For Gordon Stewart and his team at the Restaurant Association of Nova Scotia, putting together the Savour food and wine festival every year is an unquestionably cool job. But it presents a wee challenge: how do you grow something that is already Nova Scotia’s premier culinary event?
Stewart, executive director of the Restaurant Association of Nova Scotia, and his team have been pondering that as they prepare for the 2014 edition. “We’re changing the length and format,” he says. “We’ve rebranded. We really want to create a great winter festival for Nova Scotia and incorporate the winter wine festival.”
The event, which used to run about four weeks, now spans from January 30 to March 6, and has been renamed the Savour Food & Wine Winter Festival. The main event remains the Savour Food & Wine Show at the Cunard Centre on March 6, which will feature some 75 exhibitors sharing samples (all included in the ticket price) of the province’s best culinary offerings. “The goal of the Savour show is to highlight the diversity of Nova Scotia’s food offerings,” Stewart says. “It gives diners a chance to mingle with chefs and food producers, and really discover new things.”
Chef Jason Townes from the Press Gang agrees. “It’s a great showcase of local talent and restaurants,” he says. “As a young chef, I’m trying to get my name out there and places like Savour are a great way to do that. Also its a very fun event.” It’s been three years since Townes has worked at Savour, and his first time creating his own menu (last time, he was Sous Chef for Chris Velden, then with Ryan Duffy’s). “I’m really looking forward to going again and doing it my way this time,” Townes adds.
The show, with three hours of non-stop tasting sensations, has doubled in size since it began a decade ago. “This will be the biggest Savour show ever,” Stewart says. “This year we’re exciting to have more artisan cheeses, and tasting options like that. It’s a chance to learn more, have more fun and discover things from around the province.”
Chefs are busy considering what they’ll offer. At the Press Gang, Townes is being coy but hints he’s considering some variation on the pork chop and one of his restaurant’s signature dishes. “The main factors are how I want to represent myself and my restaurant,” he explains. “The Press Gang has a great reputation for its level of food and service and I need to be able to bring that with me to Savour. We’re known for our oysters at the Press Gang, so I’m definitely planning on featuring a dish of that type, as well as a hot dish—something that really highlights the quality of food I strive for as a chef.”
Further taxing chefs’ creativity is that they’re working in a small space, with one or two burners, and not their well stocked kitchens. “I also have to consider the logistics of transporting, heating, plating,” Townes says. “It’s definitely something that takes a little maneuvering to pull off a great dish.”
Seeing how chefs work in a stripped-down environment is a big part of the appeal for Simon Thibault, a food journalist (and occasional Halifax Magazine contributor) and judge for the Restaurant Association of Nova Scotia’s annual awards program. “You usually get chefs doing things they don’t normally do in the restaurant,” he says. “As a consumer, it’s a way to experience a lot of different aspects of the dining scene without getting overwhelmed. I always look forward to seeing what the out-of-town guys do. They’re coming from further, and have more riding on it, so they pull out all the stops.”
The challenge isn’t just producing an impressive dish—it’s producing hundreds of them, over three hours, in a cramped space with limited tools and ingredients. “You have to produce consistent food, quickly, for a large group, all night long,” Thibault says. “And now we have a lot of people who have figured out how to do that right, and have been thinking about it for a while. You can tell who has really planned it out.”
One of the most interesting elements of the Savour show is the way diners can talk with chefs as they sample. “It’s great to get the face to face, definitely a step outside my usual routine,” Townes says. “It’s always interesting to see people react and hear the compliments first hand—something a lot of chefs don’t get to experience on a regular as we work the line on a busy night.”
Equally exciting for Townes is the chance to see what his fellow chefs are up doing. “There are so many great chefs in Nova Scotia, I’d like to try them all if time permitted,” he says. “Chives, Café Chianti, Elements, Gio and Mateus Bistro are all restaurants I would want to sample. Of course Hamachi too—I’m a big sushi fan.”
And all chefs want to wow their peers. “They definitely don’t want to fall on their face in front of the other chefs,” Thibault says. “Everyone tries to see what everyone else is doing.”
Having the show at the spacious Cunard Centre also allows organizers to incorporate Halifax’s burgeoning food truck scene. Last year, the Food Wolf exhibited—the first food truck in the event’s history. “We’re trying to get a couple in this year,” Stewart says. “They’re a big and growing part of Nova Scotia’s food culture.”
While you have to wait until March to see what Townes and his fellow exhibitors come up with, the festival offers many other events through the winter to whet your appetite. It begins with the Imbibe cocktail tasting at Casino Nova Scotia on Upper Water Street on January 30. The province’s top mixologists will offer some 40 sample cocktails, featuring premium products and paired with hors d’oeuvres and live music. “These are drinks that you hear about but never taste,” Stewart says. “This has just become a fantastic event.”
Throughout February, restaurants around the province will take part in the festival’s Dine Out program, offering special three-course prix fixe menus, showcasing an array of Nova Scotian flavours. And on February 6, action returns to the Casino for Decadence chocolate, wine and cheese tasting. Students from the Nova Scotia Community College’s acclaimed Pastry Arts and Culinary Arts programs will strut their stuff, pairing fine chocolate and cheese dishes with carefully chosen wines.
And serious wine drinkers mustn’t miss the Rare & Fine Wine tasting at the Casino on February 21. Sample from some 30 rare wines, none of which are usually available in Nova Scotia, and all scoring 90+ points in major wine rankings. “Those wines are so rare that we have to order them nine months in advance,” Stewart says.
The Savour events all combine to do something special for the province’s dining scene. “It all makes food and wine culture a lot more accessible,” Thibault says. “If you haven’t experienced these things, it can be a bit intimidating, so this is such a good way to explore.”