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200 guests settling in for the Chef's Table dinner party at Saunders Farm.

Festival of Small Halls puts city and rural elbow-to-elbow in a unique space for Chef’s Table parties

By Colin Noden on August 16, 2019

It was a local party on the evening of August 9th, 2019, with the first event in the Festival of Small Halls Chef’s Table series at Saunders Farm in Munster, featuring Chef Ross Fraser from the Fraser Café, and The Dueling Pianos Show.

Mark Monahan opened the evening by explaining how the six Chef’s Table evenings are part of a vision to celebrate the quality we have around us. His hope is these dinners will grow in number throughout the Ontario Festival of Small Halls area. If this happens, I foresee some frenzied ticket buying as word gets out. Many halls are not as big as the Saunders 200-seat pavilion. Dinner and a show, combined with a talk-about-it-for-days experience, are going to make these evenings popular.

Chef Ross Fraser introducing the menu

The dinners are an opportunity for chefs who are already passionate about local produce to put their teams and suppliers to the test. They must feed a large group with the same quality ingredients as featured in the restaurants. This can lead to some interesting discoveries, as Chef Fraser explained. For him, it began with a beef throwdown challenge.

“Our garden produce suppliers could handle the challenge, since we were ordering about the same as a week’s amount for the restaurant. The team could handle prepping it all for one night. The biggest challenge was when I decided to go with local pasture raised beef. It can be tricky to get consistency, and I’m cooking for 200 plates.

Filled plate with flank steak, horseradish, creme fraiche. Photo: Colin Noden/Apt613.

“The guy from O’Brian Farms came in with a ribeye and a flank cut. He told me to cook them up, and predicted I’d choose the flank. Flank over ribeye? But he was right. I was amazed at how tender and flavourful it was.”

The beef was indeed amazing, and easy to cut with a standard catering knife. I did pity the poor grill chef who was tasked with cooking everything right through a rainstorm, covering his head with a baking sheet. Ah, life on a farm.

Tables settings at Saunders Farm. Photo: Colin Noden/Apt613.

Chef Fraser decided to go with a family style service. This way he could separate ingredients according to dietary restrictions. It also had the benefit of getting the six people groupings to interact. It was a great ice breaker. Strangers quickly became friends. The noise level began to rise, just in time for the entertainment.

The Dueling Pianos turned out to be a trio, and instead of Bach vs Beethoven, it was The Beatles vs The Stones. But you probably know that if you’ve been at their shows around town, such as the sold-out performance at the Centrepointe Theatre in November 2018.

The Dueling Pianos with a captivated crowd. Photo: Colin Noden/Apt613.

These guys are used to working a slightly distracted crowd. They soon had the table conversations turned toward the stage. Then the party started. Familiar songs with irresistible chorus lines. A crowd loud enough that we didn’t feel self conscious about singing a few wrong notes or words. And onstage banter to keep the mischief and dazzle of the music rolling for a couple hours.

Tyler Kealey’s vocal range and flurry of hands left me exhausted. I wondered how he could deliver so much and not crack. Then I noticed the eyes of Dave Kalil as he guided the tempo of the set. Dave sidelines as a golf pro, and I could see those coaching looks across the stage. They transformed the performance into an experience.

Corn cake, macerated peaches, raspberries and diplomat cream. Photo: Colin Noden/Apt613.

I began to see Mr. Monahan’s larger vision at play throughout the evening.

Headline the bedrock musical talent in our communities. Get people out of the city with a promise of discovering an exceptional evening. Put city and rural elbow-to-elbow in a unique space. Give them a wow experience with food and music. Shake it all up in a beautiful country setting. And you have a serving of Ottawa community pride that’s stronger than any marketing slogan the tourism board can come up with.


The six Chef’s Table experiences run from August 9 to September 22, 2019. Ticket prices and quantities vary depending on the venue size. Visit festivalofsmallhalls.com to purchase tickets and find more information. You can see The Dueling Pianos often at The Sens House in the ByWard Market and The Marshes Golf Club in Kanata.