The revitalization of the National Arts Centre (NAC) is one of Ottawa’s most exciting cultural transformations. Bringing new life and light into this venerable building is a welcome complement to the innovative programming changes, which are also helping to modernize the NAC. At the same time, recently-appointed Executive Chef Kenton Leier is carefully making his mark on the centre’s food offerings, refreshing the menus to reflect his fondness for seasonal ingredients and Canadian influences.
How does it feel to be cooking in such a prestigious venue? The timing was right for me to make a change and this opportunity feels really exiting. I knew a bit about the history of the NAC, especially in the glory years under Kurt Waldele, so it is a great honour to now play a role here. The NAC feels special; it’s quite different than a hotel environment and the corporate culinary world. Food service here is one artistic department in a building full of artists.
As you work to update the menus, what are your objectives? I’m excited to continue building on the focus on Canadian ingredients and dishes that my predecessors started. I also think it could be fun as a team to look at some of the dishes that were on the menu during Kurt’s time and revive them in a modernized way. When I was at the Westin we focused on adding healthy, lighter items to the menu and balancing the emphasis on protein – I’d like to do that here as well.
Do you feel it’s possible to create a menu that is reflective of the building itself? Absolutely! The décor of the NAC is a bit minimalist and to me that means really good simple dishes with fewer components which really lets the ingredients shine. I want to highlight fresh, Canadian elements so people get a sense of place. Of course we are always mindful of our clientele’s tastes so we won’t change some of the most popular dishes, except perhaps to refresh the presentation.
How will the artistic programming of the NAC influence what you do? The NAC is a very collaborative place and
there is a lot of crossover of ideas between departments. The range of performances here has an increasingly broad demographic appeal, and we want to be sure that the food offerings do as well. I’d like to look at creating some special menus, like this fall’s Nordic table d’hôte, or dishes themed to current shows. We’ve tried that with our Casual Fridays offerings and it’s been very popular.
You have a lot of experience with special events. What are you doing differently at the NAC? Events are something I have a lot of fun with – for me they are a chance to elevate dishes and add more elements to create unusual, appealing plates. At the NAC we host a lot of VIPs so that will be enjoyable. We also have several new spaces created during the renovation including the two beautiful rooms in the spectacular glass-walled Kipnes Lantern. I am eager to work with clients to create dishes especially tailored to those environments to help make their events particularly memorable.
What other changes do you have planned to Le Café? We have new kitchen equipment in place to support our quest for excellence. We’ve also purchased new dishes, cutlery and serving pieces to freshen things up and we’re looking to install some rooftop beehives. In addition, we will be renovating and renaming the restaurant in the near future as part of our rebranding efforts.
What do you enjoy most about working at the NAC? I appreciate having the freedom to play around because artistic expression is more important here than the bottom line. It’s what truly appealed to me about his job – the ethic of the NAC is not about making money – it’s about delivering artistic excellence in all aspects of the operation. It’s a really different mindset and very inspiring.