When you walk into the historic Fairmont Hotel Macdonald, you can’t help walk a little more gracefully; even stand a bit taller, speak a little softer, dress more elegantly.
Perhaps it’s the regal decor, the antique chandeliers, the classical music and Victorian era vibe. But that formality, in atmosphere and in food, is also hurting the hotel’s restaurants, which historically have served fussy food that’s priced as if it’s the best in town.
“The dynamics are changing in Edmonton, for sure,” admits Afif Salibi, Hotel Macdonald’s director of operations. “There’s a lot of competition, especially in the restaurant business … This hotel has the luxury of having its long history in the city, and having that strong emotional connection with Edmontonians. But obviously, we cannot rely on that anymore. We need to build further. We need to attract new customers, and that’s what we’ve been working very hard on.”
It’s clear Edmonton’s recent food renaissance is raising the bar. A string of new, small chef-owned independent restaurants are serving locally-sourced, fine-dining quality meals in a casual atmosphere where there’s no dress code, no need to memorize Emily Post’s rules of napkin-on-lap placement, or fear the waiter’s scornful judgment for ordering “just water.” That’s where foodies are taking their dining dollars. And the hotel has noticed.
The man charged with the task of making the hotel’s food appealing to the masses is Serge Jost, the Hotel Macdonald’s new executive chef. He has cooked at some of the best hotels in the world – Hotel Ritz in Paris, Island Shangri-la in Hong Kong – but his heart lies in small, food-focused restaurants, like the Michelin-starred Buerehiesel in France, where he worked under renowned chef Antoine Westermann for years. And it’s that small, local restaurant sensibility Jost is bringing to the hotel’s kitchen of 35 chefs.
“You have to take away that image of the hotel restaurant,” says Jost, whose family owns an inn and a vineyard in the Alsace region of France, where he was born. “What’s important is that yes, Fairmont is a chain, but the chefs are very free. We just have the luxury of being in a nice building, but the restaurant has to be its own.” Here, Jost is free to design his own menu, source locally and serve casual food that’s still inventive but not intimidating.
Jost, 50, was hired from a list of 40 applicants from all across Canada and around the world, including far-flung spots such as Estonia, Singapore and even Saudi Arabia. The hiring process was not quite Chopped, but still rigorous.
First, applicants had to complete an online assessment test. Then, a two-hour phone interview, involving a psychology and talent assessment tool conducted by SHL, a company based in London, England. Next, a series of interviews with senior staff, including the hotel’s general manager and, finally, the tasting.
The hotel flew Jost in from Fairmont Le Château Montebello in Quebec, where he had been the executive chef for seven years. He spent the morning preparing seven dishes for three kinds of menus, including pan-seared foie gras terrine with smoked duck breast and rhubarb compote, braised Alberta beef short ribs with blue cheese and greens, roasted Alberta lamb with hazelnut vinaigrette and French desserts.
“We want to have casual food,” says Jost of his winning menu. “Foie gras can be casual. Years ago, the Harvest Room was so rigid. Not now. It won’t be rigid.” This menu also reveals the balance Jost must strike – between not dumbing down the food too much, and adding enough soul and originality to turn the majestic hotel with a killer view into one of the city’s most sought-after dining destinations.
“People say, ‘oh we’re going to the Mac, so we have to dress up.’ The answer is no,” says Salibi. “[In summer] you can wear shorts and flip flops and sit outside on our patio and have a BBQ as you would in your backyard.” That’s quite the flip for a lounge frequented by politicians and business people in suits and Italian shoes.