When you think of your most cherished meals what comes to mind is likely not the food, but rather the company. Long after the last sip of wine and spoonful of dessert have faded, it's recalling the jokes, smiles and stories shared, which brings us fondly back to a particular evening at the table.
Although it wasn't explicitly billed as such, it was the company that made one of the newest Toronto culinary events so memorable.
Earlier this month Chef Events partnered with the Air Miles Reward Program to offer local food lovers three unique culinary experiences. The main draw for each was a renown culinary star like: celebrity chef and restauranteur Mark McEwan; restaurant consultant and culinary TV personality chef David Adjey; and cutting-edge mixologist and founder of Bar Chef Frankie Solarik. Each event was designed to play to the strengths of the celebrity host. For example Adjey led a scavenger hunt and cooking lesson in the St. Lawrence Market and Solarik's putting-on a hands-on cocktail workshop in the Distillery District. But tying the trio of unique events together is the promise of an intimate and exclusive culinary experience—the kind you rarely get with celebrities of this level. I was invited to attend the first event, which was billed as an Italian Feast at Fabbrica and a tour of its neighbouring grocery store, McEwan, hosted by the man himself.
McEwan opened his eponymous, upscale grocery store about three years ago in the Shops at Don Mills and Fabbrica, a causal-service rustic, Italian-inspired restaurant, about a year after that. He has been busy ever since: writing two cookbooks; determining the next generation of culinary talents as head judge of Top Chef Canada; and guiding his culinary empire, which also includes sister restaurants: Bymark, North 44˚ and One. So suffice to say McEwan continues to live a fast-paced life as one of the city's top names in fine food. Interestingly, much of his business happens right at the grocery store. On the behind the scenes tour, which began the event, guests were shown the central hub of it all: his office. The store not only contains his office and 22,000 sq. ft. of gourmet eats, but it also houses the catering arm of his business. If you've seen his Food Network series the Heat you know McEwan cooks at a variety of very special events for clients. But you might not know the catering kitchen also prepared items like Whisky Glazed Salmon and the other ready-to-eat dishes customers purchase in the grocery store.
One of the fascinating insights we received during the tour, which also included a walk-through of the store and a sampling of some of chef McEwan's favourite items, was just how much it has evolved. His executive assistant Jordie McTavish, who was helping throughout the event, explained that the store initially focused on stocking the aisles with hard-to-find speciality food items and producing virtually all prepared items in house, including baked goods. That focus has changed a bit. Staff found some customers initially saw McEwan strictly as a specialty store only picking-up 2-3 hard-to-find items for a special occasions like a dinner party. They were also regularly receiving requests from customers looking specific items like their favourite cake, which a trust baker supplied their old grocer. Although McEwan still strives to stock hard-to-find gourmet ingredients, it also stocks everyday groceries like brand name cereals and high-quality prepared items from like-minded partners like LaRocca cakes. It's all part of an effort to make it a better one-stop shopping experience for busy customers by fulfilling the needs of their weekly grocery run, while also helping the occasional culinary itch with top-quality hard-to-find items.
Post-tour and pre-dinner, McEwan entertained guests cinq à sept style at Fabbrica's bar. Attendees mingled while enjoying cocktails and small bites from the restaurant's regular menu. But most importantly, for many, it was a chance to get some one-on-one time with chef McEwan. He made it a point to visit as many guests as possible and was happy to sign autographs, pose for pictures and even have his brain picked about culinary topics like the death of formal white glove service in North America—he's thankful as he finds the formality gets in the way of enjoying the food. Many also took the opportunity to converse with fellow attendees. Most, like Suzanne Van Parys, shared a common passion of great food and wine. Van Parys, who brought a friend because her husband came down with a cold, is a big fan of McEwan and has eaten at all of his restaurants. She lives nearby and is a big collector of Air Miles, so when she found out about the event and its intimate size, she immediately seized the opportunity to meet McEwan.
After a half hour of mingling, the 30 guests were led to tables in the restaurant that seated about eight. This setting allowed the conversations to continue throughout the four course dinner. Chef Andrew Ellerby exhibited a personal touch with his hospitality by taking the time to introduce each course and checking in with guests to see how they were enjoying the meal. Good hospitality remained a focal point. The pacing of the dinner allowed plenty of time between courses for guests to not only enjoy their food, but also each other's company. In fact, many even got up to visit new friends at other tables so they could continue conversations they began earlier in the evening.
The first course, a grilled octopus salad with tender arugula, chickpeas, slivers of salami, and flecks of chili was my favourite savoury course of the evening. The octopus was perfectly tender with a nice smoky char that worked beautifully with creamy texture of the chickpeas and bright spicy-citrus flavours of the dish. A glass of 2011 Adelsheim Pinot Gris with its melon, pear and lemony notes melded nicely with the flavours of the dish. But what really made it work was its complementary weighty texture. I think a crisp, richly-textured, barrel-fermented Sauvignon Blanc playing-up the smokiness of the octopus while providing some exciting electric tension, would've been even nicer, though.
But the culinary highlight of my evening came courtesy of the dramatically plated, but subdued in name, bread and butter pudding. Made with panettone (a sweet bread popular in Italy during the holiday season) it was studded with raisins and layered with custard. Light and little creamy without being overly rich, it was just decadent enough to satisfy a sweet tooth without relegating dessert-objectors to diabetic comma. Interestingly, it was paired with an off-dry Valsecco from Contarini. It's white peach, citrus and white flower honey notes worked nicely with the pudding. A touch more sweetness in the sparkler would've made it a perfect pairing, but the dessert's creamy texture and the wine's soft bubbles still made for a very memorable match.
After the dessert plates were cleared, attendees were in no rush to part company despite the fact that some had a long trip back to Kitchener ahead—always the good sign that people are thoroughly enjoy themselves. Word must be spreading quickly as Thursday's Air Miles culinary experience with Solarik is at capacity. But given how well this trio of events has been received it wouldn't surprise me if Air Miles and Chef Events partnered again for some new unique culinary events in the future. If they're anything like this meal, people will be going home with the lasting memories of good food and drink and the fond memories of great conversation with the best of company.