Backstage at the Hottest Dining Ticket in Ottawa

Food at Bekta'sContinued 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 tight prep hive. The ceiling is about two inches above my head, making it excellent therapy for claustrophobics who believe in facing their fear directly.

There are stacks of clean linen, a row of pressed chef jackets, stacks of soda pop and a long cutting counter where staff are pitting olives, chopping onions and slicing a platter-sized slab of pork belly.

There’s a bag of McDonald’s food in the corner. From a small radio on the shelf, Bob Marley belts out “I hope ya love jammin’ too!” I retreat back upstairs to breathe.

At 4:30 p.m. everyone heads out to the bar seating area for quick “family” meal where they share pizza and discuss the evening’s line-up.

“Our tightest turn tonight is two-and-a-half hours, which is great,” Beckta says.

“The last reservation comes in at nine thirty.”

Unlike high-volume restaurants, which turn their tables as many as three or four times an evening, Beckta rarely does more than an average of one-and-a-half sittings per table. As he tells me later, that’s a decision made from experience.

“We pushed the book a few times, taking just over a hundred reservations and we got our butt kicked,” he admits.

“We want the servers to have time to talk about the food and wine with the guests, not just drop off their plates and run. And more and more guests are choosing our new five-course tasting menu, and that takes time.”

Vardy reviews the menu for the staff, and says there are no changes tonight.

“People freaked over the shrimp dish last night, it was really well received,” Beckta says. “And someone called to check if the lamb is still on the menu,” Quinn adds.

The bartender Anthony Peckover notes that the Cave Spring Indian Summer Riesling on the wine list is the 2000 vintage not 2001, and they’re down to the last bottle of Pinot Gris.

Cave Spring Riesling

Beckta reviews what he knows about tonight’s guests. The information will be posted on the kitchen wall. The couple at table three is celebrating their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, and their son has not only ordered champagne for them but also will be paying for their meal.

“Let them know that at the beginning of the meal,” Beckta tells server David Morris with a smile. “It could make a difference to the wine they choose.”

The woman at table six has a birthday, and server Danielle Prevost is asked to give her a complimentary dessert.

But the most important diner tonight will be sitting at table one: Danny Meyer himself. The master has come to see how well the apprentice learned.

Meyer is on his way to Montreal for an international conference of marquee chefs who raise money for charities that address hunger issues.

He’s dining tonight with Michael Rosen who works with the James Beard Foundation in New York.

The meeting is over, everyone gets up: the servers finish folding napkins and laying out silverware; the cooks head back to the kitchen.

It’s clear that these folks know what they’re doing: no one is directing or managing. In the kitchen, the staff check their stations like soldiers waiting in the predawn along the garrison wall.

The temperature has increased about five degrees since this morning.

I’m becoming a connoisseur of heat: the raw, hungry heat of the open-mouthed oven; the slithering predatory heat that crawls up your body, finding every fold of skin until you blush; the scorching, vengeful heat of the crème brûlée flame torch; and the heavy, blanketing heat from above that slowly pushes down on your shoulders and back.

Vardy doesn’t have to worry about food going cold—it would probably cook on its own if it were just left out on the counter.

By now the kitchen is a wheezing, coughing orchestra of hissing pans, buzzing mixers, clanking utensils, sizzling deep-fryer, humming dishwasher, banging pots, gurgling sauces, searing meat and urgent but controlled voices. Everyone’s movements have become quicker, more catlike.

The dishwasher Jamal Benesultana, a six-foot-four broad-smiling Moroccan man, mops the floor every hour—in a food prep area, it’s important to “work clean.”

Fraser asks me if I ate his Chicken McNuggets.

Out in the still-empty restaurant, Billy Holiday’s melted-butter voice seeps into the background.

The servers straighten napkins and forks as they wait for the guests. They’re like actors who’ve taken their positions behind the curtain.

Go to Part 4: Steve Beckta Restaurant

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