Cowtown to Chowtown – are you ready for this? It’s time for Calgary to rebrand as Canada’s Chowtown
Calgary has an ultra ambitious and ever-evolving food scene. Our chefs are our modern day cowboy mavericks taming the Wild West’s appetites.
If this is news to you and you’d like the update then please read on – this story is for you.
Calgarians are pleased to welcome the world to visit and enjoy our Cowtown heritage, BUT, we’d be thrilled if you’d take time out to ALSO sample what a great Chowtown we are. We’d like you to know about “the specials menu” we’ve been working on for your dining pleasure.
Food Truck Fanatics
Let’s start with the fact that we have over 40 food trucks. Lots of cities have food trucks but we have them even though we spend half our year buried in WINTER – real winter. That tells you that these aren’t just any food trucks. The people that started this initiative in Calgary have the indomitable spirit of the west. Our Mayor, Naheed Nenshi, saw the food trucks as a vehicle (pun intended) to create lively discourse and a greater sense of community on the streets of downtown Calgary so he fast-tracked their approval through city hall. And here’s the thing – the food trucks aren’t serving beef on a bun. Well…okay… one might be… but, most are serving a multicultural mosaic of munchies – thin crust Without Papers Pizza, Shogun Teppanyaki fresh grilled Japanese, and retro Naaco Indian fare to name a few examples. The food trucks could very well be an allegory for our city.
For those that can look beyond the beefy blinders of this city’s steakhouse paradigm, there’s and absolute delight with “what else?” is on our menus.
Calgary does not have to have an either-or paradigm. We can be both a great Cowtown and a great Chowtown.
Beyond the Beefy Blinders
No one here wants to argue with the fact that Alberta beef does taste better than any other in the world and Calgary is the place to experience that.
A “steak out” here can involve slicing into the salty lemon gremolata of the Bistecca Florentine at Mercato or letting the juices of a classic flame broiled Triple A Angus dribble off your lips as you reach for your glass of Brunello at the 43-year-old institution that is Julius Caesar’s Steakhouse. We can savour the tenderness that comes from the difference in marbling achieved with barley or grass-finished animals and learn at a taste bud level what 28 days of dry or wet aging means.
It’s glorious to roam the famous “cowboy trail” south of Calgary to Longview just to see cattle herds grazing the lush grasslands to their tasty beef heart’s content. The fertile black soil and those grasses bending in the Prairie winds give our beef its signature taste of this place. So by all means love Calgary for our beef but ALSO know that what’s beyond Alberta’s beef is beyond belief and we’d like visitors to savour the rest of our story.
We’ve had bison, elk and deer roaming our plains for tens of thousands of years. They are the indigenous taste of Alberta. Cattle are lovely exotic imports from Scotland that do well with lots of tender loving care but our truly native bison are recognized for health properties for humans and the wildlife and grasses they help regenerate when left to roam the land.
One rancher, Calgary tax attorney Tom Olson, sees bison as a keystone conservation species. Olson has acquired 65,000 acres of ranch land across Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta and has 5000 bison; the largest privately owned herd in North America. With some cuts having half the fat and twice the iron as beef, and animals never needing to be fed in large Centralized Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) like cattle, is it any wonder that this humped species is regaining its primacy in the Alberta foodscape?
Some Alberta culinary pioneers realized the importance of native species earlier than others.
About 25 years ago Canadian Rocky Mountain Resorts and separately, a few years later, Calgary’s River Café saw that we could reflect the honest goodness of this place by cooking with the meat, fish, game, berries and grains that were always here – long before a 100 mile meal became de rigueur. Rocky Mountain and Prairie regional cuisines have slowly been “braised” into being.
Slow Food Calgary, often Canada’s largest per capita chapter of Slow Food International, was started in 2001. It formed key alliances between chefs, consumers and market shy local producers to build a “buy local” mentality for Alberta’s good clean fair food. Food educators joined the movement and SAIT Polytechnic started a Slow Food Youth group on their culinary campus.
SAIT Polytechnic’s culinary school has garnered international recognition and earned gold in culinary Olympics and competitions world-wide. A culinary garden was added to the campus in 2009 and a year-round eco-friendly “bubble” greenhouse in 2013 to increase student’s understanding of food’s triple bottom line – its economic, environmental and social impact.
Chefs that graduate from SAIT have stayed in Calgary. Grads like former Rouge Restaurant Executive Chef Michael Dekker have cooked and staged their way around the world and returned (Dekker is faculty at SAIT now). Calgary is where they want to be and so the city enjoys a tremendous number of independent restaurants per capita in an era when so many cityscapes have turned into one long fast food strip mall. The chef community here has depth, character and a sense of collaboration. Social media in the city is kept alive with stories of their generousity and community spirit.
We have great food but we are also blessed with great drink.
Alberta’s first private wine boutique, aptly named The Wine Shop, opened in Calgary in 1985. Now we’ve got dozens of wine shops that are stellar and about 10 that are aging to perfection right along with their shelves filled with Canada and the world’s best selection of wines. Many of our well-trained servers have sommelier certification and lend their knowledge to make dining out in Calgary the marriage of food and wine pairing pleasure it should be thanks to the influence of people like Richard Harvey, International Sommelier Guild Instructor and owner of Metrovino wines and the Calgary Wine Academy, .
Glittering Stars and Hidden Gems
Streets like the downtown core’s Stephen Avenue, cozy Fourth St in Mission and Uptown 17th Avenue have vibrant restaurant rows. The Inglewood and Kensington neighbourhoods are hidden treasures laden with restaurant gems. With a young mayor’s drive to populate the downtown core there are actually patrons to help our restaurants thrive.
Out of the downtown core, the suburbs hold court to perhaps Calgary’s best kept secret – its ethnic eateries. With a burgeoning population of approximately 1.2 million and 26% of that populace as visible minorities, there’s critical mass of global cuisines and oft-overlooked ethnic chefs cranking out Persian, Thai, Indian, Japanese, Vietnamese and Korean cuisines that have joined the ranks of our long celebrated Chinese, Italian and Eastern European standards.
Calgary has four year round farmer’s markets and dozens of seasonal neighbourhood ones. City Palate magazine has been chronicling our city’s food tales for over 20 years and taking city folk to farm folk via their bus trip “Foodie Tootles” for 15 years already – when other city’s are just catching on to the idea of culinary tourism and the importance of fostering local.
Calgarians dig growing their own food and we’ve blossomed from 12 to over 200 community gardens in the last five years. City hall put the kibosh on backyard chickens but applauded backyard beekeepers. We’ll have over 400 backyard hives in 2014. The urban agriculture revolution has arrived with a consortium of nine Small Plot Intensive Farmers (SPIN farmers) making a living growing food on borrowed patches of other people’s back yards. We have Grow Calgary and Urban Harvest groups that use city property to supply our Food Bank and Homeless shelters with freshly grown produce and fruits.
Sweets and stimuli
There are crazy good bakeries like Sidewalk Citizen, Wilde Grainz, Crave Cookies and Cupcakes, Brûlée and Decadent Desserts that take days to make bread, use only real butter, organic flour and who still crack every egg. Choklat is one of only a dozen bean to bar chocolate makers in the country. We’ve percolated oodles of third wave coffee houses with baristas hand pouring coffee like they we’re born again Seattleites.
Strutting our stuff
Yes, we have the Calgary Stampede with hundreds of free breakfasts and barbecues and, yes, that does serve to propagate the image of Cowtown. But any real Calgarian will tell you that our 10-day ode to cattle and cowboys is one of the most community building and uproaringly fun things we do. We’ll happily grin and bear the finger-licking ribbing that goes with that but we want the world to know that we also have over 30 other food, wine and beer festivals each year.
Yes, we’ve landed eight Top Chef Canada contestants in the four years the show has aired but Calgary’s brotherhood of the knife as a whole deserve the world to know that this place formerly only eaten as Cowtown is a seriously sophisticated and sexy culinary climber on the Canadian and global cuisine scene.
Our Rocky Mountain cathedrals really do cascade along with the wind down to cattle grazing on the prairie grasses. It is a stunningly beautiful image but if visitors will look beyond that mesmerizing pastoral image they’ll see its the quality of all the produce – our native bison and elk, Prairie hardy fruits, vegetables made sweet by cool nights, prodigal grains, creamy white honey and the world’s leading production of mustard and legumes – that our land delivers that has taken our culinary scene to a new pinnacle.
We don’t need to stand on the backs of our cattle to reach the peaks we are currently climbing. Cowtown has many tasteful reasons that entitle us to proudly be known from this day forth as Canada’s Chowtown.