Summit Scene: dispatch from inside the G20’s kitchens by local restaurateur John Lee
Flak jackets, photo badges and the K-9 unit are a rare sight at catering functions (more often a staple of the ensuing after-party), but they were in full force at Experience Canada, part of the G20 pavilion for the foreign press (think fake lake). I was there as a member of Nick Liu’s culinary team from the Niagara Street Café, invited to assist in presenting an Asian-inspired dish featuring local ingredients for international journalists. On the menu: General Tao sweetbreads on a bed of Asian slaw with jellyfish topped with cilantro, red pepper and sesame seeds.
As representatives of Savour Ontario, we were charged with the task of highlighting both the multicultural flavour of Canada and its diversity of ingredients. This was not an easy proposition, given the heightened scrutiny during the last night of the event, with one Mr. Obama in attendance. We had to first explain to a Saskatoon police officer why we were using butane canisters and then had them confiscated by the Sureté du Quebec. We were informed that the only way we could get them back was to have our boss speak with the officer. After a tense conversation with the organizers, we were informed that we could have the canisters after the leader of the free world had finished speaking. With our détente at an end, we proceeded to get ready for our 6:30 start.
Sweetbreads are a tough sell in any establishment, but when Nick told me what he had in mind for the event, I was skeptical that it would appeal to the broad range of palates in attendance. My worries were unfounded: with all the elements of the dish prepared expertly from scratch and served in Chinese takeout containers, the ensuing lineup did not ebb until we had served all 300 portions. The power of deep-fried food to quell the apprehension of the squeamish was clearly on display as we rifled through our mise en place in one hour. Nick’s dish was an obvious hit, as evidenced by the sad faces of those who came back for seconds and found none.
With our task complete, we wandered around our designated area to take in the whole “experience” that is Canada. I wonder if canoes, Muskoka chairs and Dan Aykroyd’s wine are what the press will remember when they recall the place where they had their first taste of sweetbreads.
John S.J. Lee is the former general manager of Susur and chef de partie at Centro. He is now the president of Chippy’s Fish and Chips.