Meet the chef behind Rideau Hall's lavish state dinner for Mexico's president
Published Monday, June 27, 2016 10:52PM EDT
Last Updated Monday, June 27, 2016 10:59PM EDT
OTTAWA -- Caribou from Rankin Inlet. Lobster from Nova Scotia. Prosciutto from Niagara. Cheese from five provinces. The meal is supposed to be top secret until the 106 guests start feasting inside Rideau Hall's majestic ballroom tomorrow, at the State Dinner for Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto.
But Executive Chef Louis Charest, who's cooked for the Queen, the Japanese Emperor, and dozens of dignitaries in his 16-year career at Rideau Hall, is dropping a few hints about the menu he's created.
"I want to highlight some of the North and from coast to coast, to show our multiculturalism with a little more of a Mexican flare," he explains to me on the grounds of the Governor General's garden. That's where Charest is harvesting many of the 100-plus ingredients that will be used in the dinner: from rhubarb to juneberries, basil and other herbs.
The food isn't the only part of the evening that requires meticulous planning -- so is the seating. "The art of making the table plan is quite a lot like a chess game," says Rideau Hall's executive director of Events, Household and Visitor Services, Christine MacIntyre.
She leads a team of 50 people she calls her "secret agents," who find out information about the guests -- what languages they speak, their interests, their backgrounds -- and match them up with other invitees based on that information "so that they can learn about each other but also do quite a bit of business around a fantastic meal."
At each table, there's a Canadian host who is aware of this information, and is responsible for asking "pointed questions to stimulate conversation."
There's even a calligrapher on standby to re-write place cards if needed.
Because Canada's Head of State is the Queen and the Governor General represents her, David Johnston will give a speech. Justin Trudeau -- who is attending his first state dinner in Canada since becoming prime minister -- will not be speaking.
Despite the best attention to detail, there have been some hiccups at previous dinners. Once, there was a power outage. Another time, Chef Charest ran out of meat.
But with some improvisation, the show always goes on. It has to. Culinary diplomacy isn't just about the food. It's about forging friendships that could lead to trade deals worth millions. "So yeah, it's serious business," Charest says.
State Dinner: By the Numbers
100-plus number of ingredients for the food
35 pounds of weight for each silver serving platter with food
10 guests at the head table
12 guests at each of the other eight tables
12,000 pieces of crystal on the chandelier, which also contains 80 bulbs