At one time in Calgary it was easy to decide where to eat. You had your old-school steakhouses on one side and a handful of creative and interesting restaurants on the other. If you lived in Calgary in the ’90’s and weren’t a regular steak-and-potatoes type you were probably familiar with places like Cilantro Savoir Faire Teatro River Café Brava and the ever amiable 4th Street Rose for a jar of garlicky Caesar salad. After that there weren’t a whole lot of exciting places to eat. But as our city has grown so too have our dining options and today we enjoy a diverse and evolving food scene which makes it much harder to decide on a restaurant.
A quick stroll down 17th Avenue S.W. is enough to get an idea of how far we have come. In just a few short blocks you pass Model Milk The Living Room Bar-C Market Ox & Angela Brava Cilantro and Una. This density of distinct and creative restaurants would not have been possible 20 years ago. The downtown core is also inundated with serious dining options: Divino Blink Charcut and Catch make up one block of phenomenal eating. Even neighbourhoods further out have seen high-quality places spring up — Notable Bistro Rouge and Cassis are all welcome additions.
But you can’t have a flourishing food scene without passionate chefs and it’s not enough to simply cook great food — in order for a food scene to develop these chefs have to become teachers and mentors. While much of this mentoring takes place on the job there is also the important role of inspiring young people to the culinary arts. SAIT has long been the leader in developing Calgary’s young talent and over the past few years they’ve quietly acquired some of our city’s best chefs (see sidebar) to further the cause including Michael Allemeier one of the city’s most influential generous and talented cooks.
I first met Allemeier back in 1998 when he was running the kitchen at Teatro. I’ll never forget the incredible meals we enjoyed there like halibut cheeks with carrot risotto smoked trout with cauliflower panna cotta braised veal cheeks and my first taste of dry-aged Galaway beef. The creative tasting menus at Teatro fed the imaginations of Calgary’s food lovers and Allemeier’s ability to source sensational local ingredients changed how we looked at food.
Allemeier left in 2003 to take over as head chef at Mission Hill Winery in Kelowna where he entertained visitors from around the globe but after six years he elected to move back to Calgary to share his vision and skills with the students at SAIT.
I recently caught up with Allemeier to get his take on the Calgary food scene and see what role a revamped SAIT is likely to play in our city’s future.
FFWD: You left Calgary in 2003 and spent six years as the chef at Mission Hill. When you returned how had the food scene changed?
MA: The six years I was away from Calgary was a huge evolutionary time for our city’s restaurants. Upon returning one of the noticeable changes was the amount of new places. The population of restaurants bloomed. Noticeable too was the level of offerings — good quality nice fresh contemporary themes.
How has the SAIT program evolved in the last decade and what local impact has this had?
In the last five years the biggest changes to the culinary side of our school has been the extended curriculum and the introduction of new instructors. The PCK (professional cooking) program is now a two-year diploma program with an industry internship introduced between first and second year which brings some real experience to our learners. The addition of industry-fresh chefs — like Scott Pohorelic Hayato Okamitsu Michael Dekker Andrew Springett Steve Lepine Mikael Volke Venessa Mendoza Glenn Monk and Andreas Pabst — and the extended program has added lots of new industry perspective to balance the experienced team on faculty. This gives our learners a real sense of experience and depth to their education.
There has also been significant capital resources with regards to equipment in all our teaching kitchens giving us the best equipment to work with. Our culinary garden Jackson’s Garden is a unique and very special learning environment as well — students learn about how fruits vegetables and herbs are grown. With our apprentice cook program the curriculum has been totally revamped and gives our apprentices very strong and industry specific skills.
Is there a mandate at SAIT for the type of cooks you want to produce? Has this changed?
Our guiding principle in our teaching is to prepare our learners for the industry. We teach them to be industry ready. After our programs our graduates can find work and start practicing the craft immediately.
You travel and eat all over Canada. How does our food scene compare to say Vancouver Montreal or Toronto?
What I love about our Canadian food culture is that every region is pushing to identify their culinary identity. The strongest way to do this is by highlighting ingredients that are native and specific to that region. Seasonal regional and sustainability are big influences in our industry these days. Our top restaurants in Calgary do a great job in highlighting these values that the other big cities practice and in doing this represent and forge Calgary’s identity.
What do you see in the future for Calgary’s culinary scene?
Based on the huge leaps demonstrated in the last 10 years the future looks very positive for Calgary. I hear of many new projects and restaurants opening regularly. When people and companies relocate to Calgary to open businesses that is a very positive indicator on how healthy our industry is. I see a very positive future for all our SAIT graduates.
PAIRING KITCHENS WITH CLASSROOMS FOR GREAT RESULTS
From the kitchen to the classroom
SAIT’s culinary instructors bring previous experience working at some renowned restaurants and institutions. The team includes:
Scott Pohorelic (River Cafe)
Hayato Okamitsu (Catch)
Michael Dekker (Rouge)
Andrew Springett (Wickaninnish Inn)
Steve Lepine (Calgary Golf and Country Club)
Mikael Volke (Palliser Hotel)
Venessa Mendoza (Department of Foreign Affairs)
Glenn Monk (The Cove Lakeside Resort)
Andreas Pabst (Fairmont)
From the classroom to the kitchen
Some of the former SAIT students making their mark on Calgary’s food scene are:
Connie DeSousa (Charcut)
John Jackson (Charcut)
Paul Rogalski (Rouge)
Dean Kanuit (The Glencoe Club)
Jason Barton-Browne (Teatro)