We’re not going to sugarcoat it: The last 15 months have been hard for everyone. No matter what you do, your life was affected in some way. One of the hardest-hit industries was our food and beverage sector, as everyone from restaurants to grocery stores hustled to adapt to the “new normal.” Meanwhile, people in our city (including many food and beverage workers) struggled with day-to-day food insecurity—some for the first time, while others found their existing precarity compounded by the pandemic.
Now, most of us are starting to think about putting COVID-19 behind us. But before we banish the last year and a half to the dark recesses of our memories, let’s offer thanks to those in our Ottawa food and beverage industry who shone brighter during adversity. Whether through actions small or large, these are a few of the sector’s MVPs.
Joe Thottungal and the Staff of Thali/Coconut Lagoon
Chef Joe is already well-known in Ottawa for his delicious cuisine and his award-winning restaurants and cookbook. Those who know him know that he’s also a dedicated philanthropist. Returning home to Ottawa from a trip to India just ahead of the pandemic declaration, Chef Joe was one of the first in town to begin preparing meals en masse to combat food insecurity during the pandemic, a project that became known as Food For Thought. While they began by preparing 300–400 meals per day in the Thali kitchen, the operation quickly shifted to the banquet kitchens at the Chateau Laurier, where volunteers helped to make nearly 1,000 meals per day for those in need. During all of this, Chef Joe had to contend with the fire that destroyed his 16-year-old flagship restaurant, Coconut Lagoon. While devastated, Chef Joe assures us that Coconut Lagoon will be back and better than ever, while still providing for those around him with his involvement in several charities.
Jason Sawision and the staff of Stofa
When indoor dining closed in Ontario, it was a devastating but necessary blow to local restaurants. Takeout and delivery became the new normal, and restaurants that had never offered such services now pivoted to put their unique spin on them. After changing Stofa’s menu to a rotating dinner-for-four offering, chef Jason Sawision began thinking of his fellow chefs going through the same struggles. “Restaurants were really in this grey zone,” says Sawision. “Were we essential or not? Either way, restaurant folks kept going to work, so we thought, what can we do for them?”
The answer would be delivering a full dinner-for-four to restaurant neighbours as a morale-boosting staff meal. Once a week, the crew at Stofa would pick another Ottawa restaurant to surprise with a free, delicious dinner. Sawision reckons that they’ve surprised between 60 and 70 restaurants with the friendly gesture and plans to keep doing so until things become to a bit more normal.
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Jessica Carpinone and the staff of Bread By Us
Those in the neighbourhood of Wellington West and beyond already know about the delicious bread, pastries, and coffee offered by this charming little bakery. But what you may not be aware of is the tireless work done by Jessica Carpinone, one-half of the founding duo of Bread by Us. Whether combating food insecurity and income-shaming with their “suspended coffee program” (coffee or bread can be pre-paid for and the shop will make sure the goods find their way to those in need) or tirelessly fighting for liveable minimum wages and provincially-paid sick days, Carpinone and staff ensure that Bread by Us is a friendly and accepting space for everyone.
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This list is by no means definitive. Do you know someone in the Ottawa food and beverage community who has been a pandemic MVP? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line F&B Pandemic MVP to nominate someone you think deserves to be on the list!