participating in this kind of culinary philanthropy is a no-brainer: it’s the best kind of publicity. “If you want to do business in your neighbourhood, it’s a collaborative thing — you have to go around and make noise and jump around and get noticed. What better way [to do that] than to share your good fortune with people?”
Last spring, Absinthe was one of the many restaurants at an event to introduce the Westboro neighbourhood to Cornerstone Housing for Women, which will soon offer supportive housing for women in the space that was formerly the Institut Jeanne D’Arc. Garland says there seemed to be some trepidation among local residents about the building’s transformation and repurposing, so several businesses stepped up to properly showcase the space and its mission. This time, it wasn’t just the usual suspects who helped out, according to Garland, “which was really cool.” He was pleased to see new people participating, and for Garland, this showed how the restaurant scene is evolving in Ottawa: More businesses are conscious of their role in the community and are keen to step up. On top of doing good, Garland points out that these occasions allow them to be surrounded by like-minded people, good food and good drink. It’s a win for all involved.
“It gives you the warm and fuzzies,” Garland says, and then chuckles and reconsiders: “It buys you a
few years out of purgatory… it feels good to do nice things for people.”
At Union Local 613, co-owner Ivan Gedz knew that corporate social responsibility was going to be a core value of the business from the beginning. Union supports a variety of charities and events, but its main partnership over the years has been with the Ottawa Food Bank.
Its yearly anniversary party, Street Food for the Food Bank, features guest chefs’ takes on street food. Union’s staff volunteers for the evening, and though Gedz offers to cover food costs for the visiting chefs, more often than not, the guest restaurants donate their time and ingredients to the fundraising event. Generally, Gedz says, the response to putting out the call for visiting chefs is overwhelming many chefs return year after year to help.
Gedz sees a strong tie between a lot of the indie restaurant owners and chefs in the city; many of them cut their teeth in the industry together and have had careers that overlapped around the city. “The community exists not just during these collaborations, but we’re all friends outside of work. There’s a tremendous amount of respect.”
Never one to shy away from speaking his mind, Gedz’s advice for restaurateurs keen to be involved in their communities? “Be overt about it.” Everyone may want to be the anonymous donor, being altruistic without seeking acknowledgement, but small shops should take advantage of the recognition to promote themselves, he says. It’s a boost for the benefiting charity or cause and the restaurant.
Being overt about this kind of generosity also helps to get other business owners on board. Rob McIsaac, co-owner of Beyond the Pale Brewing Company, says the brewery is limited in its community involvement only by its production capacity and a small team. McIsaac credits Gedz with leading by example. “We may be low on bandwidth, but when Ivan’s supporting good causes, I respect his judgement and want to get into it.”
Since Beyond the Pale began brewing its now flagship beer Pink Fuzz, a grapefruit wheat ale, the brewery has been donating zested grapefruits (affectionately referred to as “naked” grapefruits) to the Parkdale Food Centre nearby, which continues to be the brewery’s main beneficiary. Though it can’t keep up with all the requests to help out, its beer can be spotted at events around town. “If we can get enough beer out, we’ll do it,” McIsaac says, “we live and work here. We want to contribute to our community.”
Like Beyond the Pale, these chefs aren’t able to donate their time each time they’re asked — Foucault says she's had to learn to be better at saying no, while Gedz says he sees chefs and artists being treated similarly by being asked to do things “for exposure.” Despite this, there are growing networks of chefs and business owners who are quick to support each other and their wider communities. “It gives you the warm and fuzzies,” Garland says, and then chuckles and reconsiders: “It buys you a few years out of purgatory… it feels good to do nice things for people.” With this crew, it tastes pretty good, too.