Words and photos by Dick Dace
At the junction of the Bow and Elbow rivers in the grassland of Alberta, Canada, Calgary’s downtown spires of glass and steel rise like the oil derricks of old, pumping Texas gold throughout every facet of the city. Calgary is an economic little sister to Houston, both shaped by a past of land and cattle, and a future fueled by oil and gas. Each city is also the beneficiary of the largess of its famous wildcatters, whose gifts to their citizens include outdoor art, an opera, symphony, avant-garde theatres, museums and culinary excellence.
After a short four-hour flight on Continental Airlines, we arrived in time to attend the VISA Infinite dinner at CHARCUT Roast House, recently named one of Canada’s Best New Restaurants by enRoute magazine. CHARCUT Roast House owners and chefs, Connie DeSousa and John Jackson, were joined in the kitchen by Food Network CA and Iron Chef star Chuck Hughes of Montreal’s Garde Manger restaurant and Paul Rogalski of Calgary-based Rouge Restaurant, one of San Pellegrino SpA’s Top 100 Best Restaurants in the World.
The menu was served family style, helping showcase our hosts’ farm-to-table philosophy. The menu consisted of Jungle Farms Pumpkin Soup served tableside in a 250 lb pumpkin, a Whole Roast Baerd Farm’s Goat filled with County Sausage (think a Canuck turducken), Charred Brussels Sprouts from Innisfail Farms with Shaved Lardo, followed by Warm Stick Toffee BC quince Pudding with Maple Praline Chantilly Cream, paired with Beer Steward Kirk Bodner’s personal selection of local hand-crafted beers.
“We don’t employ a sommelier,” explained Jackson. “Most people know their wines and we want to promote our local breweries, as well as our local farmers.” This was a philosophy we were to find expressed by other chefs in Calgary, as well.
After a night’s rest in the new Hotel Le Germain Calgary, which is heated and cooled by thermal energy, and centrally located in the downtown business zone, it was time for a little exploring.
First up was Stephen Avenue, a pedestrian-friendly street lined with shops, restaurants and bars and where some 60,000 office workers gather daily in the summer for lunch at its sidewalk cafes. The shoppers in our group were thrilled to find Fashion Central, home to many local and Canadian fashion designer boutiques stocked with many beautiful and unique fashions. A block over on 7th Avenue was Art Central, a three-story building housing galleries and studios of local and regional jewelry, sculpture, paper and oil artists.
We decided on lunch at Catch, a local fish emporium known for its “jet-fresh” seafood that was named Best New Restaurant in Canada by enRoute magazine the year it opened. Executive chef Kyle Groves shared with us that every day at 10:30 a.m. is an Iron Chef moment – that is when his daily shipment of seafood arrives. “I never know what the daily special will be until then – and we open at 11 am!” The lunch he prepared for us consisted of a Seafood Tower stacked high with lobster, shrimp, mussels, clams and scallops, with a side of braised double-smoked bacon with truffle maple syrup.
Dinner was another culinary treat at Divino Wine and Cheese Bistro, known for serving naturally raised game, from its own ranch. Chef John Donovan prepared a feast of Sweet Corn Bisque with Corn Flan and BC Striped Shrimp; Roasted Alberta Rack of Lamb with Potatoes Fondant, Fraser Valley Roasted Beets, Swiss Chard and Olive Tapenade Jus; Black Pepper Linguine with chicken, tomatoes, spinach and sesame seeds in a white wine cream sauce, and for dessert, Baked Vanilla Rice Pudding with Mango Glass Biscuit and Passion Fruit Coulis. The cheese course included La Tomme D’Elles, a firm sheep’s and cow’s milk floral from Charlevoix; Ermite Blue, a tangy semi-soft Blue that is monastery produced in Quebec; and Champfleury, a soft, washed-rind, mildly pungent cheese also from Quebec. The meal left us asking, where does all this amazing food come from?
We found out when CHARCUT’s owners and chefs, DeSousa and Jackson, invited us to breakfast and to join them on their daily visit to the farmers who supply all the restaurants meats and vegetables. But first, we enjoyed breakfast with their baker, Aviv Fried with Sidewalk Citizen Bakery (who got his start by delivering his breads by bicycle.)
At their communal table, Fried, who has an undergrad degree in physics and mathematics, learned the art and science of bread making in Tibet, among other places, had laden the table with still warm-from-the-oven scones and breads. DeSousa and Jackson provided the jams, preserves and coffee that made the meal complete, and that provided us with the substance for our trek to the farmers.
About twenty minutes away, in an old airplane hanger, Alberta area farmers had gathered to sell their fresh produce. Blaine and Leona Stapes and their family own Innisfail Farms, and grow everything from pumpkins to spinach. They even have different refrigerators for each type of produce, so they can maintain the perfect temperature to ensure freshness.
CHARCUT’s pig farmer Greg Spragg and his family were selling links, sausages, butts and roasts at their booth, Spragg’s Meat Shop. Their farm also consists of 200 acres of irrigated land on which barley, wheat and fava beans are grown to feed their hungry pigs. But large farms are not the only source of produce for chefs in Calgary.
Executive chef Mike Decker at Rouge Restaurant, has five city lots on the banks of the Bow River, in the historic community of Inglewood, just 5 minutes from downtown, on which he grows “every herb imaginable, as well lettuces, carrots, beets and berries.”
“The whole kitchen team tends the garden,” Decker explained. “It is truly prized by all of us, and nothing could be more flavorful.”
Which just proves the point, for food full of flavor nothing beats farm-to-table freshness.
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Dick Dace was a guest of Hotel Le Germain Calgary.
Hotel Le Germain Calgary
CHARCUT Roast House
Spraggs Meat Shop