They’re bold and talented, and most are young—professionals who are now reaching the peak of their creative powers. Calgary’s community of executive and head chefs have spent years learning the craft: some stirring pots and chopping vegetables in faraway places like Singapore and Paris. Others have survived the trials of local kitchens: rising through the ranks of line cooks and dishwashers, or toiling in their own start-up restaurants. By one route or another, they’ve all become culinary captains in our fair city, and now they mean to turn the local dining scene on its ear. We spoke with seven of these chefs, each among the winners in the evening-dining categories of the Most Memorable Meal Awards, on the topic of fine dining—where it’s at and how we compare. They came back with some fascinating insights behind what’s driving a transformation of Calgary’s dining scene, and made some bold predictions about our city’s culinary future.
THE RISE OF FINE DINING
Probably the biggest change in the city’s fine dining scene is that we actually have one. This wasn’t always the case. As chef Scott Pohorelic notes, “You know, fine dining here used to be a steak and your choice of baked potato, fries or rice pilaf. I think it’s come a long way.”
Pohorelic should know; he is the executive chef for the River Café, a rustically elegant restaurant in Prince’s Island Park known for its warm ambiance and its ability to execute fine Canadian regional cuisine. In the seven years since he took over, he’s seen an enormous change in diners’ attitudes.
So has chef Paul Rogalski, who heads up Rouge, an intimate, upscale French restaurant located in a converted historic house in Inglewood. “I think the one thing I could criticize Calgary being ten years ago was conservative,” Rogalski notes. “Nowadays, Calgary is much more accepting of the artisan approach to cuisine.”
By artisan approach, Rogalski is referring to the idea of food as art—where a dish is crafted by a master of ingredients, flavour and presentation. It’s adding green peppercorns for a nuanced spiciness, or using poached bison instead of beef because of the added subtlety in flavour and texture. It’s about surprising the guest with something different. “When we first started this kind of cooking, it was hard to tell people you were going to surprise them—they would say, ‘I don’t like surprises.’ But now, it’s like, ‘Great, surprise me—as long as there’s no brain on my plate, please,’” notes Rogalski. “That’s literally been in the last five years I’ve seen this change.”
For Dominique Moussu, executive chef at Teatro, an upscale Italian restaurant on Stephen Avenue, fine dining is more than just one great dish. It’s about making dining an experience—an evening out to delight one’s senses. For this, he suggests something that’s a growing trend in the city: chef’s tasting menus.
These usually consists of five to seven small- to medium-portioned courses, each created to offer varied yet complementary textures and flavours. When properly executed, the courses balance and flow like the movements of a symphony—except that all the senses are stimulated, leading to a pleasant whole-body satisfaction. “You have to take pleasure in eating,” says Moussu who in the past three years has found a 20 per cent jump in the number of people trying out the chef’s menu. “When I started, people would come in, order one dish and boom, they’re gone. That’s not an evening,” he adds.
Chef Giuseppe Di Gennaro echoes the opinion that dining must be savoured. Last March, he opened Capo, a high-end Italian boutique restaurant where the experience starts with the art-inspired décor and fine tableware, and moves to what he calls “teatro della cucina” or theatre of the kitchen. There’s an open window onto the Capo kitchen where you can see professional chefs prepare the meals, and at the front is Di Gennaro himself, plating every dish in full view of the dining room.
For Di Gennaro, it’s important for people to understand that fine dining is not just about price. A good restaurant gives fair value by providing a true “culinary getaway,” from the ambiance to the professionalism of the cooks and wait staff. “Some places you go,” notes Di Gennaro, “they have no table cloths, they give you a paper napkin and you spend $35 for a steak. Unfortunately, there’s a good amount of restaurants here that just put a big price on the menu and call themselves fine dining. My philosophy is to offer people an experience.”
If ambiance, artisan dishes and memorable experiences are the flowers of fine dining, good ingredients are its roots. This means sourcing out high-quality suppliers, building recipes around what is simple, authentic and readily available, and, for most of our chefs, buying from local growers and ranchers.
The equation is simple: local means fresh. “You can’t beat the flavour,” says Rogalski, who has a small garden at the back of Rouge.
In a region where the growing season is shortened by long winters and cold nights, the variety of produce available is limited. But for an “ingredients inspired” restaurant like River Café, this is merely a delicious challenge. “It forces us to be very creative with seasonal ingredients,” says Pohorelic, who changes the menu about twice a month. “We’re not playing much with mangoes and papayas, but we make peas sing many different songs when they become available in the spring.”
There’s also often a meat focus to local or regional cuisine—Alberta boasts some of the world’s best beef and game products any time of the year. And despite the limitations of weather, in recent years there has been tremendous move by local growers towards using organic growing techniques to produce what’s called “slow food”: food that is natural, wholesome and flavourful. You’ll notice many regional cuisine restaurants showing off these high-quality producers by putting their names (names like Hotchkiss tomatoes or Diamond Willow beef) right on the menu.
The route of ethnic cuisine into any society often starts through the masses, usually through things like pan pizzas and sweet & sour pork balls. But when a city achieves a certain size, diversity and sophistication, authentic ethnic or multicultural fine dining becomes a reality. Dung Huynh, a Vietnamese chef and restaurateur has seen this change in Calgary. She started the Oriental Phoenix as a small Vietnamese restaurant in the Forest Lawn area twenty years ago. Back then, she catered primarily to the Vietnamese immigrant community.
In the last nine years, she’s opened up three new 8,000 square foot fine-dining restaurants, featuring fine décor, and more importantly, authentic dishes—which they’ve discovered city locals and visitors of all stripes are in love with. Huynh and her son Ken Du, who helps run the family business, note that “Customers are starting to really understand the taste and the ingredients of Vietnamese cuisine. They expect more now, and you have to bring more of the authentic and more of the true exotic.”
Jassie Bakhshi, who owns the Glory of India restaurant also takes pride in his ability to offer an authentic Indian fine-dining experience, reaching back to his New Dehli roots and chef’s training to give customers a real taste of India: “What you eat here is exactly what you eat in India.”
But he is also passionate about how culture and cuisine influence each other. “When people come to a land, they bring their culture, style and cuisine, and that gets mixed with the local culture and cuisine,” Bakhshi notes. “Therefore you change your culture, therefore you change your food.” He sees this fusion in things like how butter chicken is boneless and wildly popular in North America (it’s bone-in and less popular in India).
In the hands of professionals this cultural intermingling can take on a delightful form of food innovation that is being seen on more local menus. At Teatro, for example, though it’s ostensibly an Italian restaurant, chef Moussu enjoys being able to mix techniques and ingredients from around the world, creating new things like sablefish marinated in miso, or tempura combined with spicy aioli. “If it’s very well made and respectful in a tradition, I love it. You can do anything if it’s very good.”
Though fine dining is on the rise, Calgary is still a city faithful to its down-home roots. This offers a great niche for a restaurant like Murrieta’s, which features what executive chef Chris Grafton calls “casual fine dining.”
Located on the second floor of the historic Alberta Hotel building, Murrieta’s offers professionally prepared food in a relaxed, casual atmosphere. For Grafton, this means a number of things: being able to show up to the restaurant in either blue jeans or a suit, having friendly, personalized service, and giving customers decent-sized serving portions.
“I really concentrate on value on each and every plate,” notes Grafton. “Calgarians as far as I can see still want big portions.”
As the city continues to evolve and grow, however, Grafton sees things getting only finer. “I see us getting more high-end. There’s a lot of big-hitters coming to Calgary. In the next five years, we’ll see high-end corporate restaurants like Wolfgang Puck. It’s just going to push us to get better and better.”
The Rouge’s Paul Rogalski also sees the evolution of Calgary’s dining scene taking us to new culinary heights. “It’s just a matter of time before we get recognized. We’ve come a long way in the past ten years and we have a lot of good chefs in town. Literally the next step is being recognized for our efforts on a global scale.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by all of the chefs we spoke to, which is only appropriate, since they are the ones on the vanguard, leading the charge for Calgary’s dining transformation.
THE CHEF’S TABLE
Restaurant: Glory of India, 5 years
Background: Born in New Dehli. Trained in India and later at the Culinary Institute of America. Has been cooking for 23 years, including a stint as the executive chef of the Oberoi Hotels.
Best meal he’s ever had: “I love steaks and prime rib. There was a filet that I truly loved at the [Panorama Room Restaurant] in the Calgary Tower.”
Giuseppe Di Gennaro
Restaurant: Capo, 1 year
Background: Born in Pozzuoli, Italy. Started out working summers in Italy, left at age 16 to apprentice in England. Has since worked in kitchens from Italy to Australia to Canada.
Best dish on his menu: “The roasted pheasant. It’s a tough bird to cook, so it’s one of those dishes that a lot of love goes into it. But a lot comes back because people love it.”
Restaurant: Murrieta’s West Coast Bar & Grill, 2 years
Background: Grew up in Kelowna, B.C., trained at the California Culinary Institute, and moved back to Calgary and area where he’s been cooking for the past 10 years.
Why he became a chef: “I come from a large Basque family who all loved to cook. So even as a child, I became enamoured with kitchens and food.”
Restaurant: Oriental Phoenix, 20 years
Background: Born in Sadec, Vietnam. Her grandfather owned a restaurant in Vietnam and she learned her craft through family; she has sisters with restaurants in California and Australia.
Favourite place to eat outside of Calgary: “Los Angeles, especially Santa Ana, Orange County,” (The area has a large Vietnamese community and many good Vietnamese restaurants).
Restaurant: Teatro, 3 years
Background: Born in Brittany, France. Trained in Brittany and has worked in kitchens from Paris to England, Scotland to Colorado and Montreal to Lake Louise.
Why you should try chef tasting menus: “You have a little bit of everything, you feel full, happy for your body and you have tried so many different tastes.”
Restaurant: River Café, 7 years
Background: Born in Yorkton, Saskatchewan, started cooking in kitchens in Calgary at age 16; worked his way up from dishwasher to kitchen manager to line cook to executive chef.
On chefs in Calgary: “We have a lot of great talent that’s quite young, which is really encouraging. I think the next ten years are going to be a lot more interesting than even the last ten.”
Restaurant: Rouge, 5 years
Background: Born in Calgary; has worked for 23 years in kitchens in Calgary as well as in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, mostly in hotel and fine dining.
If he wasn’t a chef: “I’d be a photographer. Or a musician. I’ve always loved photography—I find it similar to food in that you have to compose with flair and nuance.”—Andrew Mah