Duncan Ly

Avenue Calgary’s 2014 Top 40 Under 40.

Photograph by Jared Sych

Age: 39

Job title: Executive Chef and Partner, Hotel Arts Group

Why he’s a 2014 Top 40:

Duncan Ly is leading the vanguard of determined, creative chefs who will put Alberta cuisine on the national and international foodie map. Ly and his kitchens have been recognized with six consecutive wins at the Gold Medal Plates and with Calgary’s first Relais  & Chateau membership. 

Duncan Ly was washing dishes at the Wickaninnish Inn in Tofino, B.C., when he smelled heaven.

“Bowls of West Coast chowder,” he says. “They were coming out of the kitchen, and then coming back to the kitchen – and the smell … the smell was wonderful.”

It wasn’t just the smell that intoxicated him. “The presentation, the action on the line with the chefs – I was on the periphery of that, but I could feel it.” In that moment, holding a dirty dish in his hands, Ly decided, “That’s what I have to do.”

He’s been cooking ever since, in apprenticeship with some of the nation’s greatest chefs, on a dogged, upward career trajectory to becoming one of them.

Now, as the executive chef of the Hotel Arts Group, Ly oversees the kitchens of the Yellow Door, the Raw Bar and the Chef’s Table at the Kensington Riverside Inn, award-winning kitchens, all. The list of culinary medals, awards and recognitions he’s received in the last three years is almost overwhelming; his six consecutive years of winning medals at the Gold Medal Plate competitions – which raise funds for Canadian Olympic athletes – are a point of particular pride. So is getting the coveted Relais & Chateaux designation – Calgary’s first – for the Kensington Riverside Inn. The R&C group includes some of the most prestigious hotels and restaurants in the world, including many based at European historical sites. Plus, Ly started his career at an R&C property – as a dishwasher. Owning one 20 years later – kind of a big deal.

His first Calgary job was at the Hyatt’s Catch, continuing his gourmet cuisine apprenticeship. His next career move flew in the face of conventional chef wisdom, as he left his chef de cuisine position at Catch to be executive chef at the Elbow Valley Casino.

“I saw it as an opportunity to be independent, to really spread my wings,” says Ly. “And it proved to be an excellent school. It taught me about big volumes, working with a big crew, coordinating different departments – I never would have gotten through the first days at the Hotel Arts without that experience.”

On a peak night, the Hotel Arts restaurants will serve 400 patrons at dinner, having already fed 250 at breakfast and lunch. On the same day, they might also host a 400-person breakfast and a 600-plate function in the hotel’s ballroom – and possibly cook for a 1,200-plate off-site function, such as the annual Schmancy fundraiser at the Glenbow.

Since launching the enterprise in 2005, Ly and his partners at Hotel Arts have seen the properties’ and restaurants’ revenues grow by 500 per cent, and have tripled the square footage of the restaurant space.

Through the Hotel Arts restaurants, Ly is challenging, changing and pleasing – dare he say, occasionally educating? – Calgarians’ taste buds. And, he hopes, doing his bit to put Alberta cuisine on the world food map. –Marzena Czarnecka

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