Ottawa residents are privileged by the rich cultural culinary landscape and all it has to offer. Mexican, sushi, Mediterranean, and of course, shawarma, are typically all available in Ottawa’s various neighborhoods. However, while great food is right around the corner, we all have our special recipes that we can’t wait to show off to friends, or recipes that have been in our families for decades that we attempt to master and make our own. The growing foodie movement, as well as the inevitable food porn found plastered all over the Web, has sparked an interest in amateur cooks to have fun in the kitchen and create dishes that reflect their personalities.
Donna Henhoeffer knows a thing or two about food. After running a catering company for ten years, she created Taboo Eats in order to “expose non-chefs, amateur cooks, and their best recipes”. This fall, she launched My Neighborhood Bites, to promote amateur cooks and their creative dishes. The event is “for anyone that is a cook, oven-lover, foodie, or someone who has great recipes,” says Donna. “I really want a mix of people from different backgrounds, and dishes that really reflect either old recipes or new creative ones.”
My Neighborhood Bites is a series of events running from December 15th to May in neighborhoods around the city. Cooks – any cooks! – can apply, then will be chosen for the competition at a tasting event. Selected cooks will then be asked to prepare their dishes for the main neighbourhood event, where attendees will be asked to vote for their favorite dish. The winner of that neighborhood will then move on to participate in the final cook-off at the end of May. While the prizes for the winner or winners have not yet been finalized, Donna can confirm that the recipes included in the finale will be made into a cookbook available to all. “I’ve seen so many people come and go over the years, and there are so many great recipes out there,” she said. “I want to give an outlet to people to expose themselves and their dishes.”
The event also differs from traditional culinary experiences in the way that Donna distinctively reaches out to two markets: cooks and foodies. “The cooks have the opportunity to blend the action in the kitchen and the interaction with the public, which gives the diner the experience to meet the person who actually cooked the dish,” she explains. “People eat out all the time, so we wanted to make the event an interactive, entertaining dining experience.”
While the focus of the event certainly revolves around food, Donna is very enthusiastic about the community collective that these events will create for both cooks and attendees. “Every venue is going to reflect the neighborhood that we are in,” Donna explains. “For example, in Wellington West, we are going to be at Cube gallery; when we go to Centretown, we are going to be at Babylon nightclub. Every venue is going to reflect where we are situated.” The communal aspect of the events is also represented through the food donations made to the street mission at the end of each event. What’s more, local food banks will be present at each event, ready to receive monetary donations from the public. The proceeds for the cookbook produced at the end of the event will also all go towards the Ottawa Food Bank. “For me, it was really about including an exposure to the need to stop hunger locally,” says Donna. “People are more willing to give within their own community, that’s where it starts.”
My Neighborhood Bites has already generated a great amount of interest following its launch event back in September, where over 500 attendees were invited to sample 20 recipes ranging from over-the-top to traditional. In the end, a delicious blueberry and peach tart cooked by Justin Way was declared the winner, paving the way for many more outstanding dished to come. “I’d love to see a politician put out a dish,” says Donna, “We don’t want to discourage anyone from applying because you never know what you’ll taste!”
The forecast for the upcoming months is looking tasty for Donna, who continues to accept applications from cooks up to three weeks before the date of their desired event. With cook-offs lined up from Greely to Orleans, there will certainly be no shortage of flavor, or any reason not to brave the winter cold and help out the community by eating fantastic dishes. “The thing with cooking is that it can become really social and people can take their guards down while enjoying a meal,” explains Donna. “Food is a happy thing.”
My Neighbourhood Bites, Wellington edition, takes place this Saturday at Cube Gallery – get your tickets here! The deadline for cooks applying for the Centretown edition is December 12.