In the innovative kitchens of restaurants around Calgary, chefs are not only dreaming up new dishes for their menus, they are busy jarring, canning and curing every delightful accouterment – from preserves to prosciutto – to take cooking back its origins.
Made from scratch is taken to a whole new level in restaurants like Charcut, Cilantro, River Caf, Home Tasting Room and Taste, where the evidence in the cellars and back rooms of the kitchens shows that staff strive to put the emphasis on homemade.
Made in-house: absolutely everything is made in-house, down to the bread. With more than 3,000 jars of pickles and preserves stored, Charcut is a veritable treasure trove of canned goods and cured meats. All of the items are used on the menu, which changes twice daily.
Why?: “We wanted to be back to basics, and back to flavour,” says co-owner and co-chef John Jackson who aims to keep the integrity of the food in place. “We are trying to rekindle some of those lost techniques, and the flavours you get when you do it yourself are unparallelled.” Everything used at Charcut is pasture-raised, no hormones, no antibiotics. The staff know exactly where everything is from and what is going into their product.
Jackson and co-owner Connie DeSousa have recognized the interest from Calgarians in the canning process. “We sent out a tweet asking if anyone wanted to help with canning season, and we got literally hundreds of replies. We ended up with a random collection of eight people; from an oil and gas worker to a dominatrix. People are very interested in being involved.” They say they’ll be doing it again, so keep a lookout.
Try: Pig’s head mortadella. Jackson and DeSousa say people are a little skeptical at first but has proven so popular, they just can’t take it off the menu.
(899 Centre St. S., 403-984-2180, charcut.com)
Made in-house: Pickled green and yellow beans, golden beets, canned peaches, salsa fresca, spicy red peppers, tomatillo sauce, cherries…the list goes on.
Why?: “Bubby would kill me if I bought a jar of pickles!” That’s Ken Canavan’s answer when questioned about his process. The executive chef, who calls himself a farm boy, says the produce is local, the process is simple, and he would never do it any other way. “My wife is Polish, and we use her old family recipes,” he says. “Lots of pickles have too much going on. Too many herbs and spices. I want to be able to taste the produce.”
Every single item made in-house at Cilantro (a great number) is found in dishes on the menu. Cherries get made into cherry ketchup, the beans are part of the house salad, the peaches are featured in desserts. Next door at CRMR at Home, you can find jars upon jars of Cilantro’s pickled and preserved products, so it’s easy to bring home a taste of your favourite meal.
Try: Chicken flatbread pizza with devilishly hot pickled fresno peppers.
(338 17 Ave. S.W., 403-229-1177, crmr.com/cilantro)
Made in-house: A wide variety of pickles, preserves, apple butter, lavender honey, homemade mustard.
Why?: “We have the name ‘home,’ so everything has to evoke that sense of home touch,” says Suzanne Baden, managing general partner. “A lot of us grew up making everything from scratch and the whole staff has really embraced it.”
The freezer in the kitchen of Home Tasting Room is only 60 centimetres wide. Everything has to be made fresh, or canned from top-quality local ingredients. Baden says pickling can be a long process, but the results are phenomenal. “You should eat at a restaurant and leave feeling good,” she says. “The guests are happier for all of our efforts, and the young cooks have been so impressed with the taste of the pickles and preserves; they’ve even brought the process home. ”
Try: Homemade mustards that feature on every charcuterie plate.
(110 8 Ave. S.W., 403-262-8100, hometastingroom.ca)
Made in-house: Dozens of jams and preserves, including apricot hyssop jam (with hyssop from the Caf’s own garden), pickled cauliflower, golden cucumbers, Edgar Farm beans, Saskatoon wine, vinegar, vanilla extract, even meats; prosciutto, lonzino, and finocchiona.
Why?: Chef Andrew Winfield says the process is important for the cooks, and it has an intrinsic value. “People have a connection to the food, and they can look at something that is being used a year later and take pride in it,” he says. “The chefs love getting involved. It brings them back historically – particularly the butchery. This is something that people have done for years and years.”
The menu at River Caf is based entirely on local sustainability. “Local tastes better. I could get produce from France, from Miami, but the way – even scientifically – that a tomato changes after sitting in a truck or in transit, takes away so much from it,” says Winfield. “Things are either picked early, or modified on a genetic level. It’s most important to eat what’s in season.” Cooking, he says, is not just plating something. It is learning to care for the things around you.
In fact, just after the flood when the restaurant was closed, the staff had a “preserve party” where they spent two full days making preserves to load up the beautiful new shelves in the basement that were installed as a result of flood damage.
Try: Weekend brunch. The bourbon, whiskey and vanilla-infused jams will turn your toast into something to brag about.
(25 Prince’s Island Park, 403-261-7670, river-cafe.com)
Made in-house: A plethora of preserves (even quail eggs and kielbasa), as well as mustard, meats, cheeses and fermented kimchi asparagus.
Why?: Simply put, executive chef Shawn Greenwood likes it that way. “I prefer making as much as I can to buying it in-store. You get a sense of pride from your work, and it’s extremely cost effective.”
Greenwood says when producers come out with their harvest in the fall, he grabs as many fresh ingredients as he can to start pickling for the restaurant. He uses a 12-ingredient pickling spice that includes coriander, allspice, ginger, and mustard seed (to name a few) that was the perfected through a few rounds of trial and error. Canning is an exceptionally impressive feat in the small kitchen space at Taste, but Greenwood has the dedication (and a secret method) to continue adding more to the stockpile every month.
Try: Pig wings. This crowd favourite is the tail end of a rib wing, cured in-house and covered in jerk spice.
(1210 1 St. S.W., 403-233-7730, taste-restaurant.com)