IN DIGESTION: Does context matter? Musing over Martin Picard’s sugar shack dinner at Sala San Marco
City Bites

IN DIGESTION: Does context matter? Musing over Martin Picard’s sugar shack dinner at Sala San Marco

Joan Culliton, Producer of the Ottawa Wine & Food Festival thanks Martin Picard and his team for "making her dream come true" and bringing the sugar shack experience to Ottawa.

When the folks at the Ottawa Wine & Food Festival announced, with little fanfare, that they had scored “rebel chef” Martin Picard for the opening “pop–up” event, I was impressed, excited…and terrified.

I was impressed that the celebrity chef-owner of the Au Pied de Cochon Sugar Shack was willing to do an event in the capital after foie gras protests led to the cancellation of his guest appearance at Winterlude in 2010. I was excited that I could finally experience some of what I’d heard and read about, including the drool-worthy recipes that circulated when his Sugar Shack book was released. And terrified that the essence of it would be lost in translation upon exporting Picard’s maple feast to Ottawa.

Would plucking something so unique out of its context create something as removed from the original as Aunt Jemima syrup is from real maple syrup? What large venue could come even close to creating the traditional, rustic feel of a genuine sugar shack? And would the capital’s more conservative dining public embrace the gluttony and decadence of an APDC meal or take one look at their deep-fried foie gras amuse-bouche and grab their MEC fleece jackets and run for the hills? In short: would it suck?

The clash of two worlds: The Sala San Marco ballroom and Au Pied de Cochon

When the “pop up” venue was announced a few days before the event, my friend texted me with the news: “Sala San Marco. Hilarious!!!!” The 8,000-square-foot formal ballroom of the Sala San Marco on Preston Street couldn’t be further in spirit from the ambiance of Picard’s Quebec sugar shack, where long wooden picnic tables of rowdy folks are fed family-style by hip young servers in Adidas jackets and sneakers. Even the owner of the Ottawa venue seemed shocked that it was chosen — and so last-minute that one imagines another venue might have fallen through.

The room, set up to seat 400 guests at tables of 10, was basically a windowless rectangle with shimmering crystal chandeliers and faux Ionic columns; servers were sporting black vests and bowties; black linens covered metal-legged tables while white cloth napkins poked out of tacky stemware. In short, no effort was made to make the room look anything other than the generic backdrop it is; a space used for government functions and corporate banquets.

Each course was served "family style," which meant fighting over the ears and the brains of our little piggy.

But you know what? Once the food began to arrive, the surroundings seemed to disappear. In fact, the disconnect between what we were eating and where we were eating it — and with whom — struck me as strangely fitting for Picard’s surreal oeuvre. It’s all about the contradictions, the incongruous elements — loud and bawdy fine dining, grandma’s recipes tantalizing top gourmands, the clash of the decadent and down-home. Who could have imagined sexy, trendy Québécois cuisine — suddenly worthy of global attention? Or how it tastes to eat a meal in which maple syrup gets integrated into everything, even savoury dishes, without dampening a desire for dessert — or four of them.

One of the wildest dishes of the night, cabbage stuffed with pork and foie gras served with polenta and lobster bisque.

How does he do that? How has Picard turned fattened duck liver into an ingredient as ubiquitous as butter, or tossed like glistening croutons into a soup? And how has he made seamless the total bad-boy attitude with absolute and rigorous attention to detail? It’s awesome to experience. And it catapulted this dinner to one of the best meals I have had in years.

As I sat back for a moment to watch the strangers at my table hacking away at the skull of a pig, pulling off its crispy-skinned cheeks, gnawing on an ear and devouring the brain (there was a sauce for that) — something very primal was happening in the room. That is what struck me most and left me reeling ever since the dinner last week. It was the feeling of being swept away and experiencing food in new ways. And isn’t that a wonderful reason to dine out?

It boils down to this: eating in a world designed by Martin Picard means abolishing the words guilty pleasure. There is just one word: pleasure. And he delivered it in spades.

My beloved cranberry citrus cheesecake with maple nut crust topped with maple Italian meringue (before the doggie bag/plates).

By the end of the evening, 12 courses later, I felt strangely attached my table’s head server, a burly man with a long ponytail. Like me, he had never seen food quite like this before. It felt like we had been through an life experience together — the way people who go on a canoe trip feel a bond by the end. When he saw me looking longingly at the leftover cheesecake, sad because I was too full to eat it — he snuck two Styrofoam plates from the kitchen and told me to go ahead and take it home.

Eating it for breakfast the next morning, I noticed that I didn’t feel the slightest bit guilty.