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Meet Food and Travel Writer Cinda Chavich

Cinda Chavich knows food, and Canadian food in particular. She has 30 years of journalism experience—20 of them as a food and wine writer—under her belt and  is a regular contributor to Avenue magazine (Calgary), West magazine and the Canadian Tourism Commission Web site. She is the cooking columnist for Alberta’s CBC radio and has written five cookbooks, including bestsellers High Plains: The Joy of Alberta Cuisine, The Girl Can’t Cook and The Guy Can’t Cook.

A product of the Prairies, Cinda was born and raised in Regina, Saskatchewan, and has lived in Lethbridge, Saskatoon and Calgary. As we speak, she’s pulling up her deep Prairie roots to set up shop in Victoria, B.C.

Cinda spends about a third of her time travelling in search of stories about food and wine. Her job has taken her across Canada to explore Canada’s wine regions from Nova Scotia to British Columbia, judge Charlottetown, P.E.I.’s annual chowder festival, follow the perogy trail in northern Alberta, and even try sea lion carpoaccio with First Nations  in northern B.C.

How did you start writing about food for a living?

I’ve been a full-time working journalist since I graduated from J-school. I was the staff food editor and wine writer for the Calgary Sun, then at the Calgary Herald, where I not only wrote and edited the food section, I tested recipes and styled food for weekly photo shoots, wrote the weekly wine column and was a senior feature writer, contributing travel and Sunday features to the lifestyle section. I’ve been a freelance writer and photographer for the last 10+ years, specializing in food and travel writing.

Did you grow up in a food-centric household?

I didn’t think so at the time, but my parents and grandparents did value quality ingredients and we always had a freezer full of beef and lamb from local farmers, big gardens for fresh vegetables, breads from good local bakeries, locally made sausages and charcuterie, and lots of home-canned foods in the pantry. I think this really helped hone my palate for the flavours of real food, whether it’s an heirloom tomato, a piece of grass-fed beef or a really good Italian sausage.

What might you do on any given day at work?

When I’m at home, I am always juggling deadlines and editors, editing photos, researching and interviewing, pitching stories and writing. When I’m on the road, it’s 24-7 travel, interviews, note-taking (I take copious notes) and looking for the best light for photos. I’m always the one trailing behind the pack of writers on a press trip because I need to get another shot.

When most of us think of Alberta cuisine, what comes to mind is beef, beef and more beef. What else is there that visitors to the province should definitely try?

The Prairies are the bread basket of the country, so there’s no shortage of barley for great local beers (Big Rock, Wild Rose, Alley Kat, Village Brewery, to name a few of our great craft brewers) and, along with market gardens for great peas, carrots, potatoes and other root vegetables, we produce lots of pork. So check out the charcuterie at places like Charcut, get Spolumbo’s Italian sausage on a bun direct from the makers at their Inglewood deli, and don’t miss the slow BBQ, whether it’s at a spot like The Palomino smokehouse or the yummy JoJo’s BBQ food truck.

If you could shamelessly plug any underrated place or experience in Canada, what would it be?

Saskatchewan. I just spent a week down in Grasslands National Park—a huge swath of wild prairie along the US border between Swift Current and Moose Jaw—and it was magical. Those wide, wide skies and prairie sunsets, the grass rippling like ocean waves in the wind, spectacular badlands filled with dinosaur bones to hike, with prairie dog towns, burrowing owls and bison ranging wild through it all: it’s like dropping out of this world and into a Louis L’Amour story. I loved it!

I know favourites are hard to pinpoint, but food-wise in and around your current hometown of Calgary, if you had to choose, where would you go for:

…a really great cup of coffee?

Calgary has a pretty good coffee culture—so close to the birthplace of it all in Seattle. So there are lots of local roasters (The Roasterie in Kensington is an original) and great places to go. One of my faves is Bumpy’s Café or Vedome Café. But really, coffee is just the thing I drink to wash down breakfast—and the best breakfast is at OEB (Over Easy Breakfast Co.) where I can’t get past the Soul in a Bowl breakfast poutine with poached eggs on potatoes, cheese curds and bacon lardoons with brown butter hollandaise. Oh yeah, and the Caffè Umbria coffee, from Seattle, is top notch, too.

…a special night out?

I love River Café for its great local food and wine list, and the perfect ambiance. On Prince’s Island next to the Bow River, with its woodsy decor and big fireplace, it’s like a getaway to a stylish holiday camp, very relaxing.

…straight-from-the-farm food?

Lots of chefs are doing this really well in Calgary, whether it’s Justin Leboe at Model Milk or Paul Rogalski at Rouge. But I think the reigning king and queen right now are John Jackson and Connie DeSousa at Charcut, where everything is created in-house, from the lamb ham to the tasty tomato ketchup.

…something uniquely Calgary?

When in Calgary, make sure to do the wild game thing. I mean locally raised elk or bison, or even caribou. A great place to have it is any restaurant owned by Canadian Rocky Mountain Resorts: The Ranche, Divino, Cilantro or, in the Rockies, Cilantro Buffalo Mountain Lodge in Banff and Cilantro on the Lake west of Lake Louise in Yoho National Park). Not only is the game cooked well, its raised on a ranch south of Calgary.

Across Canada, what have been a few of your favourite food discoveries?

On the coast of Nova Scotia, you can find Acadien râpure, an old-fashioned dish made with shredded potatoes and tender chicken or pork. In Quebec, it’s the variations on tourtière (meat pie) or the real Montreal smoked meat from Schwartz’s. And in Manitoba, it’s pickerel cheeks with chips, Schmoo Torte (a gooey layer cake with cream, nuts and caramel with Jewish roots) or hot-smoked Winnipeg goldeye. You really can’t beat the perogies and kubassa (garlic sausage) in Saskatoon or Edmonton, and Saskatoon berry pie across the Prairies. Go to Vancouver (or Tofino) for the spot prawn season in May and have the sweetest sustainable shrimp on the planet. And you won’t find juicy soup dumplings like the ones they serve in Chinese restaurants in Richmond, BC, unless you travel all the way to China.

What places in Canada do you think should be on every food-centric traveller’s list and why?

Every major city has its top chefs and fine dining though I’d have to say Vancouver is one of the best places in the country to eat almost anything. Don’t miss the Chinese and Japanese food—especially the sushi—and the wide variety of delicious west-coast oysters in Vancouver. Do come to Calgary for fantastic restaurants serving steak, burgers, pulled pork and other meaty menu items. Hit the Okanagan (B.C.) or Niagara or Prince Edward County (Ontario) regions in the fall for the wine festivals. Toronto and Montreal are great dining cities, too. And make a trip to the Maritimes for the lobster experience, whether you’re in New Brunswick, P.E.I., Nova Scotia or Newfoundland, this is the place for your shellfish fix.

What places in Canada are on your wish list and why?

As the old song says, I’ve been everywhere, man; though it’s always good to go back and revisit delicious spots in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. I’d like to travel the cheese trail in Quebec, and I’d love to dine at chef Michael Statländer’s table at Eigensinn Farm near Collingwood, Ontario. An inspired cook and a food activist, Statländer is a chef who I truly admire and would love to interview.

In your opinion, what are some of the most exciting things that are happening in Canada now in terms of food or drink?

I love the food truck phenom that started in Vancouver and has spread to Calgary. Whether you want a killer chicken sandwich, like the ones they sell from La Brasserie food truck in Vancouver, or Charcut’s famous Alley Burger with duck fat fries in Calgary, you can get your fix fast from a truck on the street, rubbing shoulders with suits and bike couriers.

The Canadian wine business is flourishing and now we’re seeing an explosion in artisan spirits, from the potato vodka being made in Pemberton, B.C., to the rum at Ironworks Distillery in Lunenberg, Nova Scotia. I especially like the Taboo absinthe they make at Okanagan Spirits in Vernon, B.C., and Canadian Glen Breton single malt whisky, made on Cape Breton Island.

The newest generation of chefs and foodies is inspiring to me: young people devoted to local, sustainable foods and fish, creating urban gardens, making artisan breads and charcuterie, supporting their area farmers, and showing us all that we can have a better, healthier, more sustainable food system here in Canada. I always say that there’s no free lunch—you get what you pay for and cheap imported food has lots of hidden costs, whether you’re talking about the local economy, the environment or your health. So it’s great to see people taking up the torch and proving that we can eat well here at home, everywhere from the smallest lunch counter to the finest dining room.

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Follow Cinda’s foodie adventures at TasteReport.com or on Twitter @TasteReporter.

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