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In the kitchen of Cioppino's, owned by Chef Pino, left, Chef Saito, prepares rice for one of the nine courses for a special collaborative dinner on Aug. 4, 2021

Alia Youssef/Alia Youssef/ The Globe and Mail

By prepandemic standards, last week’s collaboration dinner between Toronto’s Masaki Saito and Vancouver’s Pino Posteraro at Cioppino’s Mediterranean Grill would have been extraordinary.

As a private celebration marking the return of special events, it was epic.

Days later, it still feels like a blissful fever dream. But I imagine that years from now, when I reminisce about my own personal turning point – the moment I kicked up my heels and experienced the thrill of fine dining roaring back to life – the memory will be forever imprinted by the taste of exquisitely seasoned sushi rice. It was served hand-to-hand so it stayed perfectly warm and each distinct grain slowly melted in the mouth.

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Or the revelatory pairing of tenderly braised abalone dressed in steamed liver beurre noisette and intensely nutty shavings of aged Parmigiano.

And the exuberant chugging of grand cru wines and vintage sake.

“Kanpai!” host William Cheng, the owner of Sushi Masaki Saito, cheered Wednesday night, as most of his 25 guests (including two of Drake’s personal assistants, who had flown in from Toronto for the occasion) enthusiastically drained their glasses of Smith Haut Lafitte Bordeaux Blanc.

“We’re just trying to get back to normal.”

Chef Pino's and Chef Saito's first course for their collaboration dinner is Botan Ebi which consists of carpaccio of sweet shrimps, tomato jelly, and mozzarella di bufala.

Alia Youssef/ The Globe and Mail

Normal is obviously relative when you’re a candle-manufacturing magnate and the impresario behind Canada’s biggest celebrity chef. Before being lured to Toronto, Mr. Saito, an exceptionally skilled edomae master chef, had earned two Michelin stars at Sushi Ginza Onodera in New York.

But from private group dinners to festivals and galas, special events are undoubtedly back, although not without their challenges. And it’s time to cautiously raise our glasses to a future that is no longer limited to takeout and socially distanced tables.

Step 3 of British Columbia’s Restart Plan allows for indoor organized gatherings of 50 people, outdoor gatherings of 5,000, fairs and festivals. Step 4, scheduled for Sept. 7 if case counts and hospital admissions remain low, will bring an end to all restrictions.

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Special-event organizers report that weddings are currently filling most of their calendars. But there are plenty of big food and drink events in store for the general public to enjoy.

They will look a little different this year.

For their third course is Isaki, which is grunt fish as an ultimate sushi bite.

Alia Youssef/Alia Youssef/ The Globe and Mail

Some are scaling back. When Brewery & The Beast, for example, returns after a one-year hiatus to Vancouver and Victoria next month, the grazing festivals will run at half capacity.

But shorter lineups, more food per guest (thanks to extra sponsorship to help out participating restaurants), new measures such as flush toilets (as opposed to porta-potties) and booking engines that allow easy ticket transfers (in case guests are feeling unwell) will likely only enhance the experience.

Others are adopting new formats. The Oliver Osoyoos Wine Country Pig Out Trail is usually a one-day, 1,000-person food and wine festival. Next month, the events will be spread out over three days with 500 guests split into groups of 40 in staggered winery tour routes in private coaches to allow for well-spaced outdoor tasting experiences.

And when the grand charity galas return this fall, many will be integrating the virtual participation options – including “gala-in-a-box” meal deliveries and private home catering – that actually proved to be a boon to many organizations last year by engaging new donors.

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“There is definitely a hunger to get out and socialize again,” says Antonia Kalmacoff Jennings, manager of planned giving and strategic initiatives for Big Sisters of BC Lower Mainland, which will be holding its largest fundraiser, the Luminary Soirée, both virtually and at an in-person grazing event this October.

For their fourth course is Katsuo, which consists of lightly torched bonito, dressing of ponzu, balsamico, and meyer lemon.

Alia Youssef/Alia Youssef/ The Globe and Mail

“But I’m beginning to think the hybrid model will be with us forever. There are some people, including many of our key supporters, who have no intention of ever going back into a ballroom to sit with 650 strangers again.”

Owing to an acute labour shortage, runaway costs and uncertainty with long-range planning, some of the most anticipated special dining events of the summer (Dîner en Blanc and the Araxi Longtable Dinner, among them), will not return until next year.

“The cost of putting on special events has gone up so much – anywhere from 35 to 100 per cent for things like rental tents, fencing, barbecues,” says Scott Gurney, director of 17 Black Events, which organizes Brewery & The Beast.

And it’s not just regular restaurant staff that have left the industry in droves – the sector, which employed 190,000 in prepandemic times is currently down about 40,000 workers, according to B.C.’s Alliance of Beverage Licensees.

The subcontract gig workers who normally travel a cross-continent festival circuit, from B.C. to New Zealand, are also in short supply.

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Brewery & The Beast is a fundraiser for the Chefs’ Table Society of B.C. To help overcome the staffing challenges – and generate excitement for an industry that is limping under financial restraints – the festival will engage many more students this year and put them right into the thick of things.

“At a lot of culinary competitions, you see volunteer students just hanging in the background,” Mr. Gurney says. “We really want to see them use their skills this year and establish relationships with their restaurant partners – maybe even go down to the restaurant and put in a shift before the event. We want them to get excited about participating because they are the future and the industry really needs them.”

Is it too soon to celebrate?

I felt a moment of fleeting doubt at Cioppino’s last week, when I finished swooning over the grunt fish “sushi sorbet” that was served as a palate-cleansing interlude after a stupendously silky Hokkaido scallop with foie gras, Tasmanian truffles and citrus comfiture. (The dinner was a true Japanese-Italian collaboration from start to finish.)

I turned around to discover that the couple that previously had been sitting beside me in the private dining room had gone outside to the patio to finish their meal.

“It’s just too soon for them,” Kamen Sun, COO of the Toronto restaurant group, explained.

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There are likely many others who will feel the same. Fortunately for the rest of us, life is slowly returning to normal – and at this particular dinner, more sumptuously than ever.

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