While I had a wonderful time doing tourist things in Montreal, the real draw for a foodie was the Omnivore Food Festival World Tour that was taking place. The Omnivore Food Festival is a fantastic festival that began in France in 2003, and has since expanded their schedule to visit a dozen cities world wide this year. This is food festival that isn’t going to attract a person looking to snag the autograph of a celebrity chef. It’s a food festival for those who love to eat, love to cook and those who get inspired by food.
The Omnivore festival is dedicated to the celebration of “la jeune cuisine” – which is to say, young cuisine. It attracts younger chefs that are on the cutting edge of their field, innovating new methods of cooking or reinventing older classics with a more modern approach.
Omnivore event in Montreal had an incredibly intimate feel to it because you weren’t in an auditorium with hundreds of other people listening to a lecture about food you can barely see up on some stage. The event was focused on cooking demos, where you could really see the chefs at work, up close and personal. Each chef prepared one or more dishes while they talked with the moderator about their approach to cooking, their ingredients and their inspirations. The majority of the participating chefs were local to the area – and the few guest chefs still represented “la jeune cuisine.”
I tend to think that the venue had a lot do to with how amazing the demos were. They were held in a fantastic domed room at the Foodlab in Montreal, where rotating groups of chefs regularly gather to swap techniques and try new ideas. The dome allowed for circular seating, where you could get very close to each chef as s/he worked. Even better was the live video feed that was projected onto the inside of the dome, giving attendees a 360-degree close up of what was happening on the demo tables. There were several cameras and multiple camera men tracking the chefs as they worked, so viewers wouldn’t miss a single moment.
Each demo lasted about an hour and it seemed that the chefs were free to choose what they wanted to work with during the demo. The chefs might not be household names all over the world just yet, but they were definitely pioneering food trends in Montreal. Gaëlle Cerf, for instance, runs Grumman 78, the first (and most popular) tack truck in the city of Montreal. He showcased a Mexican-inspired arancini recipe and his favorite way to prepare sweet corn.
Gita Seaton, of the Nouveau Palais (which has a truck and a restaurant), shared a versatile cheese sauce that was the secret to one of her restaurant’s most popular and most comforting dishes: mac n’ cheese. Visiting chef Peter Nilsson, from La Gazzetta in Paris, wowed everyone with an amazingly sweet caramelized tomato salad that could have easily been served as an appetizer or dessert.
One other demo that particularly stood out to me was done by Stéphanie Labelle, the pastry chef behind Pâtisserie Rhubarbe, which specializes in seasonal sweets and has had great success in the first year it has been open. Since she did desserts, her dishes were right in line with what I like to make and used simple, flavorful ingredients – even though they were dressed up a bit.
And since her dishes were quite a bit larger than what some of the other chefs prepared, it meant that everyone could have a piece (although there were some opportunities to taste the other dishes, too, just on a much smaller scale).
The cooking demonstrations at the Montreal festival were conducted primarily in French, and I have to say that j’ai la chance que je n’ai pas oublié comment parler français! I am glad that all those years studying French in school didn’t go to waste because I didn’t have too many problems understanding what the chefs were doing as they worked. The biggest problem for me was one chef who focused on pig butchering, as you tend not to learn too many parts of pig anatomy or butchering in most French classes. Several of the chefs conducted their demos in a mixture of French and English, and the moderator was completely fluent in both and happy to answer any questions that came up, as well.
Now, I was told that a similar dome will be erected in other cities that the tour will visit to give a similar effect during the demos, but the dome at the Foodlab was a permanent structure, so keep in mind that the experience might not be identical if you take in the tour somewhere else.
One of the highlights of the festival was the Omnivorious Party, a chance to taste a dish prepared by each of the participating chefs. If you’ve ever seen an episode of Top Chef where the contestants are challenged to prepare a one or two bite “signature” dish to serve to hundreds of people, then you have a general idea of what the party was like. The chefs were set up inside a massive rectangular table, and guests traveled from station to station tasting. There was some elbowing involved, though the crowd mostly flowed very smoothly and politely around the room, but every bite was well worth the effort needed to get it.
In the end, every moment of the festival was a celebration of food, cooking and ingredients and it was a lot of fun to take part. I have a new list of “must try” places to visit the next time I’m in Montreal, but I also left the festival feeling extremely inspired – and that was the real point of Omnivore. There are new things I want to eat and I was able to see a few ingredients prepared in unexpected (and delicious) wasy. We were able to taste here and there as the chefs worked, and you could tell that the same excitement was building for everyone watching. And even if you didn’t notice, the way everyone jumped up with their cameras at the end of a demo was a dead giveaway!
The tour’s next stops are in NYC in September and in San Francisco in October. Mark your calendars because, for me, this is one food festival that is well worth making time for.