“My food is for everyone,” says Warren Sutherland, the mastermind behind Elgin Street’s cool new pizzeria-with-a-twist, Slice & Co (located at 399 Elgin St.).
During an interview with the former fine-dining chef, I realize Sutherland is turning the notion of good food for the masses on its head. He knows fine dining (even casual fine dining) is out of reach — in terms of cost, interest and comfort level — for a good percentage of the population.
But he says that doesn’t mean people should have to choose between privileged “chef food” and crap.
He could probably care less if his customers could tell the difference between a sea urchin and a sunchoke — the foodie crowd has plenty of dining options in town today. He’s here to stand up for mainstream eaters. But even those who don’t (and wouldn’t want to) call themselves “foodies” can appreciate good quality, thoughtfully prepared everyday food.
And that’s where Sutherland and Slice & Co. aims to raise the bar.
It’s the same driving force that underlies Sutherland’s other downtown restaurant, The Smoque Shack (he’s also a partner in Westboro’s artisan butcher shop, The Piggy Market). People can spend the same amount of money on dinner at a pub or Swiss Chalet or the Outback, but Sutherland’s stellar pan-cultural barbecue menu at The Smoque Shack is quietly proving that mainstream food can also deliver quality ingredients, complex flavours and textures, and attention to detail, without having to turn everyone into a breathless foodie.
Smoque Shack customers might be more concerned with the hockey score and the contents of their frosted mugs than the balance of flavours in the warm coffee barbecue sauce on their brisket sandwiches, but Sutherland is convinced they’ll notice the flatness of the bottled sauce at Montana’s the next time they hit the strip-mall circuit.
And that’s where the shift begins. Taste better food and then crap is no longer good enough.
He calls it: “palate education.”
It starts with foods that almost everyone already loves and treats it like it matters. From there, the chef uses his creative license to get playful with style: taking us beyond the goopy Ottawa-style corner joint and the nouveau-trendy thin-crust pizzerias that so far define the city’s pie scene.
Slice’s menu offers four types of crusts inspired by pizza traditions in Italy, New York, California, and Chicago.
Sutherland says he uses them as guides rather than rules; always seeing the dough as a vehicle for delivering great toppings. He uses local mushrooms and premium 28% M. F. Canadian mozzarella instead of the lower-fat (maximum 21%) cheaper cheese we’re accustomed to seeing in the form of thick chewy blankets suffocating the pizzas around town.
Will the foodies call him out with complaints about authenticity? Of course. Everyone who travels has his or her own taste memory of the ultimate Margherita in Naples or the butter-drenched deep-dish crust in Chicago or the stiff-yet-floppy perfection of a folded pepperoni slice from a Brooklyn joint.
In some ways his pizza menu is a perfect reflection of Canada’s capital — it’s balanced and offers something for every taste and preference. But at the same time it opens Sutherland up to endless criticism. Thankfully it’s one of the risks he seems willing to take in his quest to expand the minds and palates of the bulk of Ottawa eaters.