An Eleven Madison Park tribute, take 2

It’s always nice when a happy confluence makes it convenient to participate in several great activities in a short period. Such was the case on my recent trip to Ottawa. My husband wanted to go in order to do some research and celebrate his birthday, I wanted to go for dinner at Atelier (especially in light of their Gold Medal Plates win), and it just so happened that when we were there, a second Eleven Madison Park tribute dinner was scheduled!

One of two speed racks with our mise en place for 16 courses.

Organized by chef Murray Wilson of Atelier and chef Kyle Christofferson of the Brookstreet hotel, who was a guest at the first EMP tribute, the menu for this meal was more ambitious, both in the complexity of the dishes and the number of guests. Where the first tribute dinner had just over a dozen guests, this one clocked in at three times that number.

Because I don’t have the funds to eat multiple tasting menus in one weekend, I asked Murray if I could be involved entirely in the cooking side of things this time around. I was surrounded by some serious talent in that kitchen: in addition to Murray and Kyle, there was chef Michael Hay of the Courtyard, Montreal pastry chef Josie Weitzenbauer, and several other veteran cooks from Ottawa restaurants, including Brookstreet itself. In fact, all told, there were as many cooks working on this dinner as there had been guests at the last one.

My role in all this was what it usually is at these events: I lent a hand with prep, and then helped plate the dishes during service. Plating for so many people at once is an enormous logistical challenge, and it always takes as many hands as you can get. EMP’s dishes are intricate, and the ideal is to get them out to the dining room while the hot food is still hot, and the frozen food is still frozen. In fact, for certain courses, that sense of urgency hit such a level that I had the opportunity to deliver plates to the guests, which was a new experience for me. I also did some tableside saucing, which was a bit nerve-wracking. I’m not used to being in the dining room during service… I’m barely used to being in the kitchen!

Chef Hay making parcels of oxtail-stuffed Swiss chard.

As always, I learned a lot in the process. The kitchen at Brookstreet is as different from the one at Atelier as possible: it seemed like all our ingredients were scattered among four different walk-ins, and I was there a couple of hours before I even saw the dish pit! I dare say that this type of tribute dinner is a significant learning experience for the chefs involved, too. Some of the dishes were the same as the last EMP tribute, but most of them were new, and making a new recipe almost always teaches you something. One moment that stands out for me was when we were discussing the beef with bone marrow dish, which I had made before, and I was able to point out that only one of the two Swiss chard leaves on the plate was filled with oxtail – a detail that I think is part of the dish’s genius.

Keeping the citrus sabayon warm in a temperature-controlled water bath.

Beyond education, though, I think a large part of the value of these tribute dinners is that they allow the cooks involved to break out of their routine and do something a little different, and a little exciting. This is certainly true for me, given that my day job isn’t in the food industry, but from talking to everyone else who was there, it seemed to be true for them, too. Why else would you spend your day off doing what you do through the rest of the week?

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