Food is essential for everyone’s survival. According to Margaret Dickenson, a fixture in the Canadian food scene, food is more than fuel, it is an art form.  As a chef and cookbook writer, Margaret has made sure to attend various culinary festivals all around the world. However it is the famous Ottawa Wine & Food Festival (OWFF) hosted in the Nation’s capital annually that she has attended many times over the past thirty years. Though much has changed since its inception, the festival still holds a special place in her heart.  The culture associated with the food scene in Ottawa has grown exponentially since OWFF’s inception in 1985. One of Margaret’s favourite anecdotes dates back to 1997 when she took part in the festival for the first time, “My first cookbook, From the Ambassador’s Table, had just been released in Canada by Random House. It received great reviews and press across Canada, so I was asked not only to do a cooking demonstration at the OWFF show but also to be highlighted on Chris Knight’s outstandingly successful TV series “The Great Canadian Food Show”’. She referred to the experience as incredibly fun. Her preliminary appearance at the  OWFF set a precedent, “for a number of years, I presented demonstrations focusing primarily on unique signature hors d’oeuvres and small plates which I personally created, as well as quick and easy techniques in producing them,” remarked Margaret. Of those plating ideas she recalled demonstrating, “the use of oriental porcelain spoons, mini shot glasses, the idea of a reception that includes hot and cold hors d’oeuvres, a canapé soup, taster desserts and even chocolates.”

She continues, “that was my concept for doable and exciting entertainment which I began to promote in 1997. It is amazing and heart warming to see how caterers are following this format, and how the “small plates” trend of Ottawa restaurants appears to resemble my emphasis on the delightful  culinary adventure achieved by the serving of a variety of tempting, flavour-popping appetizers.”  She is proud of her influence in the local culinary scene and is delighted to see how the local culture has grown. “Two decades ago, there were just a handful of chefs leading the culinary scene of Ottawa (e.g., Kurt Wadel, Robert Bourassa, John Taylor) and mentoring a new generation of talented chefs who went on to open their own top-notch restaurants. But now, another generation of creative and enthusiastic chefs graduating from the ever-growing culinary programmes in the Ottawa-Gatineau region are appearing.”

Margaret also touched on the logistical and technical changes that OWFF has undergone since she began attending. “Ingredients (including international), once seasonal are now available all year round; however, the great culinary focus has been on eating local (e.g., the 100 mile diet) and seasonal products.” Other advancements she noted include the acceptance of various culinary lifestyle choices, “vegetarians are no longer unique as our population pursues other options (e.g., vegan, gluten-free and even raw food diets).” She drew attention to the idea of fusion which has been permeating the capital over the past several years as well, “we have seen fusion cuisine (particularly with Asian influences) burst on the scene, followed by more and more ethnic cuisines, a touch of molecular cuisine and the latest delightful trend taking over local restaurants, small plates and sharing plates.”

There is also greater variety in restaurant offerings in the capital meaning that new ingredients and flavours are put to good use to produce delicious food. “Although some high-end establishments have closed due to economic challenges and severe cut-backs in government entertainment, new restaurants seem to be opening every month – it’s almost difficult to keep track – and many offer an extraordinary culinary experience,” Margaret stated. “On the other hand, a number of fine-dining restaurants are reemerging. For the past 10 years, local chefs have taken part in the “Gold Medal Plates” competition and have even won the national title.”

Margaret Dickenson
Margaret Dickenson

While the local restaurant scene is, “exploding and becoming part of Tourism Ottawa’s promotional package,” according to Margaret, she additionally praised the local community of chefs as a whole, “I must add that our [Ottawa] chefs are outstandingly generous in support of local charity events and they are always ready to help out one another – Bravo!”

Canadian wine is also another emerging market that is slowly gaining ground among the culinary aficionados of the country, “the quality and choice of Canadian wines continues to accelerate. While international wine lists in terms of variety and country of origin, is amazing, the  traditional heavy hitters (France, Italy, Spain, California, Australia and New Zealand) are experiencing serious competition.”

Even at home cooking has made great headway, “the once amazing microwave oven/cooking has had its role reduced primarily to a reheating function while “sous-vide” and “rational” have entered the spectrum as more recent cooking techniques. Most households own an out-door BBQ grill while some have adventured onward to smokers”, commented Margaret. However, though home cooks are making a splash on reality television shows like MasterChef Canada, Margaret remarked on how the modern supermarket stocks everything that could make one seem like a superstar chef. “In-house supermarket bakeries boast fresh daily products including artisan breads and high-end cakes/pastries. Deli sections have expanded to present an extraordinary array of tempting dishes (including gourmet fare) designed for complete take-away meals/ meals-to-go.”  Despite these innovations in the culinary world, a love of good food and good company has not been lost among the masses, “dining out, once often reserved for a special occasion, has become one of our very favourite pass-times, a serious form of entertainment, even a normal part of the everyday lifestyle for some,” Margaret stated. “Undoubtedly, today, our dining out experiences have been enhanced by the availability and the  wonderful selection of wines by the glass (even ½ glasses), flights of wine and wine pairings…along with craft beers – our remarkable local contribution to that ever-expanding beverage industry.”

When queried about why she believes the aforementioned changes have taken place, Margaret said, “Some contributing factors would include more experience in international travel, great exposure to a barrage of TV/internet cooking programmes, blogs and an ever-increasing promotion of celebrity chefs (national and international) and their cookbooks.”

Despite the hustle and bustle of life, the OWFF is a time to take in the sights, sounds, and smells of the excellent Ottawa culinary scene. Margaret has many touching stories about the festival but one of her favourites occurred several years after 1997, “[My husband] and I were invited, by Joan Culliton, now OWFF’s producer, to salute Gay Cook on one of her big birthdays. Halina Player, the cofounder (with husband Robert) of the Ottawa Wine and Food Show, delivered an emotional speech recognizing Gay for her many contributions to the local culinary industry.” At the event, there was a wealth of warmth and family feeling, “[It] proved to be a heart warming occasion, a type of “family” reunion in some way for those who adored both Gay and the annual Ottawa Wine and Food Festival.”  Margaret is looking forward to making new memories at the OWFF this year, and in the spirit of the festival, we wish her good cheer!

To find out more on Margaret and her culinary prowess, visit her official website, and ensure that you check out her second cookbook titled, Margaret’s Table that has gone on to win several international awards like her first cookbook (From The Ambassador’s Table). In fact, at the Frankfurt Book Fair, her second cookbook was recognized as the “Best of The Best Cookbook in the World in the previous 12 year period” in the entertaining category.

If you want to find out more about Margaret in person, make sure you go for the upcoming OWFF festival, and visit the festival’s official website at Ottawa Wine and Food Festival (OWFF) to purchase your tickets as it celebrates its 30th anniversary in Ottawa’s culinary scene from Oct. 30 – Nov. 1, 2015 at Shaw Centre.