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Calgary’s Top Chef

Meet River Café’s Scott Pohorelic, a chef with passion for sustainable cuisine

By Sally MacKinnon

Scott Pohorelic is excited about bison. As the chef at River Café—our Best Overall Restaurant for 2009—Pohorelic makes sure Alberta-raised bison is a staple on his ever-changing menu. It’s all part of River Café’s guiding principle: to create dishes from local, ethical and organic ingredients. Or, as Pohorelic puts it, “sustainable cuisine.”

But even though the local food movement has gained momentum, he can still find himself classed as unconventional. “I was talking to a cattle producer the other day, and I mentioned that we serve a lot of bison. He said, ‘oh yeah, you guys serve those exotic animals.’ I said ‘Exotic? They’ve been here for 10,000 years.’”

Photographer: Blair Hill

Rise to the Top

Inside the kitchen, Pohorelic is a fierce advocate of local cuisine. Outside, he is an unassuming, amiable man, an avid fly fisherman who doesn’t get all the fuss about Alberta’s ski hills, especially in comparison to its rivers.

There is no hint of the ego that so often plagues commercial kitchens. 40-year-old Pohorelic “fell into” his profession, starting as a dishwasher and working his way up the food chain.

“Once you work in a kitchen for a few years, you get that taste of being able to create something,” he says.

Pohorelic ran a catering kitchen and restaurant for 11 years before completing the professional cooking program at SAIT. After graduation he decided to further his education by joining the team at River Café. He was hired as a grill cook, and made himself a promise: he wouldn’t spend more than one year in any kitchen.

That was 10 years ago. Pohorelic became the chef five years into his time at River Café, and even though he’s made it to the top, he says he’s still learning.

Local Cuisine

River Café is the perfect outlet for the passion he has developed for local cuisine—he changes the menu at least once a month to reflect the growing seasons. Pohorelic also works directly with up to 50 local suppliers, and even includes their farms when he’s naming his dishes: you can order Olson’s Bison Striploin, Dirty Willy Farm Pheasant Breast, or Driview Farm Lamb.

“Sourcing local gives us the ability to shop from someone who knows what they’re doing. No, who cares about what they’re doing,” he says.

Over the years he has refined River Café’s guidelines. His menus are more and more local, at least 50 per cent organic, and the restaurant uses programs such as Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Wise, which provides information on what seafood is—and isn’t—sustainable.

Part of that drive comes from concern for the environment, but he is also first and foremost a chef; it’s really all about the ingredients. “We are ingredients inspired. We respect the ingredients. We don’t use a whole lot of butter and cream; we feel that’s cheating. We like the taste of carrots, and we’re not going to adulterate anything too much.”

Grilled salmon, courtesy River Cafe

The Humble Chef

Pohorelic has been on the local bandwagon for a decade, long before carbon footprints and factory farms were hot issues. But his foresight or ascent to the top of one of Calgary’s most prestigious restaurants hasn’t massaged his ego. He doesn’t like to be called executive chef—just “chef”—and when asked what he likes most about his job, he says it’s the people around him.

“Because we have a philosophy here, we attract like-minded people. We take what we do very seriously and we feel like we have a responsibility to treat food with respect. We try to create an experience that the guest will certainly enjoy, but then we also feel there’s a social responsibility.”

As more and more restaurants turn to local cuisine, Pohorelic will have to fight hard to make sure River Café stays at the top of heap. He’s off to a running start.

Enter to win a $175 gift certificate to River Café.

Check out Scott’s recipe for Sage Gnocchi with Apple Gastrique & Roast Squash.

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