NAC’s le café gets makeover, a new name and a chefs’ series

NAC Executive Chef Kenton Leier is getting new digs, a new name for his restaurant and is launching a chefs series starting in the fall. Photo: Luther Caverly

Fifty years ago, when it opened, the NAC’s le café restaurant was an instant destination for foodies in the capital.

In those early years, Chef Kurt Waldele emerged as a leading light in Ottawa’s rather skimpy fine dining scene and his restaurant (eventually) located along the Rideau Canal inside the National Arts Centre was full of patrons.

Today Ottawa has a vibrant food culture and le café has lost some of its allure to gourmands not attending a performance.

So it seems appropriate that as the NAC would get a new look, the restaurant would as well. It will close for a second round of renovations on Monday and reopen Aug. 14 with a new name — 1 Elgin.The restaurant’s patio along the Rideau Canal will remain open during the work. The move was announced by the centre on Wednesday.

Along with new digs, the NAC has announced the lineup of a program that will feature four chefs who will join Executive Chef Kenton Leier to create a culinary arts season that will complement the new season on the NAC stages.

The chefs will create special menus that will be featured for a period of four to eight weeks in the rebranded restaurant and participate in demonstrations and cooking classes in Ottawa that will be shared on the NAC’s website and social media.

As already announced the NAC Resident Chefs season begins Sept. 12 with Six Nations Chef Rich Francis. He will create a menu based on Indigenous ingredients and techniques. His appearance will be part of the two-week festival launching the NAC’S new Indigenous Theatre. Francis is the chef-owner of Seventh Fire Hospitality Group in Saskatoon. He creates authentic Indigenous food and presents it, often as a private event, to diners around the country.

Here is the rest of the lineup of invited chefs: 

January: Ryan Hotchkiss, Bündok Restaurant, Edmonton. He is now the owner and executive chef of Bündok in Edmonton where he features seasonal, Canadian ingredients in his menu.

March: Helena Loureiro, Portus360 Restaurant, Montreal. She is originally from Serra de Santo Antonio, near Fatima in Portugal. Portus360 is located atop the former Delta Centreville hotel in Montreal.

May: Jonathan Gushue, Fogo Island Inn, Fogo Island (Newfoundland). He works uses natural offerings to reflect a food identity based on the island located off the off northeastern shore of the Rock.

“We strongly believe that it is our responsibility to provide a stage for emerging Canadian culinary artists to showcase their regional foods and cooking influences,” said Leier in a media release. “The NAC has been a champion of culinary talent for the past 50 years and will continue to be a leader in this respect for the next 50 years.”

The restaurant did get a modernized kitchen, custom-made tables and chairs, a new carpet and semi-private booths in 2018.

The next phase of the makeover will see the bar move to the centre of the dining room, new lighting and a new entrance.

“I believe it is our responsibility to be the leaders in promoting Canadian cuisine,” said Nelson Borges, general manager of the NAC’s massive Food and Beverage Services operation. “We are introducing a creative space for food lovers to experience contemporary Canadian cuisine, premium wines and attentive service before a performance, or as an inspirational gathering place for lunch.”

In 1969 the restaurant was called L’opéra and was located in what is now the Canada Room. It was renamed Le restaurant and then le café and relocated to Canal-side. location.

The NAC’s kitchen pulls in about $7 million in revenues each year. It serves meals to about 56,000 customers a year in the restaurant and also prepares food for events such as the NAC Gala and festivals. 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.

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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.