Grand-scale food events have become very popular lately. Look at the number of people who attend Bon Appetit, Feast of Fields, and Gold Medal Plates. And it would seem our appetite for grazing and star-gazing knows no bounds. On paper at least, the recipe for success is simple: take a bunch of people, bring them close to chefs making great food, and let them wander around taking little tastes of everything. We can fill up and feel good because the money goes to a good cause.
After attending several of these spectacles, I am beginning to observe some interesting patterns. Guests seem to spend most of their time waiting in line, there are never places to sit, and one ends up being exposed to some of the rawest elements of human nature. People run from station to station trying to gulp down their fill — or perhaps their money’s worth — often without the help of proper cutlery. Meanwhile, it appears to be no picnic for the chefs, either, who are expected to mass-produce complicated dishes using strange and mobile kitchen equipment. Snatching up food, balancing plates, napkins, and refillable glasses while eating in transit — such behaviour runs contrary to the sensibilities of any self-respecting foodie under normal circumstances. This is the stuff of buffets and fast food. It is also the stuff of food television.
Which brings me to The Canadian Celebrity Chefs Event that took place last week. The brainchild of Michael Blackie, the chef of the National Arts Centre, this full-day extravaganza promised something different: eight celebrated chefs from across Canada were paired with eight of Blackie’s favourite homegrown talents to create culinary magic together. The public (me included) paid between $75 and $175 to be a part of this meeting of culinary minds. Some big people were there: chefs like Brad Long and Anthony Walsh from Toronto. The Food Network, a sponsor, sent along the Thirsty Traveler, Kevin Brauch, to add extra star power to the event.
With all that has been written about the event since last Monday, little has been said about the food. And I know why. For me, it is unforgivable to invite hundreds of people to a full-day food event and give them little to eat. But that’s what happened. With nothing but a cup of coffee until noon, word came that there was indeed lunch. Visions of Blackie’s famous take on General Tso chicken, a sushi station, fresh salads, danced in my head. Instead we got some snack-sized sandwiches (some of which were greasy, others fishy) and some petits fours. Oh, and water.
Do you know how it feels to sit in stadium seating for nine hours smelling caramelized shallots and seared pork belly? At one point, I couldn’t take it any longer. I found myself sneaking out between demos and pleading with a server at the NAC Café (which was closed for a private function) to let me in the green room to buy some M&Ms from the vending machine. Thank goodness for the toonie in my pocket, I may not have made it until dusk.
When the reception time came, I was in for an even bigger disappointment: the food was overwhelmingly terrible and terribly overwhelming. I realize it is politically incorrect to say so — after all, these are our nation’s top culinary talents, right? Well perhaps it might have paid for these fine cooks to actually taste their dishes before demonstrating and serving it to 700 people. Watching Atelier’s Marc Lepine tasting his own dish for the first time during the morning demonstration, I was tipped off to what was coming: even he seemed unimpressed. How should we feel? The audience was told repeatedly that the chefs had only met the night before and these dishes were conceived a month earlier over the phone, by email, by facebook. And it showed.
Which brings me to my final point: did anyone think about what the experience would be like for us eaters? Eight different dishes, six of them seafood-based, all main courses and all equally complex. How about bison hash or ravioli? How about lobster or sweetbreads? Instead it felt like a fusion of every item ever featured on Iron Chef all at once. We were served oysters, scallops, lobster, pickerel, mussels, squab, foie gras, bone marrow, bacon fat, bacon foam, bacon hollandaise; roasted garlic; risotto, ravioli… you get the idea.
What a shame. All that extraordinary talent, all those beautiful ingredients, and it all added up to a meal from hell.
In the aftermath of the event, I’ve come to realize most food events aspire to offer us an extension of what we consume on TV: the kitchen as spectacle and the chef as superstar. Drawing us out of our yoga pants from in front of our TVs and into Ottawa’s own Kitchen Stadium, the Celeb Chef Event inadvertently developed the premise for a new reality show: one where you starve people all day while dangling beautiful food in front of them before giving in and letting them gorge to their heart’s content.
It makes me wonder if it wouldn’t have been better to stay at home watching back-to-back episodes of Iron Chef; at least there I can get up and go to the fridge when I’m hungry.