It’s been two days since I dined at the newly-opened Deane House in Calgary. It was kind of like an amazing first date because I just can’t get it out of my head. From the first sip of my Deane 71 – a Canadian take on the classic French 75 – I was bewitched. Dish after dish I fell more in love with root vegetables. Wait, what? Root vegetables? I know. It was a shock to me as well. But, chef Jamie Harling’s menu is as local and seasonal as it gets, and in the dead of an Alberta winter, that means beets, turnips, carrots, parsnips, potatoes and cabbage are transformed. And I’m telling you true, his Applewood grilled celeriac (with crème fraiche, smoked oyster mushrooms and black garlic vinaigrette) rivals the best meals I’ve had. Ever. Like, as in my lifetime.
Harling is following in the tradition chef Sal Howell, owner of the Deane House and Calgary’s award-winning River Café on Prince’s Island, who has been asking the same question for two decades: “How local can we be?”
To her credit, and that of her young and immensely talented head chefs, the answer will inspire the savviest of foodies. For in the midst of winter, after Alberta’s growing season has ended, the Deane House and River Café are still killing it in the kitchen with local ingredients.
Creating year-round farm-to-table fare is a ginormous goal that requires heaps of imagination and effort. Throughout late spring, summer and well into fall, when Alberta’s fields are bursting with fresh produce, Harling goes wild. But he knows a successful winter dining experience requires a whole lot of planning and preparation during those peak weeks.
“We have to showcase regional ingredients at their seasonal best by reimagining traditional cooking and preparation methods,” Harling says. “We rely on the relationships we have with our farmers, producers and foragers.” As root vegetables are a cold-weather staple for Deane House, his local suppliers maintain winter cellars so that he always has access to quality produce.
Chefs like Harling have also helped return pickling, canning and preserving to a place of prominence on Alberta menus. Wander around historic Deane House and you’ll find shelves lined with jars of last summer’s plums, fruit preserves and pickled veggies. Ingredients are never wasted in Harling’s kitchen. And believe me when I say we’re the ones who benefit. When the restaurant received a boatload of chanterelles from local Pennybun’s Mushrooms, summer dishes were created and the excess was pickled. With a surplus of butternut squash, Harling whipped up a fermented spread to slather on his famous – and totally addictive – Heritage Harvest red fife sourdough loaves.
Throughout winter, roasted and fermented root vegetables are served alongside such Alberta-raised proteins as 7K Ranch grass-fed beef, Bowden Farms’ chicken and Driview Farms’ lamb and rabbit. Harling’s favourite dish this season is the salted red cabbage, which, even when served with a chicken liver mousse, he assures me “is all about the produce.” After devouring it, and trying very hard not to lick the plate, I will agree, although that mousse is kind of to die for as well.
Over at the River Café in Prince’s Island Park, chef Matthias Fong also bows down to Alberta’s root vegetables. His slow-roasted celery root, served with Pennybun’s shitakes, Heritage Harvest red fife and house made bourbon porter vinegar makes for a hearty, satisfying main, while his Beck Farms carrot Wellington will impress even the meatiest of carnivores.
River Café operates with the same “preserve the harvest” philosophy as its sister restaurant. Over the years, regional ingredients have replaced the traditional further- afield staples found in most restaurant kitchens. “This evolution has a required a major shift in the way we approach food,” says Fong. “We begin with the bounty that is available to us, and then reverse-engineer recipes to create our menus.” Eliminating key elements, like citrus fruit and soy sauce, while maintaining the flavour and quality of his award-winning menu, is far from easy. Ask him to tell you about sumac berries.
During the restaurant’s busy summer season, Fong’s team has to focus on the present while prepping for the future. Outside of operating hours, you’ll find the kitchen wizards harvesting and drying herbs from the surrounding gardens, preserving hand-picked wild garlic, blanching and freezing cauliflower for cold-weather soups and producing their sprouted red fife sauce – a soy replacement that takes upwards of two weeks to make.
Local growers and producers have played a large role in River Café’s success. Fong still visits the Calgary Farmers’ Market every weekend to chat with suppliers and load up his car with fresh produce for the restaurant. To celebrate regional ingredients and thank the partners who supply them, the River Café throws an annual harvest bash, complete with roast boar on the patio overlooking the Bow River. Hmm…crazy good food and epic scenery? Yes, please.
Valuing supplier relationships is a common thread with Alberta chefs. In Edmonton, Solstice Seasonal Cuisine partners with Prairie Gardens Adventure Farm for its produce. Chef Jan Trittenback builds his winter menu around the farm’s greenhouse crops and cellared root vegetables, then fills in the gaps by shopping at local farmers’ markets. Chefs at the restaurant pickle and preserve, and rely on an urban cultivator for growing fresh herbs and microgreens.
At Edmonton’s Workshop Eatery, chef Paul Shufelft uses the best quality ingredients possible, including growing fresh fruit and vegetables onsite. Drying herbs and berries, pickling vegetables and making relish, jams and compotes allows Shufelft to infuse his winter menu with the restaurant’s edible landscape. In addition to cellared root vegetables, you’ll find he uses a wide variety of locally grown grains and pulses (beans, lentils and peas) throughout his recipes.
In southern Alberta, the Longview Steakhouse is working towards self-sustainability through its onsite garden. “By growing, harvesting, preserving and cellaring our own produce, we can control our own destiny,” says owner Karim Belmoufid. His vision is a long-term one. Karim also supports area ranchers. Each year he buys a steer from the annual 4H auction, which is butchered locally and dry aged in-house. His restaurant is one of the world’s best steak house, according to Condé Nast Traveler (and foodies from around the world), and Belmoufid still vows that the best steak he’s ever eaten and served was from a 4H steer raised at a neighbouring farm.
From the inspirational ideals of progressive young chefs comes a kind of culinary artistry that will blow your mind – and taste buds. Skiing, ice skating, snowshoeing and now, root veg. I say bring on winter, Alberta. You’ve got this.
• Visit your local farmers’ markets and get to know the people who grow and produce your food.
• Purchase perishables weekly – even daily – in smaller quantities to avoid waste.
• Get creative with your cooking and try new ingredients.
• If you enjoy a dish at a restaurant, ask the chef for the recipe, as most will be happy to share.
• Preserve the summer harvest by slow drying herbs in your oven, freezing fresh produce and making simple recipes, like fridge pickles and freezer jams.
Born in Hong Kong and raised in Vancouver, Mhairri now lives in Calgary with her husband and daughter. Specializing in family, luxury and culinary focused travel, Mhairri loves exploring her new province, nourishing her wanderlust and writing about her adventures.