Hot Child in the City: Beckta Restaurants Ignite Ottawa Dining

Beckta RestaurantNote: I’m finally posting this story online: it was originally published in Ottawa Magazine, the sister publication of Toronto Life, back in 2003 when Steve Beckta opened his first restaurant on Nepean Street. Why now?

Two reasons. First, the story still gives you an insider peak backstage at a top-notch restaurant and what’s like to be in a small, hot, high-performance kitchen.

Second, Steve is about to move from his original location on Nepean to Grant House at 150 Elgin Street, which was built in 1875 and is undergoing a $3.5 million renovation (pictured above) for a November 19 opening.

More updates: Steve Vardy, chef, went on to work at Whalesbone and Black Cat Bistro in Ottawa, before returning home to Newfoundland to work in a restaurant there.

Ross Fraser, sous chef back in 2003, now has his own highly successful restaurant with his brother called Fraser Cafe. Paul Quinn, the manager, went on to work at Eleven Madison Park restaurant in New York.

Many other staff, including servers and sommeliers, have spread across the city in other establishments raising the bar for service and hospitality in this city, inspired by the leadership and example of Steve Beckta.

Hot Child in the City

On this dog-day August morning, even the trees are panting. The outlines of parked cars quiver as if trying to shake off a night-time fever. Just crossing the street washes me in sweat. But the real heat in this city is in Steve Beckta’s new restaurant.
beckta-dining-wine exteriorBeckta Dining & Wine has been fully booked ever since it opened in May. Even on nights that are traditionally slow for restaurants, Mondays and Tuesdays, people are turned away here—between thirty to forty every night.

Yet the restaurant isn’t located in the busy heart of the tourist district, the Byward Market.

The 75-seat Victorian townhouse is on Nepean Street, some fifteen blocks from Parliament Hill. So it’s mostly a loyal local crowd that packs the place, even in this last stretch of August when many city dwellers are at the cottage.Beckta Sign 2

At 29, Ottawa native Steve Beckta is both one of the youngest restaurateurs in the city, and a veteran of the industry.

A tall, svelte man with smiling eyes like Jimmy Stewart, Beckta has been in the food and wine business since before he was old enough to drink.

He was just thirteen when he started working part-time, as a busboy at Malibou Jack’s on Clarence Street.

After finishing high school he worked in various restaurants as waiter, sommelier, maitre d’ and general manager. He also worked at the Ritz on Nepean Street—coincidentally, the same building that now houses Beckta’s.
stephen-beckta-interiorThen in 1998 he went to New York to visit a girlfriend. The romance didn’t last, but Beckta’s love affair with the Big Apple did.

He read about the city’s shortage of sommeliers, and applied to some of the best restaurants, including Café Boulud, which the four-star French chef Daniel Boulud was about to open.

“I didn’t find out that he was the greatest chef in America until after I was hired,” laughs Beckta, who was just 24 then. “It’s a good thing, because I would have been so nervous.”
Cafe Boulud AAmong the regular customers at Café Boulud (pictured above) were Harrison Ford, Warren Beatty, Annette Bening, Stephen King, Hugh Grant, Oscar de la Renta and Robin Williams.

Beckta managed a 7,000-bottle cellar, and created a wine list that won two coveted Wine Spectator Awards of Excellence. He also became one the big city’s best advocates for Canadian wine.

One evening, while serving Steven Spielberg and his wife Kate Capshaw, Beckta poured them two wines: with the main course, Château Pétrus, a coveted Bordeaux wine costing several thousand dollars, and with dessert, a Cave Spring Indian Summer Riesling, a $20 wine from Niagara.

The Hollywood couple wanted to save the label from the Canadian wine.

Eleven MadisonAfter two years with Boulud, Beckta went to work at Eleven Madison Park (pictured above), the restaurant of another celebrity chef, Danny Meyer. The consumer bible Zagat Guide lists four of Meyer’s restaurants in the Top 25. There he learned Meyer’s concept of one-plus service.

Once a couple dining at the restaurant realized that they had forgotten a bottle of champagne in their freezer.

They declined Beckta’s offer to go to their home and take it out before it exploded, but took him up on the idea of boxing their meals to go, so that they could enjoy them at home with the bubbly.
danny_meyerAnother diner, meeting important clients for a business lunch, broke the strap on his leather briefcase just as he entered the restaurant.

This was a catastrophe because in New York, accessories are not just accessories; they’re badges of success. He left it with the coat check.

But when he got the bag back after lunch, he saw with relief that Beckta had replaced the strap.

Why did this sommelier to the stars leave the city that doesn’t sleep for the sleepy city?

Love and longing.

Last April, back in town for a friend’s wedding, Beckta met Maureen Cunningham, an Ottawa management consultant. Over the reception dinner, it was love at first bite.

After a five-month long-distance romance, they agreed that one of them had to move. But who and where?

Ottawa seemed the logical choice. Cunningham’s clients were here, and so were Beckta’s family and long-time friends.

Most importantly, he thought he might be able to raise enough capital to open his own restaurant in Ottawa sooner than he could in New York.

He was right.

Within a few months, Beckta has raised some $500,000 from thirty-one investors. (Cunningham even put her house up as collateral.)

The amount was more than twice the figure required for a restaurant of its size. But it was far from a sure bet—most restaurants fail in the first few years, and unlike New York, this town isn’t exactly known as Canada’s culinary capital.

Read Part 2 of Steve Beckta Restaurant

Read More

The Passion of Steve Beckta: Hospitality and Service

Continued from Part 1: Steve Beckta Restaurant Eight months later, the capital has become bricks and mortar. This morning, the restaurant is dark, cool and silent like a stage set. Even in shadow, the Mediterranean tones are soothing: the azure sky splashed on the walls, the amber setting sun on the suede chairs and the field-flower dappled yellow of the maple floors. The glassware on the tables glints like sun catching on the sea. Paul Quinn, the general manager, comes out from the back to the bar and offers me a cup of tar-black coffee, then, with a shaky hand […]

read more …

Read More

Backstage at the Hottest Dining Ticket in Ottawa

Continued from Part 2: Steve Beckta Restaurant Pastry chef Rebecca Macmurdo isn’t listening to the banter; she looks as though she’s trying to defuse a bomb hidden under the caramelized bananas. She works with small, deft hand movements, her face is inches from the plate. She’s responsible for both desserts and canapés, she is the first and last person to touch every diner’s meal. “I like prep,” she says cheerfully as she sets up her line of ingredients—golden beets, baby heirloom tomatoes, micro greens, beet and sugar jellies and caramel crunch. Later in the afternoon, I venture downstairs to another […]

read more …

Read More

How do You Define Restaurant Hospitality? Take it with a Grain of Sea Salt

Continued from Part 3: Steve Beckta Restaurant At 5:30 p.m. Beckta greets the first guests, chats amiably for a few minutes, and then hostess Anique Montambault escorts them to their seats. Soon, the early guests are floating through their conversations on their first glass of wine. Meanwhile, in the kitchen, the first wave of canapé and appetizer orders hits Macmurdo. The servers buzz around her “pass,” the eye-level counter where she puts up the amuse bouche canapés and salads as they’re ready. It’s the narrowest point in this river of activity where the pace either flows or chokes. Ripples of […]

read more …

Read More

Why Do Restaurant Reviews Dismiss Wine?

Continued from Part 4: Steve Beckta Restaurant Tonight, though, there are no kids in the place; and the adults have moved beyond their starters to the main courses. In the kitchen, the first ripple hits the entrée station. Vardy, now standing between Fraser and cook J.P. Filion, tapes his wristwatch to the beam of his station. “How long you looking at Ross?” Vardy asks. “Five minutes,” Fraser replies. He’s searing foie gras, which will be topped with a caramelized blini made by Filion and then Vardy will finish them both with apple butter. In minutes Fraser and Filion contribute their […]

read more …

Read More

Firing on All Burners: Juice Monkeys Thrive in the Heat of Service

Continued from Part 5: Steve Beckta Restaurant Anne DesBrisay was also happy to broadcast her enthusiasm—though she privately admitted later that given all the hype that had attended its opening, she had been nervous reviewing the restaurant. She was relieved though to find that it was indeed “a clear cut above, in all kinds of ways, but mostly in its service department.” “Beckta can only do good for this town in terms of raising the bar on service standards,” says Ottawa Citizen restaurant critic Anne DesBrisay. “The trend toward chef-owned restaurants is growing (yipee), but it means the chef’s in […]

read more …

Read More

Sommelier to Restaurant Owner: Steve Beckta Keeps the Fire

Continued from Part 6: Steve Beckta Restaurant When I step back through the wall of heat into the kitchen, Quinn is telling Vardy: “They loved the béarnaise—they ordered the steak just for the sauce. But they thought the steak itself was a little salty.” “Tell ‘em to go to hell,” says Vardy smiling. In fact, Vardy and all the staff take customer feedback seriously. They’ve adapted a number of dishes because of such comments, and made other changes too. For instance, the tasting menu, rather than just listing the food and wine, now explains why certain wines were paired with […]

read more …

Read More

Win a Cooking Lesson with Top Chef Canada and Wolf Blass Wine Tasting

Sponsored Post Want to cook one-on-one with a Top Chef Canada and attend a wine tasting event with lots of terrific Australian wines to from Wolf Blass? You could win: Enter now! One winner from Ontario and one winner from Western Canada will get a celebrity chef experience with Top Chef Canada winner Matthew Stowe, consisting of a cooking lesson with Matthew and tickets to an exclusive Wolf Blass event. Top Chef Tested Recipes Braised Beef Short Rib with Celeriac Purée and Red Wine Jus Roasted Butternut Squash Soup with Sautéed Granny Smith Apples, Toasted Hazelnuts, Parmesan Foam Get the Recipes […]

read more …

Read More

Nicolas Catena: Argentina’s Wine Laureate

This morning, I’m driving to the Bodega Catena Zapata, the winery that changed my opinion of Argentine wine. I remember drinking a Catena red wine one night at a friend’s house and guessing that it was Australian Shiraz. My body hummed with contentment as I let myself down into its berry-decadence. I was pleasantly surprised to find out what it was, and started buying more Malbec. Now, as I follow the long gravel road, a space-age stone temple rises from the vines, framed against the Andes silver peaks. This extravagant architectural statement is the concrete gesture of one man’s desire […]

read more …

Read More

First Argentine Wine: Malbec Calling Catena

Continued from Part 1 of Catena Wine That robust work ethic has been in the Catena family for generations. In 1898, his grandfather Nicola left a small village in Sicily for Argentina. He started planting vines in 1902 and raised a family. His eldest son, Domingo, married Angelica Zapata, a daughter of a large land owner, increasing the family’s holdings. By 1973, the winery had become the country’s largest producer of cheap wines, pumping out 240 million bottles a year. Nicolás, the son of Domingo and Angelica, was a brilliant boy and finished high school at 15. At the request […]

read more …

Read More