Eating & Drinking

BACK IN BLACK: The founders of the Harvest Noir picnic chat about the delights and the challenges of the event

Greg Searle and Samantha Biron prepare to host the city’s second annual Harvest Noir, an autumn picnic to be held at a location that remains secret until the very last minute. Once there, elegantly attired participants dine on local and seasonally inspired creations, parade in public, and dance in the fields  BY MATT HARRISON

Photography by Jonathan Hobin. Samantha Biron is wearing a fascinator by Chapeaux de Madeleine and a gown by Sukhoo Sukhoo
How did the idea to create Harvest Noir come about?
Samantha Biron: We were visiting Montreal in August 2011, and I looked out of the window of our hotel room to discover a diner en blancbeing held in a nearby park. Everyone was dressed in white and eating an elegant meal. We thought, Wouldn’t it be great to bring something like this to Ottawa, but with a different theme and a bit of a twist?
Some 760 tickets were sold for last year’s event, held at the Canadian Museum of Civilization. Were you surprised by the instant success?
SB:I was, because I’m a skeptic. To be honest, I wasn’t completely sure Ottawa was ready for something like this.
What made you think that?
SB: This city is very conservative. We haven’t shown ourselves to be very adventurous in the past. We like to know that something is established before we’re willing to support it. But clearly I was wrong. Ottawa is ready for this.

But not for every element of Harvest Noir. Last year the DJ’s set was hijacked by requests to play more mainstream Top 40 during the dance portion of the evening.
Greg Searle: That’s right. At one point, the stage was stormed by guests requesting music by Shania Twain and Michael Jackson.

Did that affect your vision for Harvest Noir?
SB: For this year’s event, we’ve made plans to accommodate both groups of listeners.

Why the secrecy as an element of Harvest Noir? 
GS: Harvest Noir is similar to a flash mob. It’s meant to create surprise and be culturally disruptive — in a good way. We feel it’s important to create surprise, because as adults, it’s something that we don’t experience as often.

Participants must dress all in black. Are you worried that spectators will confuse the event with a funeral?
GS: I think the top hats, tails, fascinators, and overall extravagance of the clothing differentiate Harvest Noir from other events.

SB: We chose black because it is more accessible, since most people don’t own white suits.

In most European cities where similar types of events have taken place, guests take their own alcohol. Not so in Ottawa. Last year guests had to buy alcohol from the restaurant at the museum, which wasn’t cheap. 
GS: Having alcohol for sale wasn’t our first choice, but it was simply not possible to include it in any other way. Moreover, it was difficult to find a location that would serve alcohol without catering, because most large public venues in Ottawa have exclusive arrangements with caterers. This year we’re setting up our own cash bar service that will sell bottles of fine wine at the picnic at a lower cost to try to meet our guests’ needs. Unfortunately BYOB is not an option again this year.

Why the emphasis on local and seasonal food? 
GS: I think we’ve grown accustomed to eating industrially formed food from faraway places, losing our connection to the hard-working farmers who produce healthy, fresh food on nearby farms. Plus, people now spend less time eating together. The whole tradition of having a picnic, preparing your own food, selecting local and seasonal ingredients has somewhat diminished. I thought this event would be a great way to bring many of these elements together again.

Without giving away any of the surprises, is there anything you can reveal about this year’s event?
GS: Barring inclement weather, we will parade through Ottawa’s streets.

SB: Our goal is to create an even more magical experience.

For more information about this year’s Harvest Noir, visit