In this web exclusive, OTTAWA MAGAZINE editor Dayanti Karunaratne chats with Essence Catering Chef Jason Laurin about his menu for our April wedding feature, the life of a chef, and the allure of the standing meal.
For photos and details of the menu of braised beef short ribs, roasted beet and pear canapés, and dark chocolate pots de crème, as well as more great Ottawa wedding sources, check out this page.
Ottawa Mag: Tell me about your inspiration for this menu. Let’s start with the phyllo canapés.
Jason Laurin: The inspiratioan was just to come up with something we have in abundance. We’re on Parkdale, and I’ve been an avid support of the Parkdale Market forever — we have a lot of beets down there, and it pairs well with goat cheese. So in that you have a local product that’s visually appealing, that’s available year round. Plus, I’m always trying to come up with vegan and vegetarian bites. In Ottawa we have a lot of the population that would eat vegetarian most of the time if they could.
OM: And the beef short ribs?
JL: That’s the larger bite. You know, when we first started out it was either canapés or dinner parties. Along the way, people started to do more standing meals. To do it all in canapés is pretty difficult. We started translating plates of food into a Cosmo cup. And I don’t know anyone who eats meat that doesn’t like beef short ribs — the parsnip offers an interesting starch.
Menus are often about maximizing the product to the customer, in a format that’s portable and is also easy on the kitchen staff. The braised short ribs have a high taste impact — those cups come back licked clean!
OM: And the dessert, sounds amazing. Is this a favourite of yours?
JL: Well, we won a chocolate competition with that one! People want something interesting. I grew up in the 70s, when pudding was a pretty common dessert. This is an an adult verion of Bill Cosby’s pudding. It has such a nice mouth-feel — crunchy, sweet, with a bit of acidity.
OM: How do you approach the process of building a menu?
JL: Everything is done via consult with the client, but I do have menu standards. Very rarely do we have a kitchen, so we start by looking at the event site to get a sense of what we can accomplish. The crew — that is, the budget — dictates the time we can put into each component without creating line-ups, cold items, wait times … mensu are a lot about logistics.
And balance — if we go for the short ribs, we can spend more time on canapés. And there are always going to be some vegetarian items.
OM: How do you make guests feel comfortable to actually eat and enjoy the food?
JL: I’m really, really fortunate that my service staff have been with me a long time. Some have been with me since the first day and they know how to use tongue-in-cheek names, explaining everything that’s in it. They have a disarming quality — I would make an awful server — not cajoling, but breaking down the barriers that people can put up when offered good food. And when we bring a new bite, they always taste it.
OM: I understand you have also worked as a restaurant chef. What is about catering that appeals to you?
JL: I started working in kitchens in 1990 in Montreal and Toronto when I was in university. My former mother-in-law suggested the cooking thing — it was something I was good at. So I worked my way up from prep to line to sous chef, then took a hotel restaurant course in Dallas. But my wife at the time really needed to get out of Texas, so we came back to Canada. We didn’t want to move to Montreal or Toronto, so we split the difference and settled in Ottawa. I went on to Le Condon Bleu and worked at some restaurants, but found there was a big difference between here and the United States, and wasn’t able to find a way to make the restaurant business work in Ottawa, so Essence was born. We do one thing, and we do it well: we do receptions.
OM: What advice would you give for a rookie in the catering business?
JL: It’s really tough. It’s taken me nine years and I’m finally only making a living now. And that’s because my segment of the market is narrow. So I would say ‘narrow your focus. Choose a segment that’s important to you, and be the best at it.’