If you follow any food enthusiasts on Twitter or Instagram you’ve seen the photos. A picture of an elaborate pasta course credited to Model Milk’s chef Justin Laboe followed by a rich slab of ornately garnished foie gras by Rouge’s Paul Rogalski and a spectacular piece of meat topped with some kind of fantastical fluff that you don’t even recognize courtesy of Downtownfood’s Darren MacLean. Collaborative chef dinners — where well-known chefs team up to provide a multi-course ticketed dinner — have been popping up on culinary event calendars in Calgary for a couple of years now and based on their popularity (the long table dinner at the inaugural Canmore Uncorked was full — and that was outdoors in April in the mountains) it doesn’t seem like the trend is going to end any time soon.
For the uninitiated collaborative dinners can feel a little cliquey — maybe you don’t know the name of the chef at your favourite restaurant and treating him or her like a rock star can feel a little uncomfortable. On top of that tickets to these things can be pricey: the Plate Swap event hosted by Model Milk cost $150 per person last year (though to be fair that included a cocktail wine pairing taxes and tip with proceeds going to a worthy charity). But look at it this way: that’s equivalent to a big concert ticket at the Saddledome and you’ll leave not only full but also entertained. Most of us have seen shows like Iron Chef on TV — if you approach collaborative dinners like a chance to experience that in real life the price is less painful.
“When you go to the restaurant you feel like you know the concept and you know the dishes but with these collaborative pop-up events it’s a one-time shot” says Charcut’s co-owner/co-chef John Jackson who has been a major catalyst in getting the collaborative dinner scene going in Calgary. “You’re never going to see that combination of flavours again. So it’s also very attractive for our guests to go to those things. It’s not just a dinner it’s an event and that’s why tickets are being sold-out in advance.”
That whole idea of event eating is what’s drawing in customers but the chefs are also benefitting from these kinds of dinners. While it’s sometimes hard to believe that Calgary’s community-spirited gang of high-profile chefs actually get along as well as they purport to the chefs who generally participate in these dinners are pretty friendly with each other (the same handful of names does tend to appear on many of the collaboration lineups likely due to the fact the number of chefs in town who have the name recognition to draw in people willing to pay the ticket price is not infinite).
While there is undoubtedly a bit of healthy competition going on — every chef wants to create the dish that diners go home talking about — both Jackson and Hotel Arts executive chef Duncan Ly say they approach collaboration dinners with a little bit of professional development in mind.
“You get to go into other people’s kitchens as well and see how they run and set up things” says Ly. “And you also get to see how each chef organizes his own courses and his own mise en place when it comes to how he’s going to execute his dish.
“There’s more than one way to do things and it’s helped me quite a bit because certain situations suit a different way of doing things. The more I see the more tools it gives me.”
It’s deflating to think you have something really special going on in your own city only to realize through a bit of travel that the exact same thing is going on in just about every other city in North America but Jackson is adamant that the collaboration dinner phenomenon is stronger in Calgary than just about anywhere else. He credits this to the efforts of the innovative chefs who have kick-started the dinners and who are at least partially motivated to raise the city’s profile in the larger culinary world.
“Nowhere does it like we do it. Nowhere. We’re at a different level and it’s noticeable. We’ve created a very collaborative culture here that is setting us apart from all these other cities” says Jackson.
“And I think chefs in other cities are noticing it. We create more interesting stories by doing things together than by doing things in our own restaurants.”
The perception that Calgary’s restaurant scene is hot is more than wishful thinking and Jackson thinks that’s due to a sense of solidarity among our top chefs — something that is nurtured when they cook together. And while being “noticed” probably seems more important to a chef’s self-esteem and the media people covering the food scene than it does to regular Calgarians the props that our city’s restaurants receive from outsiders does help attract and retain more skilled and creative cooking professionals as well as investors in the local restaurant industry. That in turn gives us all more exciting dining options.