Calgary has long had a handful of good restaurants – there are standbys that have become touchstones in the community as well as countless old favourites that have closed their doors over the years – but the concept of a vibrant restaurant “scene” is something that has only emerged over the last five to 10 years. We’ve seen a relatively recent explosion of independent restaurants, each serving its own brand of deliciously creative food, more often than not in a stylish, dynamic room. Moreover, Calgary has grown its own gang of celebrated chefs – local stars that food enthusiasts hope to catch a glimpse of preparing their food in modern open kitchens.
The local food explosion hasn’t happened by accident. The creation of a (fairly) cohesive culinary scene is the result of clever chefs working together to promote the idea of a community of restaurants for Calgarians to get excited about and out-of-towners to go out of their way to visit. While from the outside it may look fun and glamorous (there is food and drink involved, after all), the parade of collaborative dinners, special events, television appearances and splashy trips are hard work, and all part of a strategy to strengthen Calgary’s restaurant industry. A strategy that, despite tough economic conditions, seems to be working.
Wanting to explore this from a chef’s perspective, Elizabeth Chorney-Booth and Jennifer Hamilton convened six of Calgary’s most visibly active and vocal chefs for a round-table discussion. They talked about how restaurants in the city have changed and why they’re evolving.
[Ed. note: A condensed version of this conversation appeared in the March 2016 issue of Avenue. What follows is a transcript of that discussion (edited for clarity and brevity) but which represents the bulk of the conversation.]
Meet the Chefs
At Avenue, we write about what we think is going on in the local food scene, but we don’t run restaurants. So I would like to know where you see things going and where we are. And do you agree with this narrative that Calgary has a super-healthy, strong up-and-coming culinary scene?
John Jackson: I think there’s lots of truth to it. And I think more so now than ever. I mean, we all get along great at the table and I think we know each other pretty well and support each other’s businesses. I think that we have the opportunity to be the real deal. You know when everyone’s talking about how we are collaborative, I think we have the ability to truly be that, and even more so, whereas other [cities] might not. Montreal is fantastic at being collaborative but, you know, there are other cities that aren’t.
Justin Leboe: Yeah I would agree with that, completely. John and Connie and Paul and I talked about this at length a couple of weeks ago. Montreal probably has the most vibrant dynamic collaborative infrastructure of any chef’s community and then, without mentioning names, it tapers off to some of the other cities where there is really almost next to none. They are civil and they’re nice to each other, but they’re not supporting each other as well as chefs in Calgary and Montreal do. In Montreal, most of those guys play hockey two or three times a week together in beer leagues and rec leagues. I think, in Calgary, we are fortunate in that we’ve got a lot of that sense of community already in place. It can’t be said for the some of the other major cities in Canada.
JJ: So that makes us unique. We have the pieces and parts to be the real deal. And that’s the thing – other places already have such cultures that it would be hard to implement something like what we have … that natural cooperation. We just gotta take it to that next level.
So do you think that’s because the scene, the city, grew so fast in the last 10 years?
JJ: Sure. Yeah, it’s a young city. I mean we’re all a part of the opportunity, right?
Nicole Gomes: Oh yeah, I’m from Vancouver, so I came here for opportunity.
JL: I think that’s it exactly. I’m from Vancouver. You’re [Nicole] from Vancouver. The two of you [John and Connie] came back from San Francisco. A lot of us ended up here for because it was untapped and ready, and was fertile. It is one of the youngest cities in North America at the moment.
What do you think made it fertile?
NG: For me, I think the economics made it fertile. We are able to own homes and I would never be able to own a home in Vancouver at the age I was at. And I think the community, too, has a lot to do with it. That’s the beauty of Calgary – that we’re all open to sharing. Other cities are tough, I find. We’re really much more open to collaborating.
Paul Rogalski: There’s a real strong entrepreneurial spirit in Calgary. The city, economically, has done very well. In the past, of course, the oil industry has really dictated a lot. But with the boom economy comes opportunity. And I think there’s a ‘New West’ sort of attitude here: let’s work together and let’s make this place stronger. I think over the past decade, we’ve really seen that elevate.
When it comes to our industry, the changes that have gone on in … almost go hand in hand with our population increasing, as well. So we have a stronger population base, and we’ve had a lot of influence with chefs coming in from all different sorts of angles that weren’t available 15 years ago. When I started cooking, there was nothing. You tried to get the best cookbooks, but there wasn’t the sort of the pipeline information that we have in place with the Internet. I think really what’s changed Calgary and made it so much nicer to be a part of and to grow the scene is just working with great people. So the pipeline of information is not necessarily Internet-driven only. I call all these guys sitting at the table and it’s like, “Hey! I’ve got a conundrum, can you help me with this?” I called up Connie last year when I was making some pastrami and it didn’t look right to me, and so I sent a picture and said, “Tell me what you think.” That really creates an environment to share ideas and, when you get great talent in the city and you get people that are bona fide and doing great things, it also elevates the game for everyone else. We have to rise to the new challenge because the dining population have hard expectations.
Paul, you have been here the longest. How much has it changed? How has it changed?
PR: I think there’s more ethnic diversity. I think there’s more of an artisan influence, and a platform that if you have an idea and you believe it, you can build it and hopefully they will come. Sort of like the Field of Dreams concept. But even going back to when [Rouge opened in 2003] – some of the things that we were doing were way to far ahead of the curve. And it’s not that we were trying to reinvent the wheel. We were just being creative. But the clientele base looked at some of our ideas and thought, “Ooh, this is too weird for me.”
NG: Even fish – 14 years ago, when I worked at Catch – was like, no, where’s the meat? They had no steak on the menu. I came from B.C.; I thought this is normal. But no, they wanted steak. We had to put steak on the menu.
And even Rush, when it opened, was a little before its time.
JL: We opened in 2008 and I think by the end of 2009 was when the city started to change. It was already starting to change, but to add on to Paul’s point and add maybe a different perspective, this is also a generational shift. This isn’t special to Calgary. This is boomers aging and Gen X and Gen Y coming into the society. And the question really isn’t, “Was Calgary ripe for this? Was Calgary ripe for that?” It’s pervasive in every North American city, the impact of Gen X, Gen Y and millennials on all aspects of society.
You’re seeing a return to authentic little boutique shops like Understudy or Etsy, or Phil & Sebastian, and [big-]box stores are going out the window, because boomers are aging. I don’t shop at box stores. Every sector of those markets in North America are shrinking, because there’s a generational shift going on. And it’s not necessarily that Calgary was the right place, right time for us. Certainly, it was. But what’s shifting here is is not just Calgary coming into its own. It’s the same shift that’s happening in New York, Toronto, Chicago, Los Angeles. No one gets to lay claim to this. It’s sort of like saying you’re the first hippie because you bought a VW bus and grew your hair long. Like, you’re gonna sound like an idiot if you start saying, “I started this movement.”
JJ: And we’re not even halfway into this shift yet. The next 10 years are gonna bring more departure from lots of different things. I think, as people that came of age in the last five or 10 years start to get some real money behind them, you’re gonna see an entire shift. As far as Calgary has come in the last five, it’s gonna go that much further. We’re younger entrepreneurs that could shift gears …
NG: And see more possibilities, yeah.
JL: You know, not to take anything away from anybody, but my boss at Rush is a prime example. I loved the opportunity and he’s a good friend of mine but, like, that generation of restaurateur is not as flexible as this generation in terms of embracing new ideas. And embracing change in getting out ahead of the curve. And a lot of people were left scratching their heads when places like Una first opened, or when you guys first opened Charcut. Those were, you know, mould-breaking restaurants for Calgary. Rush was the probably the last example of a formulaic, “Let’s throw a bunch of money at a big restaurant.” After that, you had a bunch of restaurants – Anju, Una, Charcut – that there were just like, “This is what we do and this reflects our personality and our tastes.” That wasn’t something that had ever happened in this city. But I don’t know if that’s anything more than a generational shift, because it occurred everywhere almost simultaneously.
PR: When it happened in San Francisco, it [was] huge … big, large scale … the opportunity, and then there’s already an established food culture. So you see that shift, but, here, we all have the ability to be a part of it, and help dictate it, and help grow it and do things, together. It feels more intimate …
NG: Fun. [Chuckles.]
PR: I think the other thing that made Calgary sort of an easy place for this to happen was precisely [because] some of those redneck values that always get attributed to Alberta and Calgary worked in or favour in that there’s still that attitude like, “You cannot tell me I can’t do that.” That is something that’s deeply engrained in this part of the world. They do not like to be told, dictated to on how things should be. Or how things should go. That actually worked in our favour. We’re probably a little more progressive than most of Alberta would appreciate. But it’s that core value of, “You’re not gonna tell me that I can’t do it.” It worked for everyone. I certainly don’t think you would have found it as readily in Vancouver, because there was more established and there wasn’t that same sort of core value or mentality to the social structure. [Calgary has grown from] 600,000 to 1.2 million, but it still has that small-town, mentality where our regulars are right. Another thing that makes our city unique is we like to celebrate in each other’s successes. And you know it feels good, and it’s the right thing to do.
NG: Well that kind of energy in any city is infectious. If you’re positive, right? So everyone’s friendly here. That’s why I stayed.
When you look around the floor, are there younger people coming in to eat? When I was 25, I wouldn’t have shelled out more than $20 to eat dinner.
JL: We’re getting them. In a given night, it’s a huge mix. The one thing that I’m sure you guys can attest to, too, is that, not only do we get the younger people after, like, Model being open for the first 18 months, we started getting more, an increasing amount of the boomer generation. So all these restaurants might have been open for Gen X and Gen Y [but they’re] being embraced by the older generations, too. Just because it may be a little louder, and the music is this, the music is that. You know, it’s a really great cross-section of the population, for sure.
PR: A big mix.
JJ: And you’d never see that before. Before, you’d see … the younger crowd hanging out, the bar-driven, you know what I mean? And, then those places…
JL: …Like [at] Rush it was all 50 and suit or jacket.
JJ: All older. Now you look and when we look up and we look into the room, it’s a couple celebrating their 50th anniversary next to some 22-year-old girls doing shots next to some industry guys. It’s so mixed. And the rooms now seem to be that way. They’re super-diverse. I see very rarely see people dressed up to go out. Right? Like it’s just a lot more casual feeling and I think has attracted a different crowd.
PR: You know, with that being said, that’s one of the big things that we’re finding at Bistro is our audience is so vast. You know just one of the little things that you don’t think of, but when you’re in the restaurant every day, [it’s] the playlist. Like, what tunes do you put on that are gonna appease the people that are in their 60s and appease the people that aren’t? You know, much to my happiness, I just put on what I want, which tends to be a little bit more rock-y than some people want to hear. But it’s interesting to see that wide range of customer. And so we’ve got families coming in with their kids. And they’re sitting next to a guy who’s just coming from a business meeting next to some people that are celebrating an anniversary, like John was saying. And it’s very, very eclectic.
I look at the restaurants in the past, going back a couple of decades. And restaurants that had their clientele picked. There was an identity to the restaurant, the niche. You know, when I first started – I don’t want to put a year to that, because it scares me – but there was a couple of fine-dining restaurants and, essentially, they were very similar. So you had the crowd that went to the Owl’s Nest and you had the crowd that went to [another place] for the fine dining market. And they offered very similar products. They had the tableside service.
NG: When I started 20 years ago it was fine dining … it was a special occasion to go out. People were more used to eating at home. And now, people go out to eat for necessity. And so that’s a trend of food [that] has changed. It’s like, I want a gourmet burger. I want fried chicken. I want meat, roasted meats. And I think … eating out has drawn a younger crowd that are business professionals that can afford it, as well. They think, I’m going out, not necessarily for an anniversary or [other special occasion], but I need to eat, but I don’t know how to cook.
I am willing to put down $200 for a good meal. Because to me, that is the same kind of entertainment as I’ll get putting down $200 for a theatre ticket or something. So are you finding that people willing to pay more because they’re gonna get something that entertains them, that wows them?
JL: More of the energy of the atmosphere, I think, is a part of it. They come because they want to be a part of the energy of the room. It’s open, it’s exciting, it’s …
NG: It’s theatrical…
JL: Yeah, there’s a lot of action. There are a lot of things going on. There’s great people-watching. Before, it wasn’t. It was a dark room…
JJ: Hushed tones where people were whispering … Stop putting your elbows on the table … Button your shirt all the way up to the top for the first time.
Justin was talking about the upside of Gen Y and millennials and this generational shift. I suspect there’s a downside, also. Maybe it’s a good time for Kyle to come in now, because talking about younger people getting into the restaurant business … are you guys having trouble finding kitchen staff? You know, dishwashers? Cooks? Entry-level employees, who are willing to start at the bottom like many of you did?
NG: I think that it’s all finding the right people. Right? So, for me, I hire an attitude. If you’re willing to learn, I can teach you anything. And I’m fine doing that. But if you don’t have the right attitude, I’m out. You’re here to work under the constraints of a business that you don’t own. [It’s about] how we’re gonna do that happily together and be collaborative, but, you know, let’s do it together, with the right attitude. I’ve had the most success with people who know nothing.
Kyle Groves: Especially from a school perspective as well, you have those same people come into the school. I’m teaching an apprentice program this year and you still have the ones come in that … I have a feeling they don’t know anything, or know everything. No different than the restaurant [business]. You have to kind of either guide the ones who don’t know enough to get to the point where they can find some success, or the other ones [who] you still have to break a little bit -who think that they know everything – and show them things that they don’t know and put them out of their comfort zone. So I think there’s still both those types of people who are looking for restaurant jobs. But like you say, it’s about attitude. And it’s about fit. And not just from the cook, as well; I guess the restaurant or the environment that they’re in has to fit them.
NG: That’s so true. I never thought I’d get into catering. Most chefs hate catering. So [chuckle] it’s not easy to find people who have a love of cooking, but want to cater. I have to make it a really fun environment. I have to adapt better.
Are young students inspired by that?
JL: I think you get to the point that we, all with our restaurants, are collaborative and we push each other to be better all the time. I don’t think it’s necessarily a level of unhealthy competition. But, really, the goal for everybody here, and I’m speaking for myself, but I hope I’m right, is that we’re being taken seriously at a national level. We all know the talent of what everybody else does. It’s a matter of getting the attention and the recognition that this city actually deserves. I mean, like it or not, you know we get a little bit of attention because of oil and gas, but you know, traditionally, not being from here and having lived in Toronto and Vancouver, Calgary is looked at as a flyover city. It’s a city that you fly over to get to Toronto or Montreal or Vancouver if you’re going the other way; it’s not something that’s a huge stopping point for people.
We’re trying to build it as a culinary-tourism destination. Or just a tourism destination. But we don’t have the traction or the people coming to the airport that Toronto and Montreal do, or even Vancouver. So we have to play the hand that we’re dealt and I think that’s what everybody here does really well. We’re working together to maybe impact the national conversation a little bit more than maybe [Calgary] did a generation ago.
PR: And that’s the thing: doing things, when we do things, together. When we showcase our city as a whole and not as individuals, we end up with way more traction. We end up with way more interest [from] people writing stories. It’s not a story about one single restaurant; now it’s a story about collaboration, right? It’s not like you’re sitting here talking to me and just talking to her [points to one of his colleagues]. You’re talking to all of us, because something that we’ve done and we’re doing is gaining interest. And hopefully that’s the goal, like Justin was saying. The goal is to put Calgary on that map on a world scale. What are they doing in Alberta? Why Alberta? So again, getting that attention and finding ways together to get that attention is something that’s a huge goal of everyone at this table.
And how is that going? I mean, I do see a lot of you travelling as ambassadors for the city. It does seem that people are paying attention to us. Are they? How successful are you finding that?
PR: For sure. Yeah, absolutely. They love Canadians.
JL: We travel more with that goal in mind. It used to be for me, personally, that you would travel to these places because you want to eat in this restaurant, or you want to eat in that restaurant. And now it’s more than that. Now you want to meet the owners. Now you’re travelling to meet the chef, or you’re travelling to spend time with people to build relationships. You’re forging new culinary relationships or friendships based on the fact that you are an ambassador and you are trying to, you know, push Calgary to the forefront a little bit more.
I mean, it wasn’t always that way, I think. The world changed with the Internet and Google and Food Network. It is now an easier job to put Calgary on the map, culinarily, because of our access to information and our access to other chefs. The goal is, every time [you] go away, you meet somebody new, and you hang out with them and talk to them. [Some at this table] were just in Ireland. I was just in Mexico City. You meet chefs and invariably [there’s] the conversation … you don’t spend time sitting there talking about what each other’s cooking at their restaurants. What you’re talking about is how you run the business, how you’re training staff, what you do with this, what you do with that. And, invariably, it doesn’t matter what part of the world you’re in, you’re talking about where you’re getting your food from, whether it’s sustainable, how you’re training your chefs. Have you noticed this? Have you noticed that? Nobody’s really spends a lot of time talking about how we plate something. Those relationships serve Calgary well in the long run.
Those are the moments that, you’re not just representing yourself and the restaurant, you are representing the city as a whole. Because, let’s be honest, when you go to Cayman [Islands], or you go to Mexico, or you go to do events, there isn’t a [stampede] of people breaking down the door to get into your restaurant. It doesn’t necessarily translate into a huge amount of bums in seats. But what it does is it builds the community here on a more global, or national or international level. You know, you do these events because you’re doing them for your brand, but you’re also doing it for the city and for the food scene here. Every time I go away to do an event, and I’m in Niagara and it’s 60 people, or I’m in Mexico and it’s 60 people or it’s 100 people, I don’t see a bump of 200 new guests at Model Milk; you’re not doing it for that. You’re doing it to build the exposure and the visibility of whatever restaurant you’re with, but also for the city as a whole. I think that that’s why you do take it seriously, because it’s not [that] you’re not doing it for the money, because it isn’t; you don’t see a huge bump in your business. But what you do see is that sort of visibility.
Do you think the bulk of Calgarians know how good they have it?
PR: I don’t necessarily know. I will say this, based on some previous experiences that I’ve had, being a born-and-raised Calgarian. In a competitive marketplace, Calgary went from a dining scene where if you [had a] chef from Italy, or a chef from Switzerland, you had an upper hand on anyone else because people thought that that experience was better. Now it’s kind of moved along and now we’re really sort of operating this whole stay-at-home [idea] when it comes to food purchasing, for example. I think now we’re dealing with two different parties. You’ve got the people that are still like, “Oh, it’s gotta be better if it’s elsewhere.” And then you’ve got the people that have experienced “elsewhere” coming back and going, “Holy cow, I hadn’t realized how good we had it here until I was in London, England, or I was in Paris or I was in New York.
JL: When was that trip that we all went down to do? In San Francisco when [Calgary restaurant critic John] Gilchrist was there … [it was] one of the first times that, collectively, we were all away [and] the consensus was that you didn’t have to leave Calgary to eat well any more. It used to be that [there were], three or four good restaurants but, pound for pound, the restaurants that we visited on that trip, you could eat just as well at seven or eight places in Calgary.
When was that?
JL: Spring 2012.
Connie DeSousa: Sometimes, I think that’s expected now, though, because Calgarians are very fortunate to have travelled everywhere. And I think that was one of the things that motivated us all to do what we’re doing now, because people are expecting it they won’t let us do anything less than that.
NG: I think one of the factors to consider, too, is in the last four or five years, there’s been a lot more support for other alliances. So there is [the] Alberta Culinary Alliance Tourism Alliance, [and] Tourism Calgary has become much more involved in the food scene. They’re all supporting us a lot more.
How challenging is it to have to go out there and do all this outreach and be doing collaborative dinners all the time and still run a restaurant?
JJ: I think it’s a balance, for sure. I mean, we’re very selective on times and … making sure it’s during a time that we can be away. This year I’ve had a really hard time saying no … I got in a lot of shit because I said yes to a lot of things. And I probably should have said no to a few more. Next year, maybe I’ll be a little bit more selective. But it’s a huge balance, because it’s a big time commitment. And it’s taking away from our primary business. But we look at [the] big picture. We want to see it [Calgary’s food scene] reach that full potential that we’ve been talking about. And that’s to creative a culinary destination that’s on a world level. We need to keep pushing. We need to do these things.
JL: You definitely have to keep the iron in the fire, but you’re right, it’s a balancing act … I feel like the last six months, I’ve been home more than I’ve been away, but it just feels like, when you’re home for 10 days in a row and then you’re at an airport, to go away just to do one event for two days and then you’re home for seven more days. These aren’t long trips, but airports suck. Like to be going to an airport every 10 days, with Styrofoam boxes full of food to have to go somewhere and feed a hundred people. It gets to be a drag after a while; I would love to just stay here and cook for 150 people. My life would be perfect, but you have to do it. The outreach is necessary to keep Calgary at the top of people’s minds.
What are some of the challenges and downsides to this kind of growth? Do you think things are ever moving too fast in Calgary?
PR: I like restaurants. I’ve always loved restaurants. When a restaurant goes broke, it sucks. But, you know, restaurants go broke for reasons and if you’re seeing some restaurants come on line that are doing really well and they’re successful businesses, that’s great, but by the same token I don’t know that we’re not gonna see some places [fail]. Maybe it’s just as simple as their lifespan has run out and it’s time for regeneration. Or maybe it was ill-conceived. Maybe it was just a wrong place, wrong time.