Think about the largest dinner party you’ve ever been to. There were probably 15, maybe 20 people. Now multiply that by 50 and you’ve got Canada’s Table—the epic 1,000-person feast coming to Ottawa next month.
Canada’s Table is the brainchild of beloved Ottawa restaurateur Stephen Beckta. Along with Executive Chef Michael Moffatt of Beckta, Play and Gezellig restaurants, and Sheila Whyte of Thyme & Again Catering, Beckta and his team are hoping to showcase the best of Canadian food and wine, as part of the city’s Canada 150 celebrations.
The event, which sold out in mere seconds, is as ambitious as it is delicious. Pair 10 of Ottawa’s top chefs with 10 of Canada’s top chefs for a once-in-a-lifetime culinary collaboration. Then, put together a 4-course meal with wine pairings that represent the different regions of Canada. And if that wasn’t enough, serve 1,000 people at the same time on a single, massive open-air table at the foot of Parliament Hill.
I spoke with Beckta and Moffatt—as well as with participating chefs Melissa Craig of the Bearfoot Bistro in Whistler BC and Matthew Krizan of the Mateus Bistro in Mahone Bay, NS—about how they intend to pull off Canada’s quintessential meal.
This seems like a really bold idea. How did it come about?
SB: The Ottawa Citizen reached out to a few people in Ottawa probably about two years ago about what they see as something great to do for Canada’s 150th anniversary. Without any time to think, I kind of blurted out that I would like to see the biggest dinner party in Canada’s history. Something really big and lavish and very fun. Something communal with chefs from across the country. I didn’t expect anything of it. Then Guy Laflamme from Ottawa 2017 called me the next day and said “Oh, I’ve been thinking about something along these lines, can we put this together?”
Is it true, Stephen, that you first had this idea in a dream?
SB: In one of my first waiter nightmares when I was 18 or 19 years old, I had this vision that the entire (Byward) Market was my section. There were tables lined up and down the streets. I’m running around and serving as quickly as possible and realizing I forgot to serve water to the person on William Street. So this picture in my head of these super long tables going down the street might have started from there. This dinner is one of the signature events celebrating Canada’s 150th birthday.
What role does food play in shaping who we are as a nation?
MM: Food is integral to life. As far as the history of Canada goes, it’s pretty intertwined. We learned a lot from the native populations when we got here. 150 years ago, settlers weren’t going to Sobeys to buy lunch. Everything was either taken from the ground or organically harvested. Now we’re sort of looking back at all these products that grew here natively. The idea that we’re now going back to some of those things is kind of a nod to our past.
Can you tell me about the menu for the big day?
MM: Stylistically, I can say that it will be pretty refined outdoor eating. We’re trying to represent all the provinces and territories as much as we can. It’s actually 20 dishes being served from five regions—four dishes per region.
What’s it like to be able to work with some of country’s top chefs on a meal that represents Canada?
MK: I can’t emphasize enough what an honour it is. There are so many talented chefs in Canada, so to be able to represent my region is a huge honour. It really pulls at my heartstrings, being an immigrant. We moved here in 1979 from Czechoslovakia, so it really speaks to how Canada brings together different cultures. That’s the beauty of living in a country like this.
Melissa, walk me through the thought-process behind choosing your ingredients. Where do you even begin?
MC: I grew up on the West Coast, so I’d like to find the most unusual local ingredients that are specific to the West Coast—like black cod. I’m definitely looking to seafood and to other seasonal ingredients. I’d like to represent BC as best I can.
How about you, Matthew? What is it from the East Coast that you hope to bring to the table?
MK: I hope to highlight a lot of my local suppliers—scallops, mussels, lobsters. I’m already talking to my suppliers about putting away 200 pounds of lobster for me.
That’s a lot of lobster.
MK: It is. If I’m sending 200 pounds of lobster by cargo, it could get bumped. That’s my biggest nightmare.
There’s a big role here for Ottawa—half the chefs are from local restaurants. What does this event mean for the city’s culinary scene?
SB: I think Ottawa has a bad rap as the city that fun forgot. So more than anything, it will allow us to shine on a national level. It will help rebrand the city as a city of really fun and interesting culinary adventures. The city has already been approached by many different BIAs in different areas around Ottawa wanting to jump on board and do their own Canada’s Table on a smaller scale. So it’s created a bit of a movement.
What’s it mean to you to be a part of the country’s 150th anniversary celebrations in such a unique way?
MC: I feel privileged. Canada has come a long way in the culinary world, so it’s a great way to celebrate the talent and the ingredients that Canada has to offer—from farming to fishing. It’s a great honour to get to work with so many talented chefs. It’s a little daunting, actually.
What do you want your guests to get out of this?
SB: It’s about the great idea of togetherness. It’s about sharing a really spectacular meal in a great setting with a beautiful backdrop. Just to be able to share a meal with 1,000 people is a once-in-a-lifetime experience they can tell their kids and grandkids about.