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Out of the kitchen

The Savour Food & Wine Festival returns for its 10th edition, bringing foodies and chefs closer together

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Chef Geir Simensen, Photo: Tammy Fancy

Chef Geir Simensen, Photo: Tammy Fancy

Back for its 10th edition, the Savour Food & Wine Festival brings a burst of mid-winter activity to the dining scene.

Chef Geir Simensen knows he produces good food at Saege Bistro and Scanway Catering, but he rarely knows how his diners really feel about it. “It’s one thing to talk to a table when people are in the restaurant, but it’s different to…talk to people who are really there to meet you, and want to talk,” he says. “It puts a face to the restaurant.”

That’s why he’s a big believer in the Savour Food & Wine Festival, and has taken part in it yearly since its inception a decade ago. Running throughout February, the month-long festival brings diners together with chefs, restaurateurs, vintners, brewers and suppliers from across the province. It begins on February 1 when the Dine Around program, which runs throughout the month, kicks off. Dine Around gives restaurants a chance to showcase a local project on a three-course prix fixe menu (for either $25, $35 or $45). Participating restaurants weren’t finalized at press time, but you can find all the latest updates at edining.ca.

Simensen likes the opportunity to draw diners’ attention to local suppliers. “I’m absolutely thinking about suppliers who deserve to be noticed,” he says. “I’m thinking of the local suppliers I know who want to be more involved in the restaurant industry, who are providing really quality, locally produced stuff. It’s become so much easier over time to get local ingredients.”

Dine Around takes place around the province, but much of the Savour action is at Casino Nova Scotia on Upper Water Street in Halifax. On February 7, the Schooner Showroom hosts Decadence. The tasting pairs artisanal cheeses, succulent chocolates and wines from around the world.

Organizers deliberately keep the event small in scope, explains Gordon Stewart, executive director of the Restaurant Association of Nova Scotia, which organizes Savour. “We expanded Decadence to 225 tickets this year, and that’s really as big as we want it to get,” he says. “We want it to have that small event feel, where people have time to talk and meander.” This year, organizers have also invited a few local restaurants to Decadence, to share food pairings that complement the theme ingredients.

Next on the calendar is the Rare & Fine wine tasting in the Casino’s Compass Room on February 15. It’s another intimate event, with attendance capped at 125 people. “These are wines that are unavailable in Nova Scotia,” Stewart says, “wines we wouldn’t normally afford.” The idea is to give attendees a chance to try special world-class wines, the sort of wines that normally are unavailable by the glass, and that most people are unlikely to buy for casual sipping.

Following that, it’s back to the Casino’s Schooner Showroom for Imbibe on February 21. Debuting this year, Imbibe is Savour’s newest event. “Imbibe is our biggest new change this year,” Stewart says. “There are some restaurants and bars in Nova Scotia that do a lot of fine cocktails, and they don’t get the attention they deserve. The idea is to celebrate the art of mixology, with 15 booths showcasing specialty brands and demonstrating their signature drinks.

The Savour Food & Wine Festival

Finally, February concludes with the Savour Food & Wine Show on February 28. This year, the event moves to the spacious Cunard Centre on Marginal Road. The flagship event brings 65 exhibitors—restaurants, wineries, bakeries, cheese makers, brewers and suppliers of all sorts—together to celebrate the best of Nova Scotia’s culinary scene. Dozens of chefs are on site, preparing artful little dishes, all included in the ticket price. “It’s the 10th anniversary of Savour,” says Stewart. “And we’re quite happy with how it’s gone. It’s all about bringing restaurants and people together, and getting diners excited about what we do here in Nova Scotia.”

Back at Saege Bistro, Chef Simensen is talking with his suppliers and mulling options for his 10th Savour creation. “We use the year before as a benchmark,” he says. “I like to think each year is a little better.”

Each year, he learns from the experience. “In the early years, I think I had too much chef ego,” he says. “Three years ago I made goat-cheese ice cream. It was something that was interesting to me, but I never considered if it was something people would want or be ready for. And they weren’t.”

Another big learning experience was the year he spent hours crafting an elaborate chocolate showpiece that was his Savour booth’s star attraction. “I thought I could take that back to the bakery and display it in months, but I didn’t think about how warm it gets in there during the show,” he gives a rueful laugh. “I had to stand there and watch all that work melt in about 45 minutes.”

With a decade of Savour under his belt, he relishes those lessons. “Now I like to get a little more simple, use the natural seasonal flavours,” he says. “I guess that’s something chefs learn as they get older. I’ve been doing this for 27 years, but I still feel like I’m learning.”

Simensen has “no clue” what he’ll serve at Savour this year, and doesn’t expect to know until two weeks beforehand. “It’s not something you have to—or should—plan months in advance,” he says. He needs to wait and see what his suppliers can offer, and try to find a good pair for the wines served near his station.

He’s not bereft of ideas, though. And once he starts sharing them, he overpowers his own desire to not get too specific too soon. “But I know I’ll want to serve something comforting, that heartiness people want in the winter,” he says, speaking faster as the menu forms. “It will be something braised—short rib maybe. With a nice celery root purée. Maybe some good carrots. Who knows? But that’s where my head’s at.”

Find Savour details at edining.ca.