When it comes to food, evolution is usually a good thing. It typically stems from both experience and learning and offers us new ways to prepare meals that are healthier and tastier. Three of Ottawa’s long-serving food professionals sat down with Ottawa At Home to share their reflections on how things have changed and why they feel we’re eating so well now.
Beau’s All Natural Brewing Company
Bruce Wood’s impressive culinary resumé spans several decades and a lot of geography. Much of his career has been spent in Ottawa, cooking in places as diverse as Maxwell’s, the Marble Works, Trattoria Zingaro, Mariposa Farm, the Urban Element and more. Now, he’s the resident chef at Beau’s All Natural Brewing Company, crafting delicious, seasonally inspired recipes that incorporate and complement the award-winning craft beer.
Bruce says that having such a diverse career - which has also included teaching in Algonquin’s culinary program - has continuously refuelled his passion for cooking. “I’ve been fortunate to gain a great depth of hands-on experience. My initial training was classic French – very structured. I did the buckets of cream and butter thing in the beginning and loved all those ridiculously rich sauces, but I’m glad to have moved past that. Now I tend to favour mustards, beer and yogurt for my sauces.”
He adds that it’s been interesting to watch the shift towards lighter, fresher fare, but takes care to prepare a menu that still offers huge flavour. “In place of those rich sauces of the past, now I would tend to sear the meat and use wild mushrooms and just a touch of veal stock to punch it up. My sides are lighter too; I’d serve a polenta or barley risotto instead of old-school whipped potatoes with butter.”
Bruce cites more reasonable portion sizes as another example of how things have changed for the better. “We’re putting a lot more vegetables on our plates and people are now looking for a smaller bit of excellent meat, expertly prepared.”
In addition to being a vocal advocate for local produce, Bruce also favours ethically sourced meats and sustainable fish. “As people become more knowledgeable about food and respectful of what producers and chefs are trying to achieve, there is an increased awareness that there is a premium to pay for quality food and that eating with the seasons is really important.”
Bruce is excited by the wealth of young talent in Ottawa’s kitchens today. “There are some great young chefs doing fantastic things now, like Katie Ardington at Beckta, Natali Harea of Nat’s Bread and Cody Starr at the Rex, to name just a few. It’s been fun to watch their progress since I taught them at Algonquin and I think the future is very promising for diners here. There’s a lot of good stuff happening.”
Trillium Cooking School
Pam Collacott has had a diverse career in the food industry which has included teaching both locally and internationally, working as a food stylist, and many years serving as a food journalist, recipe developer and cookbook author. A passionate proponent of teaching the basics of good cooking as an essential life skill, she is well-known in the Ottawa area for her frequent television appearances, as well as for the popular Trillium Cooking School that she ran with her husband Reed for decades out of their North Gower home.
Growing up in Windsor, Ont., Pam developed an appreciation for healthy, farm-fresh food, enjoyed in season at its flavour peak. “If you appreciate the taste of really good fresh food, it’s easy to decrease salt consumption. People are now realizing that spices such as coarsely ground black pepper, herbs such as basil and cilantro, and condiments such as hot sauce, and flavoured mustards and vinegars can easily replace the flavour of salt.”
She has shifted to working primarily with butter and oils such as olive and canola, as well as baking with decreased fat and sugar. But the taste change is barely noticeable, and she adds butter to savoury dishes at the end so that the rich flavour is right on top. Pam also notes a move away from former popular staples such as white flour, white rice and pasta.
“I like to emphasize more vegetarian fare, as well as whole grains and brown rice – trying new grains in different combinations. Dishes from other countries are delicious and much easier to prepare now that ethnic ingredients are so readily available in Ottawa. When I first started making quesadillas, for example, I had to make my own flour tortillas. Needless to say, they were a special- occasion treat back then!”
Pam welcomes the fact that the majority of our region’s successful restaurants are also taking a simpler, yet varied approach to food. “When I go to a restaurant now, I want interesting food and a bit different than what I cook at home – maybe it’s fancier, maybe it’s a different cuisine that I want to explore.” She’s grateful there are lots of delicious options in Ottawa that fit the bill.
C’est Bon Cooking
Known by many in our region for his exceptional work in the kitchens of Café Henry Burger and Laurier sur Montcalm, not to mention his deft hand at the Wakefield Mill Inn and Café du Musée, Chef Georges Laurier has had an illustrious culinary career spanning more than 30 years. Today, he is the new co-owner and executive chef of Ottawa’s C’est Bon Cooking, offering culinary classes, gourmet food tours and chef consulting services.
Georges says that the popularization of new ingredients has been one of the biggest changes he’s experienced. “Our tastebuds are constantly evolving and the availability of products like quinoa, for example, have opened up new possibilities, some of which are also helping address the prevalence of food intolerances I need to consider as I try to make menus as inclusive as possible today.”
Despite the fact that exotic ingredients from all around the globe are more accessible than ever in our region, Georges remains philosophically a very regional-based chef. “I am pleased to acknowledge the cultural influences around us but at the same time, working with local ingredients as much as possible helps ensure that the well-being of our planet is respected while preparing good food.”
In the past, Georges explains he used to pay a huge premium for heirloom vegetables, but has seen a big improvement in the variety and quality of local ingredients over his career. He also says that diners are much savvier and as many more people are interested in gourmet cooking at home, there is a greater understanding of the difference quality makes.
“Of course there has been a shift towards healthier cooking as well,” he adds. “I now rely more on olive oil instead of cream and butter, as well as flavour enhancers like dried mushrooms and fresh herbs rather than salt. I love wild ingredients like Labrador tea and have been learning about other quintessentially Canadian ingredients that have been traditionally used for so long.”
As for the Ottawa restaurant scene, Georges notes that it has evolved dramatically and is more energized. “We had lots of classic French restaurants on the Quebec side; very few remain today. I see chefs at the gastropub-style places in Ottawa doing amazing things, such as poutine with spaetzle. They’re merging classical dishes with contemporary Canadian flavours in bold and exciting ways.”