Cooking up a new le café: Kenton Leier aims to revitalize food services at the NAC

Kenton Leier. Photo: Luther Caverly

Options for the future of the almost 50-year-old le café restaurant at the National Arts Centre are on the menu for the new exectuive chef Kenton Leier.

Leier, who has been on the job since August, will take a step towards that renewal with a new menu that he will debut on Nov. 1. This will begin the process of putting his stamp formally on the restaurant that was found by one of his mentors, the late chef Kurt Waldele.

Leier won’t say much about this new menu except that it will be smaller and more focussed for an operation that is often very busy just before evening performances in the centre’s halls and pretty quiet at other times. He also promises it will feature the finest ingredients he can source, locally and nationally.

“I knew Kurt Waldele well. I competed with him.” In 1998, Leier was on a team of local chefs hand-picked by Waldele. Canada’s Capital Regional Culinary Team went on to win national and international medals. 

“I was younger and at the (Fairmont) Château Laurier at the time. I was always amazed at his skill. He was such a genuine guy, such a character. His team loved him. We put him on a pedestal. He really brought something to this place. That’s what I want. I want the NAC to be known for being one of the top event destinations and I want le café to be known as one of the top restaurants once again.”

He acknowledges the restaurant has seen better days.

“If you look at le café, it’s dated when you go in. It’s become a show restaurant. On a show night it’s quite busy for a period of time and then people leave and it’s empty.”

But it is also a beautiful space especially on a summer day, if you can get to it that is, Leier says.

“If you are trying to walk through the building, it’s not easy to make your way there. If you happen to be down on the (Rideau) Canal, you are usually out jogging or on a bike and not looking for a meal.”

Leier says he understands that there were some discussions about moving the restaurant to the Elgin Street side but it was not done because of cost.

He is currently stickhandling this massive operation without an executive sous-chef. Martin Levesque left recently to join Social restaurant. So it’s a busy time.

When the National Arts Centre opened in 1969, le café was one of the very few posh dining spots in town. That’s all changed. People have a plethora of fine dining choices.

Many of the patrons at le café have been coming since the early years and they now have grey hair.

“They are our loyal patrons, our bread and butter, but we also have to find ways to bring in younger people,” Leier says.

So fixing le café remains a real challenge.

“It’s something we are trying to wrap our heads around. So many things have been tried over the years, by Kurt and other chefs, and I don’t think any of them worked out.”

Right now he is taking stock by looking at the operation with fresh eyes and talking to people who come into the restaurant. And there are on-going discussions about what to do with the restaurant but nothing is set in stone.

“We have looked at all kinds of things. We have been having discussions about maybe two restaurants; one geared towards show nights; another geared towards a smaller bistro idea.

“The only thing we know is that if we are truly serious about doing something the restaurant will need investment and a relaunch, possibly with a different name. At the same time we want to be respectful of tradition and especially of the people who are loyal to us and who have been coming to the restaurant for many years.”

Leier has assumed a formidable role as the head chef of the NAC. He sits atop an enterprise that pulls in about $7 million in revenues each year. The food services department of the NAC not only serves meals to about 56,000 customers a year in le café, it also prepares food for events such as the NAC Gala and special events such as the Ideas of North festival. It also runs the seven intermission bars in the NAC. And Leier’s team operates a catering service which handles some 800 weddings, graduations meeting and conferences a year. Finally it also oversees Hospitality Services at Global Affairs and Rideau Gate for the federal government and serves at important dinners involving foreign dignitaries.

It’s a big job.

“We have to represent the NAC well and in a sense we are representing Ottawa and Canada in the process.

“In the building, we can be doing receptions on the stages and in different public spaces for all types of things. For example, we just finished the Ideas of North. We were part of the opening conference and served Nordic-themed hors d’oeuvres, that we then promoted in our restaurant along with Nordic cocktails made from special gins. We are part of the building. We aren’t a performing art but in a sense we sort of are.”

Leier has run large kitchens before most recently at the Westin across the Canal. He says the job at the NAC is comparable in terms of the size and scope.

“Running a big kitchen in a big hotel is very complex and you do all kinds of different functions. The big difference in this venue is the exposure to the public. Here you are more open to criticism, feedback and opinions in a more direct way.”

Because the NAC is trying hard to open up to the Ottawa community, Leier says, one result of that is you don’t really know who is eating the food.

“There is such a myriad of opinions coming into the building on the arts side and the food and beverage side. That has opened my eyes. I’m embracing that. I’m using it to help motivate me. My goal is to elevate this place.”

Leier will, of course, be serving Canadian food.

“We have obligation, as the National Arts Centre, to showcase Canada and we will do that. But the great thing about that is: what really is Canadian cuisine? Ask 10 people and you’ll get 10 different answers. So as a chef, I have a range of influences to draw from.”

And he promises, “we will want to use great Canadian ingredients … and we will let those products stand on their own. So we won’t be overly complicated.”

When Leier cooks for himself, he says he likes fresh ingredients and clean, clear flavours.

“I want to be able to taste the food. If I have a great whole chicken I will roast it simply, with a simple sauce. I want it cooked properly, juicy and beautiful.”

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.

  • David Lillian

    I am glad to hear this; Le Cafe has become a bit of a joke in recent years, wth awful food and bad service.