Tasty New Year! Expert New Year’s Eve tips from some top Ontario chefs | Ontario Culinary
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Tasty New Year! Expert New Year’s Eve tips from some top Ontario chefs

Plated selection of cheese, grapes, nuts, and accompaniments with glasses of red wine

There are two types of people in this world: Those who see New Year’s Eve as a chance to dress up and hit the town and those who regard it as the ultimate invitation to stay in for a cozy celebration that may or may not end before 9 p.m. Whatever your flavour of New Year’s Eve revelry, the menu should play a central part in the evening’s activities – which is why we’ve tapped some of Ontario’s coolest food professionals for their favourite ways to ring in the new year, featuring the very best of local produce, restaurants and celebrations for the whole family.

Sam Vandenberg of sixthirtynine preparing meals in the kitchen

Sam Vandenberg, chef at sixthirtynine (Oxford County)

“If I can be biased, we do a New Year’s Eve tasting menu at sixthirtynine. That’s a low-key vibe, unless you’re the last seating, which gets to stay and celebrate with the staff. It’s fun, because everybody at the restaurant gets to celebrate as a family with champagne. We always try to do something special for the menu. This year, we’re in talks with a local duck producer. Usually, duck is hard to come by, and not a lot of people have duck at home on an average Thursday night. We also have a great trout provider in St. Thomas. We try to stay very local.

If you’re doing an at-home thing, people love appetizers. You’re with friends, and it gives you a chance to party more than just having a sit-down, which can take the fun out of it. Being in Oxford County, we have Your Farm Market, which has all local produce. I’d do a baked brie with Brigid’s Brie from Gunn’s Hill Artisan Cheese. They’re award-winning local cheesemakers and we use them for everything. If you’re more meat-oriented, Your Farm Market carries Norpac meat; they use smaller farms for their beef, and they dry age it for 55 days. I’d probably sear it, make a salsa verde for it and put it on a board so people can grab a bite.

A cool thing to do if you have a smaller party is to get different couples to make different cocktails. Every hour or so, a couple brings out a cocktail. You might get a martini, then a negroni. All the cocktails aren’t on the host, and it’s a surprise for everyone.

For dessert, it has to be chocolate – it’s decadent, and it goes really well with dessert wines. We have Habitual Chocolate here in Woodstock. They do bean-to-bar, and they source all their own beans. They make their chocolate right in the store, and we use their chocolate a lot.”

Headshot of Chef Tammy Maki

Chef Tammy Maki, owner and CEO of Raven Rising Global Indigenous Chocolates (Sudbury)

“Charcuterie is always on the menu for my New Year’s celebration. I try to make the crackers myself, and I love making gougères as well. I add apple butter, candied pecans, and dried cranberries with local meats and cheeses. I also pair this with some great Ontario wine. I usually spend New Year’s with my brother and sister-in-law. We’re a pretty easygoing crowd, so for drinks, it’s usually a really nice sparkling rosé for early evening and then a great prosecco or wine from Niagara close to midnight.

The best NYE is not only with the best people, but the best tunes. Anything from David Bowie to Queen, a little Lynyrd Skynyrd, you can’t forget Phil Collins and pretty much anything else from the ‘60s through to the ‘80s. If all else fails and I’m by myself on New Year’s, I curl up with Dexter the cat and Frankie the Boston Terrier and watch old musicals like Fiddler on the Roof or The Sound of Music, which makes me fall in love with Christopher Plummer yet again.”

Headshot of Chef Nick Benninger

Nick Benninger, culinary director of the Fat Sparrow Group (Waterloo Region)

“As we – and our restaurant group – have matured, we find ourselves with New Year’s Eve off so we can spend it at home with the kids. We tend to treat ourselves pretty well: Seafood is always the theme, and lots of it. Usually we will have an outdoor fire and cook at least a few dishes out there: fire-roasted calamari, grilled clams, oysters shucked in the moonlight with sparkling firmly planted in a snowbank. We keep things very low-key in the sense that it’s just us, but we also go full-out on the feasting, living our best lives in the twilight of the year!

If you’re hosting, my tip is to keep the party near the kitchen! That’s why I love a good grazing-style menu. It keeps the action close to the chef and everyone chips in. Oyster shucking is a great group activity, so put those friends to work and teach them a cool skill. Keep it simple, and leave flexibility so you can skip or add courses if needed. Treat the event like a line cook treats dinner service and have all your mise en place done ahead of time – lemons cut, herbs picked, oysters washed and ice crushed. Rushing around in a panic is not the vibe you are looking for.

For the menu, choose dishes that might also work for a New Year’s day brunch, so any courses that get missed due to too much reveling can easily be enjoyed the next day. I’d do lots of local cheeses – Mountainoak three-year-old gouda will without a doubt make that list – accompanied by our own Fat Sparrow Apple Chutney. Local fishmonger T&J’s Seafood makes the best cold smoked salmon in the world. New Year’s is always a great excuse for caviar and oysters, both coming from the east coast for me. Acadian Sturgeon Caviar is my favourite source for wild and farmed. Beers, ciders, pét nat and grape ales all help mark a festive event. Locally, we are fortunate to have Revel CiderShort Finger Brewing and Block Three that excel in those categories.”

Headshot of Ricky Casipe and Olivia Simpson

Ricky Casipe and Olivia Simpson, co-founders Ricky + Olivia pop-ups and events (Niagara Benchlands)

“If you’re planning New Year’s Eve out, start your day by checking out Pearl Morissette’s RPM Bakehouse in Jordan. Great coffee and absolutely delicious pastries, baked goods as well as breakfast or lunch options. You might even run into us there, as we live just a few doors down and are always there!

After that, we highly recommend swinging by Westcott Vineyards for a tasting by the fire of some of the best Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays in the region. Ball’s Falls Conservation Area is great for a midday family walk. Good Earth Winery is a favourite of ours and they are one of the most family-friendly wineries, so we would recommend checking out what they have planned for the holiday season.

We also love to stop by Bushel & Peck, a neighbourhood farm shop that carries small batch Ontario products and also lots of fun zero-proof beverages.”

Headshot of Chef Jason Bangerter

Jason Bangerter, chef at Langdon Hall Country House and Spa (Cambridge)

“New Year’s Eve menus are celebration menus! Lobster, smoked oysters, pickled ramps, and cheese come to mind. I love clothbound PEI cheddar. You can also never go wrong with pasta and winter truffles. I’d probably include some late-night surprises as well, like a grilled cheese sandwich close to midnight. For a really low-key menu, pizza, of course, champagne, and definitely late-night ice cream.

At Langdon Hall, we offer a black-tie celebration with champagne and canapés to start, live music, and a multi-course tasting menu. My truffle soup is always a favourite and usually makes an appearance by popular demand. (The recipe can be found in my cookbook, Langdon Hall: A Cookbook.)

If not Langdon Hall, I would head out to Stratford to the Braai House for a tasting menu and dancing. I live in Milton, so in that area I’d recommend Pasqualino’s Fine Dining.”

Zack Keeshig, head chef and owner of Naagan (Owen Sound)

“We do a New Year’s Eve service, so my celebration depends on what time I get home. We’re a tasting menu restaurant, and we focus on hyper-local food. I go foraging when I can, and that’s what we showcase. We make our own drinks, and we make medicinal drinks to pair with the food. For New Year’s, we’d probably make our wild ginger beer or a blueberry spruce beer, made with ingredients that we go and forage, and add a touch of yeast to and ferment. When we use cheese on our menu, we get it all from Thornloe Cheese.

At home, if I’m hanging with the kids, we love going out for sushi at Yummy Yummy in Owen Sound and coming back and watching TV. If you’re looking for a family-friendly activity, in recent years, they’ve been doing fireworks down at the farmer’s market, and the local YMCA has something where you can take children to go blow off some steam in the gym. In Harrison Park, they make an ice rink that’s open to the public, and a lot of people go down there and skate, play a bit of hockey.

If you want to go out somewhere, I would suggest Sumac and Salt, which does a tasting menu of local food, or The Pine in Collingwood. Mudtown Station is a nice casual spot in Owen Sound to grab a beer.”