Ottawa is a city rich in cultural diversity. If you need proof, look no further than the end of your fork. You want Thai? We’ve got Thai. You want Greek? Done. German? Indian? Japanese? There’s no limit. There is however the tricky question of finding authentic cuisine. One of the best ways to introduce yourself to a new culture is through its food: and you’re not really achieving that with pepperoni pizza or chicken balls.
The door swings both ways, too: restaurateurs wanting to introduce you to their unique cultural heritage have to walk a fine line between authenticity and familiarity if they want to succeed. Family recipes get westernized in the interest of mass appeal: it’s just the reality for a lot of small businesses.
It’s this type of reality that inspired eCelery co-founder Cyril Moukarzel to start his business. When his grandmother came to Ottawa from Lebanon, people flocked to their kitchen to indulge in her delicious homemade meals. For her, introducing people to her culture through food was a passion. But without the funds to open her own restaurant, and with a language barrier preventing her from finding gainful employment, she was eventually forced to return to Lebanon.
Cyril realized that if a business like eCelery had existed for his grandmother she might have been able to stay in Ottawa. The idea is simple but brilliant: connect the hungry people of Ottawa with chefs looking to share homemade multicultural meals.
Crucially, he wanted the business to go beyond being just about food. At its core, eCelery is about fostering personal connections between chefs and the people they’re feeding. Each chef is represented with a picture and a bio on the website, a chance for you to “meet” the person behind the meal. It’s the takeout equivalent to being invited over for dinner.
And for anybody out there concerned about eating a meal prepared in someone’s home consider this: you’d never turn down a dinner party invitation just because the host isn’t working in an industrial kitchen. These chefs take pride in their work and when they prepare an eCelery meal they’re using the same kitchen, ingredients and love they use to cook for their family and friends.
Plus of course eCelery has inspected the kitchen and taste-tested the meals for consistent quality. Prospective chefs host the eCelery crew and several times serve up 5 meals which then become their signature fixed menu.
Chefs are in control of which nights they work, which items they’ll be serving up and the number of servings they’re making available. They’re also in charge of setting the price for their dishes, an empowering option that allows these folks to share their skills without having to battle with the personal financial risk of, say, opening one’s own restaurant.
It also presents bourgeoning chefs with the opportunity to experiment with their recipes. Currently a student at Canadore College’s School of Culinary Arts, eCelery chef Alana hosted a meal for me and pointed out that working in a restaurant kitchen usually means following someone else’s recipe– and the same recipe, over and over. With eCelery she can mix things up and be her own boss.
Case in point: knowing I’m a vegetarian, she changed up her normal pork-stuffed-pepper recipe and served me up a tasty meatless variation. It’s something she’s now hoping to tweak and then present for eCelery’s taste-tested approval as an official menu item.
And if you can’t find a chef right now delivering to your area, don’t be discouraged. The original roster of four chefs has since expanded to over a dozen: meaning more variety on any given night and an increasingly larger delivery area.
One of my favourite features on the site is the ability to specify a delivery time. I can order from work (don’t tell my boss) and request a delivery time for minutes within the time I know I’ll be getting home. Perfect for nights when I’m just rushing home to change, grab a bite to eat, and then heading back out again.
And tune in below for the Apt613 Live interview with Cyril and Alana: