By Kathleen Wilker –
This story originally appeared in Kitchissippi Times March 22, 2012. Stephen Beckta’s latest culinary destination, gezellig, is now a Westboro establishment at 337 Richmond Road.
When Steve Beckta welcomes you into his Westboro home, he may ask if you’d like to check your coat before remembering he’s not at one of his two popular and well respected Ottawa restaurants, Beckta or Play Food and Wine.
“I knew I wanted to open my own restaurant ever since I was a kid,” says Beckta. The down-to-earth Ottawa native had an early start in the restaurant business, by working at Malibu Jacks when he was just 13. “I started bussing tables. The first dish I ever made was the famous ‘Good Friends, Good Times Taco Dish,’” he remembers fondly.
At 19, his passion for welcoming family and friends to dinner inspired Beckta to make his own harvest table when he discovered that tables that seat eight cost upwards of $1000. “I couldn’t afford that and I didn’t have any experience with wood working, so I glued eight foot one by twos together and used a belt sander to plane the surface,” says Beckta, sitting at the table which continues to hold pride of place in the dining room he shares with his wife, Maureen Cunningham, a training and organizational change coach and with their son, Seanan.
Bright green kitchen cupboards, green pillows of all shapes, sizes and designs and a soft green blanket dot the spacious and airy main floor.
“We love this colour,” says Cunningham. “It’s just so happy.”
After graduating from Algonquin College’s Sommelier course, Beckta moved to New York City and landed himself a job at Café Boulud. “The building was being renovated when I applied for the job, so I had no idea it was such a fine restaurant,” he laughs. “The first night I worked there I was serving Robin Williams and the Mayor.”
A wedding invitation brought Beckta back to Ottawa where he and Cunningham met. “By our fifth date we had moved in together here in Ottawa,” says Cunningham, who had been rooting for a tiny apartment in Brooklyn but realized that if Beckta really did want to open a restaurant, Ottawa was a better choice for them than New York.
The pair is intentional about the way they want to spend time together and they’ve been equally intentional about the recent renovations to their home. Expansive windows with cozy window seats offer nooks for newspaper reading and convenient storage for a clutter-free living space.
“I knew right away we should get the pod sofa as soon as I saw it,” says Cunningham. “It’s impossible to sit on that sofa without snuggling. I thought it would be great for our marriage.”
Within easy view of the kitchen sink is a large photograph of the Brooklyn Bridge. “That’s where we got engaged,” confides Cunningham, grinning.
At the heart of their kitchen is a wood burning oven. “Everyone’s drawn to the oven and wants to get in there and start cooking,” says Beckta who enjoys cooking lamb, chicken, turkey, bread and, of course, pizza, in the oven. “We’re all drawn to fire and the flavour of fire-cooked food. Humans have cooked with fire for so long.”
While they have plans to open a third restaurant this year, Beckta pictures a location beyond Kitchissippi. “There are many great restaurants in this neighbourhood already,” he says. “The Wellington Gastropub, Juniper, The Back Lane Café, Absinthe and Allium are all favourites for us,” says Beckta. “It’s hard to choose where to go for a birthday dinner, the selection is so great,” adds Cunningham.