At 5pm on the front lawn of Ottawa City Hall, volunteers were setting up for Carefor’s sold-out Feast of Fields event on Wednesday night. Sound checks, taste tests, power cords being connected. A few VIPs had arrived. While the skies were grey, the mood was decidedly lighter.
“We’re able to properly celebrate with some of the communities that were hit hardest by the pandemic,” said event organizer Robin Duetta. “Seeing the Ottawa chef community come back and pair up with the farmers who work so closely with them after such a tough couple of years is amazing. Watching them come together to raise money for caregivers and the elderly, two other groups hit hard by the pandemic—I can’t imagine being anywhere else today.”
Togetherness and community were the buzzwords on everyone’s lips as local chefs set up their booths with tantalizing offerings showcasing the best our region’s farmers have to offer.
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“It’s always about helping the community,” said chef Joe Thottungal. “Robin is a good friend and the cause is a good one. We’ve been part of [Feast of Fields] for many years. We always try to make time to help, but especially this year.”
“Working with local farms, getting these amazing products, it’s about showing people what they can do with them,” said chef Pat Riggins of Riggins Family BBQ. “If you get people excited about local produce, they’ll try to emulate what you’re doing.”
Other offerings included braised beef and peppers in a gluten-free gougère from Das Lokal, watermelon gazpacho with Quebec goat’s cheese from chef Phil Cameron, elk bourguignon from Restaurant 18, maple-glazed arctic char with aqpik coulis from chef Trudy Metcalfe-Coe, and a dish of duck breast, berbere-spiced granola, pickled cherries, roasted and pickled beets, smoked cherry sauce and micro beet greens from Essence Catering, playfully titled “Breaking Beets.”
The sun had come out as some gentle bluegrass music wafted through the air. Guests had begun to file in, mingle, and sample. Certainly, the event was different than those in years past. Tiles on the grass marked six feet between guests waiting in front of booths, and the main queue moved a bit slower due to the screening of immunization records.
However, no one seemed to mind. The heart of the event, the closeness of the organizers, farmers and chefs, remained unchanged. It was intriguing to see people gathering again. They seemed at ease, happy to be near one another after so long. And doing it for a worthy cause, while still being careful and respectful of one another, only served to further invigorate the crowd.
“It’s always been a beautiful event: the food, the drinks, getting to meet the chefs,” said Carole Green, Program Manager with Carefor. “I’m so pleased with the turnout. We’ll be able to offer more programs and help seniors in our communities live at home with dignity.”
There were a few firsts at this Feast of Fields as well, with both Perch and Chef Ric’s making their event debuts. “It’s amazing to be here,” said chef Justin Champagne of Perch. “Aside from how important the cause is, this is the first culinary event since COVID. It’s invigorating to be here and see your colleagues and the community out to support a common goal.”
“This event means the world to me,” said chef Ric Watson, echoing the sentiment. “It’s a vital cause to support, and it’s so important for the students to work events like this and get that experience under their belts.”
By 7:30pm, the queue had cleared and the event was well underway. Chef Tarek Hassan of Gongfu Bao stepped out from behind his booth, which boasted one of the longest lines. He was already out of food and was making a run back to the restaurant to replenish. Harried, he promised to be back up and running by 8pm.
“It’s crazy, but I’m happy to do it,” he said. “I can’t say no to Feast of Fields, it’s where Gongfu Bao was born. It all started with this event, years ago, making pork buns with local pork, paired with farmers before I even had the business. I owe a lot to Robin and Feast of Fields.”
As the sun set against the downtown skyline and the twinkle of event lights brightened, so did the spirits of all present. Smiles were visible on every face, masked or not.
While Feast of Fields did exist as a mini-series of events in 2020, this first true gathering since pandemic lockdown was welcome for all involved. Farmers and chefs need each other. Chefs love to see their colleagues and contemporaries in action. The many hardworking people of Carefor deserve to see that they are supported in their efforts. And the respectful and vaccinated Ottawa foodie community benefitted from this first foray into the hopeful “new normal.”
As night approached, the crowd had mostly dispersed and cleanup was underway. The chefs, however, were about to engage in the annual post-event celebration, another tradition that had been denied them until recently. “This has always been one of my favourite parts of the event,” said Duetta. “The chance to kick back and thank the chefs who devote so much time and energy to this cause.”
I can only see this year’s event as a success, and hopefully a building block to what we’ll see in the future—not just for Feast of Fields, but for all culinary events in the nation’s capital.