Drive 3.5 hours south from Calgary with the tunes cranked high on an empty stomach. Do this so you can eat in a restaurant attached to the visitor centre in Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park. I know it sounds weird, but there’s magic happening here in the southeast corner of Alberta.
Two twenty-something cooks – don’t call them chefs because that’s far too pretentious -- named Becky Ross, a Top Chef Canada Contestant, and her partner Alex Bruveris, who trained at George Brown, threw caution to the wind, and in a spur-of-the-moment decision “bought a lemon and fixed it.” That lemon is now the fabulous Camp Cookhouse and General Store.
The restaurant opened in July 2014 after a whirlwind period that involved a move from Toronto with only a week to get the restaurant ready. Ross tells me the pair purchased the restaurant “to take advantage of a low-risk opportunity that would get us back in Alberta without borrowing a bunch of money. It was also a way to introduce ourselves to southern Alberta, to see what worked, what didn’t, and to learn from mistakes along the way.”
The citizenry of nearby Medicine Hat are huge fans, but they aren’t the only ones. Take this gentleman sitting next to us at breakfast. “The food is ridiculous,” he said. “And in case you’re in doubt, that means ridiculously good.” After devouring a proper stack of feather-light pancakes, topped with smoky butter with a side of real maple syrup, homemade peach preserves and their own bacon, I can’t help but agree.
The duo is both practical and experimental. They have a strong commitment to buying local and the best stuff they can afford, considering their traffic in winter at this too-often overlooked gem of an area may top out at 20 people over three days. Their ever-changing menu is based on what’s in season and what inspires them in the moment. Ross is heavily influenced by the way Italians use ingredients – wasting as little as possible -- stemming in part from her passion for very old cookbooks and old-world techniques. Bruveris is a fan of newer techniques. Somehow they’ve amicably combined the two although Ross says “he understands who’s in charge.”
Burgers rule the roost here. Their customers love the tried and true. Anything unusual? Not so much. But those burgers get comments like “I never knew food could taste so good.” Ross does her best to trick people into eating more vegetables. Cue the kale hidden in my tagliatella – masked with sausage, ricotta and buttered breadcrumbs. Who cares about the green stuff when it tastes so good?
Don’t head home without getting their steal-of-a-deal boxed lunch. Ours included a brie, ham and bread-and-butter pickle sandwich along with a beet, celery, apple and potato salad, local carrots and cucumber, homemade potato chips and chicharon and a handful of soft and chewy prune-poppy cookies. Amazing.
Who cares about the green stuff when it tastes so good?
Cypress Hills is a quiet park and a geographical anomaly. It sits on a plateau above the prairies on the highest point of land between the Rockies and Labrador. Local people want to keep it secret so it stays pristine. The pair value this and know it will never explode like other tourist areas of the province. But they are doing their humble best to lure more people their way. Come for a visit before the rest of the world catches on.