Note: 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 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.
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.
Then 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.”
Among 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.
After 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.
Another 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