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Welcome to the world through my eyes. I'm an internationally published travel writer and photographer who has travelled to 75+ countries, and has tried to capture some of that along the way. Travel means the world to me, and my goal is to offer tips and advice to help you feel the same! 

Celebrating Simcoe County, Ontario at the ORHMA Hospitality Awards Gala

Celebrating Simcoe County, Ontario at the ORHMA Hospitality Awards Gala

Since I moved back to Toronto, I’ve been keen to cover stories around Ontario that deserve more attention, so when I was invited to the 7th Annual Simcoe Hospitality Awards hosted by the ORHMA (Ontario Restaurant Hotel & Motel Association), I jumped at the opportunity to attend. The invite also extended to my partner, Briana, so, before we knew it we were wearing our Sunday best, and heading towards the Hawk Ridge Golf and Country Club near Orillia, Ontario.

I wanted to put together this post for a number of reasons. Firstly, as someone with a platform, I wanted to talk a bit more about what the ORHMA stands for, and why their efforts matter to the province at large. Secondly, I wanted to talk about the experience that Bri and I had at the ORHMA Awards Gala in Simcoe County, and finally I felt it was important to highlight some of the major players in Simcoe County’s hospitality scene, including a few particular individuals who deservingly received awards.

If you enjoy learning about detailed tips on what to do in Ontario, be sure to check out my latest Ebook, which is great for planning a Toronto getaway!   

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Typically, I write itineraries or share thoughts that allow you to plan your travels with greater ease and clarity, but occasionally I like to step back and highlight something I feel is important, and that’s the case here. That being said, I do actually feel like you’ll be able to plan an itinerary of sorts just by proxy of me listing some of the winning and nominated restaurants, bars, hotels and events in Simcoe County.

You’ll also find a full list of nominees and winners at this year’s event towards the bottom of the article.

Where is Simcoe County, Ontario?

Simcoe County, Ontario is not far from Toronto, which is Ontario and Canada’s biggest city.

The County of Simcoe, located just north of the Greater Toronto Area, has around half a million people and, believe it or not, is the second largest county in the province based on population, and the third largest based upon physical size. If your Ontario geography is on point, you’ll know that Simcoe County is located in Southern Ontario and stretches from the shores of Lake Simcoe in the east to Georgian Bay in the west.

You might recognize many of the towns and cities in the region because of their importance in the Ontario tourism scene. They’ve got no shortage of Ontario restaurants and Ontario resorts of note. A few Ontario destinations that you might recognize may include places like Clearview, Spingwater, Alliston, Collingwood, Midland, Penetanguishine, and Wasaga Beach. Also, it’s worth noting that Barrie and Orillia are in the geographical boundaries of the county, though they are technically separate on a political and administrative level.

You can see from the small blue dot on the map that, sadly, I wasn’t able to stay in Simcoe County forever and am actually writing this from my hometown, which you’ll know is Toronto.

Please note that many of the photos I’ve used throughout were sourced from Mani Singh of © Mani Photography.

What is the ORHMA, and What is the Annual Simcoe Hospitality Awards Gala?

The Simcoe Awards Gala supports those in Simcoe County who are in hospitality and tourism.

The ORHMA stands for the Ontario Restaurant Hotel and Motel Association, and they’re the largest provincial hospitality association in Canada with over 4000 members representing more than 11,000 establishments across the province. Broadly speaking, the ORHMA aims to aid and educate establishments in hospitality to foster an improved business climate in the province at large.

The Simcoe County Hospitality Awards Gala then, celebrates outstanding hospitality and tourism professionals in the region specifically, and aims to further support and recognize the ORHMA members in Simcoe County.

The Gala is also a huge opportunity for the ORHMA to raise scholarship funds that directly support students in the Georgian College School of Hospitality, Tourism, and Recreation programs. This year, they raised over 70,000 dollars that goes directly to students, and if that isn’t amazing, I don’t know what it is.

If you’re enjoying this post, you might also want to check on articles on the Top Breweries in Toronto or How to Have the Ultimate Couples Weekend in Niagara Falls

Our Experience at the ORHMA Simcoe County Region Hospitality Awards Gala

Bri and I loved dressing up for the Simcoe Hospitality Awards in Simcoe County, Ontario

Where there is good food, you shall find me - that’s a basic rule of thumb.

Joking aside, Bri and I were delighted to attend the Gala in large part because of the incredible offering of cuisine at the event. I mean, it does make sense that an event celebrating the best in Simcoe County hospitality would have excellent cuisine. I’d like to take you through the event, and a good place to start is the cocktail reception on the grounds of the picturesque Hawk Ridge Golf and Country Club. The drinks were flowing and there was plenty of live music - hey, that’s not a bad combo.

The Cocktail Reception

The ORHMA represents the whole province but they have a strong membership in Simcoe County, Ontario

In true Canadian fashion, if there’s a touch of sun and warmth on the horizon, you embrace it, and that’s why I was pleased to see the tent set up just out back at the Hawk Ridge Golf and Country Club, - it had an outdoor feel mixed with something akin to indoor warmth.

We all happily packed into the tent for some live tunes, appetizers prepared and served by Georgian College students and, of course, some refreshments. Muskoka Brewery had their beer on offer (including the Muskoka Detour IPA, which I adore), and for those looking for something lighter, Georgian Bay Spirit Co. was there with their lineup of pre-made cocktails (try the Cranberry Gin Smash if you haven’t!)

It was also nice to see Pelee Island Winery there as you might remember I visited Pelee Island not so long ago, and both Bri and I felt that a trip to Pelee Island was a very underrated Ontario experience.

It was a spirited mingling, and I got the sense that this awards gala was a great excuse for people in the industry to see some familiar faces they hadn’t seen in quite some time. It was here that I also observed what a genuinely supportive community the Simcoe County hospitality industry was.

NOTE: This post may contain some affiliate links. That means, simply, that I may get a commission at no cost to you. That being said, my opinions are fully my own.

The Tastings

The best part of the Simcoe County Hospitality Awards Gala had to be the food!

A major component of the event was centred around tasting different dishes and, suffice to say, I did not leave hungry. These tastings were connected to the 2019 Silver Plate Award. Basically, seven different establishments had a table upon which they were preparing food. Those attending the gala got to play the role of judge and try all seven dishes, and then vote for whose dish was best. The chef that received the most votes was given the Silver Plate Award.

Personally, I thought this was such a fun setup. It made it easy to meet people at your table because we were all talking about the respective dishes and which ones we were enjoying the most. Also, each dish was beautifully done in its own right, so it was a delight to try seven different dishes of that caliber.

It would seem silly if I didn’t mention the dishes which were on offer and which, ultimately, highlight the talent and diversity of the Simcoe County culinary scene.

  1. Chef Emily Mallena and chef Greg Klomp of Living Water Resort made beer braised short ribs, jalapeño and cheddar polenta, and a port jus to go along with it.

  2. Chef Derek Mayes of The Office and the Bay put forth a slow roasted brined pork tenderloin.

  3. Chef Paul Laforet and Chef Peter Heron of the Best Western Plus Mariposa Inn and Conference Centre offered up braised short ribs with a cauliflower puree.

  4. Chef Josh Lockrey and Sous Chef Ian Howes of the Hawk Ridge Golf and Country Club prepared seared scallops with pickled blueberries, pancetta, scallion oil, and sorrell greens, served with black garlic and lemon aioli.

  5. Chef Bonnie Aguiar of Sweet B’s was in charge of dessert and plated an array of goodies and sweets to die for including s’mores brownies, salted caramel & cranberry cookies and maple walnut bars.

  6. Chef Keith Sprunt of Casino Rama had a bison bourguignon with wild mushroom, crusted elk striploin, as well as butter braised pork belly, and a caramelized onion chutney and sweet potato puree.

  7. Chef Travis Walker of the Nottawasaga Inn Resort made a veal loin with morels, and butternut squash puree with mushroom ravioli.

I personally tried each dish, and trying to decide which dish was best was quite a feat. Each of these ontario restaurants and establishments should be proud of what they created. In particular, I was very fond of the scallop dish by the Hawk Ridge Golf and Country Club, as well as the bison bourguignon by Casino Rama.

And the winner is…

Keith Sprunt of Casino Rama was the winner of the Silver Plate Award at the 2019 ORHMA Awards

Keith Sprunt of Casino Rama!

He got the votes and thus the Silver Plate Award for 2019! I caught up with Keith after the unveiling to talk about the award, but also his path to becoming a chef. If there’s one thing that became clear to me at the Simcoe County Awards Gala, it was that every person there got there because of passion. If your heart isn’t in this industry you just won’t make it, and I know that personally from years bartending and so forth. It’s not an easy job, but the right people make it look easy, and that’s worth celebrating.

“I knew I wanted to become a chef since about the age of 9,” he told me. “What I love most about being a Chef is the ability to have an idea pop into my head and have it translated into reality within a few short minutes, hours, or days - and being part of an occupation and way of life that has such a proud history.”

I was struck by Keith’s humility. When I asked him about winning the Silver Plate Award, he of course mentioned that it felt wonderful, but also noted that he was “accepting the award on behalf of all the local chefs, who bust their ass night and day, sacrificing a lot of their lives for the love of cooking and who strive for perfection.”

I couldn’t let him go without congratulating him on the big win, and asking about how he arrived at that dish in particular, and once again letting his honesty and humble nature shine through he said, “I wanted to do something that was out of the box- but not too out of the box. I chose bison because of its similarity to beef, and for most people out there, beef is their go-to. I then worked backwards to create the dish, trying to get elements of every taste involved. I think it could have been anyone’s dish that won, I was just lucky that night I guess, lucky and very thankful!”

A huge congratulations to Keith, but also to all of the other chefs who created dishes with memorable flavours on a night that was all about celebrating Simcoe County restaurants and chefs that are pushing the boundaries.

The People

There were hundreds and hundreds of people at the event, which makes sense when you consider both the size of Simcoe County, as well as the reach of the Ontario Restaurant Hotel and Motel Association. At my table in particular were a number of people who both Bri and I were only too happy to get to know. Without knowing it, the people we met painted a picture of why an awards gala like this is so special.

In light of that, I want to highlight three people who we met at our table who all ended up winning an award! We were joking all night that we were the winning table, and, funny enough, it came to fruition. Each win at our table led to an eruption of sorts, and it was a kind reminder of just how fun it is to selflessly root for others. For me, the Gala was also fun because most of the award winners and nominees are people who spend their lives looking after others, and now they get their moment in the sun, to be rightfully celebrated.

If you’re loving the Ontario vibe on this post, you might also want to read about Visiting Pelee Island or the Best Distilleries in Toronto

Paul Mastrokyriakos who won the People’s Choice Award for Best Server, representing Midland Ontario’s The Boathouse Eatery.

The Boathouse Eatery in Midland, Ontario did very well at the Simcoe County Hospitality Awards Gala

Watching Paul’s reaction when the award was announced might just have been the highlight of the night for me. No, I haven’t been to The Boathouse Eatery or been served by him, but his passion for the job shone through. His partner was there with him, also a very lovely person, and it was such an honour to all be able to erupt in cheer for him (and them)!

He recalled that big moment for me. “I was very surprised and very happy, my heart was beating so fast when finding out I was the winner for the ‘Favourite Server Award.’ Living in a small town and competing against people from all over Simcoe County, I didn’t expect to win.”

From a broader scope, I was also curious how he felt about the Gala, and particularly how it cultivates a sense of community. “I really enjoyed the Gala,” he said, “The whole night felt magical. I was meeting people in the hospitality industry from all over Simcoe County and I felt very honoured to be a part of it.”

Having bartended myself for many years not all that long ago, I also know that your ability to thrive at your job depends a lot on the establishment. He echoed a sentiment that I can only imagine many people at the Gala felt. “No matter how busy we are, and no matter what position we are, we all work great together to make every guest have a positive experience and a memorable one. My favourite part of the job is I get to connect with people, seeing them happy, smiling, and satisfied. And, as they leave, knowing they enjoyed their dining experience.”

I only got to meet Paul briefly, but I left with the sense that we could really use more people like Paul in this world. I know that this summer Bri and I will be trying to make the trip up to Midland, Ontario to The Boathouse Eatery, and I can only hope that we’re lucky enough to get Paul as our server. He’s the best in Simcoe County, after all, right?!

If and when we get up there, I know Bri and I will try to see if we can at least find time to share a meal and a few more memories with Paul and his partner.

Karen Mealing who won the People’s Choice Award for Favourite Regional Festival/ Event for Midland, Ontario’s Butter Tart Festival

Karen Mealing runs the Ontario Buttertart Festival out of Midland, Ontario

As a Canadian, my love for butter tarts knows no bounds. When I was living abroad, it was the butter tart that I yearned for when thinking about my homeland. I’m embarrassed to say that I really didn’t know nearly enough about Ontario’s Butter Tart Festival and Contest in Midland, Ontario - but I’m certainly happy that I know about it now!

Karen really opened my eyes when stating, “It’s what Midland is known for. We’re the original butter tart festival, and we’re the largest in Canada…We had 65,000 visitors last year, and the population of the town is 17,000. Each year we seem to have about 10,000 more!”

I then became curious just how many butter tarts are actually made during the Butter Tart Festival, and what kinds we’re talking about. For the most part, my butter tart experience is with the original flavour with an occasional foray into either raison or pecan. For each festival, she mentioned that “at least 200,000 are made. You’ll have plain, raisin, maple bacon, the fruit flavoured ones - even butter tarts that will have dark chocolate and sea salt in them!”

This year Ontario’s Butter Tart Festival will take place on June 8th, so mark it on your calendar if you haven’t already! It looks like this year will be bigger and better than anything they’ve seen before.

When I asked what it was like leading up the event, she had the perfect answer. “You can feel the butter tart hum starting in town. Everyone is involved!”

Scott Denis who won the People’s Choice Award for Favourite Bar, also representing The Boathouse Eatery in Midland, Ontario

The Boathouse Eatery in Midland, Ontario was a big winner at the Annual Simcoe Hospitality Awards Dinner

Scott Denis is the General Manager at The Boathouse Eatery, and his positive energy was infectious. You might note that the above photo is of Scott (on the right), and Paul (on the left), who won Best Server. I must admit that seeing Scott’s reaction when Paul was announced as the winner a few categories before him was nothing short of endearing. In the end, I wasn’t surprised that either of them had won, as The Boathouse Eatery clearly was run by a group that had a certain camaraderie.

Scott reminisced fondly about the work that he has done and continues to do for the Boathouse Eatery, and that aforementioned camaraderie. “The two individuals that I have the pleasure of working for now are hands down the best human beings that I have had the good fortune of working for. It is a rare thing for your work day to be less fun when your boss ISN't around! That makes it easy for me, which in turn allows us to cultivate an environment where we really are like a family, that firmly believes in an even balance of high standards and having a great time.”

I think the big thing for me is that meeting Scott (and Paul, for that matter) really made both Bri and I excited about the prospect of visiting The Boathouse Eatery. That excitement, as it were, came from their excitement, and just seeing that both of their hearts were very much in the right place. “We were extremely humbled, grateful, and a little bit giddy to be nominated but we certainly never expected to pull off a Double-Win that's for sure. With so many amazing restaurants, bars, nightclubs, and the great staff working at them, we were just happy to be invited to the party,” Scott said.

He went on to note what I feel is the perfect sentiment for any establishment which aims to be the best they can in the field of tourism and hospitality. “What also needs to be clear is that I may have been the one to accept the award, but we were only up there because of every last employee who busts their butt for us and every person who supports us as we continue to grow and improve. To all our fantastic staff and loyal guests, we would not have been there without you!”

If you’re all about Ontario travel, don’t forget to check out my post on the Perfect Weekend in Ottawa or Exploring the Ontario Highlands

The Full List of People’s Choice Awards Winners at the Simcoe Hospitality Awards Gala

Each and every nominee and winner deserves credit, and all such I’ve included the full list of Simcoe County’s best and brightest in hospitality!

Favourite Server
1. Paul Mastrokyriakos - The Boathouse Eatery - Midland
2. Rose Maier - Mahogany Room, Nottawasaga Inn Resort - Alliston
3. Sarah Long - St Germain’s - Casino Rama - Orilla
Winner: Paul Mastrokyriakos - The Boathouse Eatery

Favourite Bartender

1. Grant Hrickovian - Pie Woodfired Pizza Joint - Midland
2. Anne MacDonald - Nottawasaga Inn Resort - Alliston
3. Terry Bond - Grape & Olive Wine & Martini Bistro - Orillia
Winner: Anne MacDonald - Nottawasaga Inn Resort

Favourite Accommodation Agent
1. Parambir Gill - Nottawasaga Inn Resort - Alliston
2. Dagmar Beyer - Living Water Resorts - Collingwood
3. Emily Maracle - Casino Rama - Orilla
Winner: Parambir Gill - Nottawasaga Inn Resort

Favourite Restaurant
1.Shine Juice Bar and Cafe - Orillia
2. St Germain’s, Casino Rama - Orillia
3. Mahogany Room, Nottawasaga Inn Resort - Alliston
Winner: Shine Juice Bar and Cafe - Orillia

Favourite Bar/Nightclub
1. The Boathouse Eatery - Midland
2. Kenzington’s Burger Bar - Barrie
3. Donaleigh’s Irish Pub - Barrie
Winner: The Boathouse Eatery - Midland

Favourite Accommodations Facility
1. Nottawasaga Inn Resort - Alliston
2. Living Water Resorts - Collingwood
3. Best Western Plus Mariposa Inn and Conference Centre - Orillia
Winner: Nottawasaga Inn Resort - Alliston

Favourite Recreational/Tourism Facility

1. Nottawasaga Inn Resort - Alliston
2. Living Water Resorts - Collingwood
3. Casino Rama - Orillia
Winner: Casino Rama - Orillia

Favourite Regional Festival/Event
1. Buttertart Festival - Midland
2. Mariposa Folk Festival - Orillia
3. Elvis Festival - Collingwood
Winner: Buttertart Festival - Midland

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The Full List of Industry Awards Winners at the Simcoe Hospitality Awards Gala

Accommodations Manager of the Year
1. Steven Ollerenshaw - Casino Rama
2. Jessica Brock - Living Water Resort
3. Michelle Weber - Best Western Plus Mariposa Inn and Conference Centre
Winner: Steven Ollerenshaw - Casino Rama

Restaurant/Nightclub/Bar Manager of the Year
1. Norma Jean Burnie - Grape & Olive Wine & Martini Bistro
2. Marlene Silva - Maple Canadian Pub
3. Dean MacNeil - Nottawasaga Inn Resort
Winner: Norma Jean Burnie - Grape & Olive Wine & Martini Bistro

Kitchen Manager of the Year
1. Saundra Vezeau - Maple Canadian Pub
2. Chris Gardiner - The Farmhouse
3. Keith Sprunt - Casino Rama
Winner: Keith Sprunt - Casino Rama

Hospitality and Tourism Industry Recognition Award
1. Warren Smith - Living Water Resort
2. Steve Hilborn - Georgian College
3. Andrea Sullivan - Best Western Plus Mariposa Inn and Conference Centre
Winner: Andrea Sullivan - Best Western Plus Mariposa Inn and Conference Centre

Industry Supplier of the Year
1. Metrocom Audio Visual - Barrie
2. Alliston Creamery - Alliston
3. Holland Marsh Growers Association
Winner: Alliston Creamery - Alliston

Heart of House Award

1. Lois Bickerstaff - Best Western Plus Mariposa Inn and Conference Centre
2. Lynda Fairhead & Wanda Shedlowich - Nottawasaga Inn Resort
3. Susan DeVogel-Troch— Living Water Resorts

Icons and Innovators Award
1. The Dubeau Family - Midland
2. Mary Lynn West Moines - Georgian College
Winner: The Dubeau Family - Midland

Operations Hero Award
1. JR Faulkner - Nottawasaga Inn Resort
2. Peter Heron - Best Western Plus Mariposa Inn and Conference Centre
3. Duncan Mills - Georgian College
Winner: JR Faulkner - Nottawasaga Inn Resort


There was something that Keith Sprunt, winner of the Silver Plate Award, mentioned when we were talking that stuck with me. He talked about the ORHMA Simcoe Hospitality Awards as serving an important role in the community and Ontario culinary scene at large. “I think the ORHMA awards are important for the industry because it is imperative to recognize and showcase outstanding individuals, restaurants, event venues, etc, that are striving for excellence in the hospitality sector,” he said.

He also echoed something that I felt when visiting Simcoe County - and that’s the underlying potential of this growing region. He was talking more from a hospitality perspective, but it does, I think, make an allusion to a larger trend. “Simcoe County has a very diverse and wonderful hospitality scene,” Keith noted. He talked about how, in a sense, Simcoe County has just scratched the surface, and how there’s a lot of room for growth in utilizing “our fertile soil, beautiful climate, and wonderful services located throughout the area.”

I’m grateful that Bri and I were afforded the opportunity to attend this Gala, as the event was brimming with incredible stories, some of which I’ve tried to share with you here today. For me, it was a kind reminder that every time you go to a restaurant or check into a hotel, there’s a team of people there who are doing their best just to ensure that you have the best time possible. It was a kind reminder that although the exterior of a hotel or restaurant might seem to be built with brick or wood, the foundation of every great hospitality business is actually built on the blood, sweat, and tears of the staff - and that, my friends, deserves appreciation.

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