Gail Hall sits on the outdoor patio of Credo, sipping an iced latte, her face shaded by a wide brim hat. It’s busy on the street, and Hall seems to know the majority of the people who pass by. “This is my part of town,” she explains, while pointing down the 104th Street promenade.
Over the last decade, 104th Street has become a microcosm of Edmonton, representing a shift in the food scene that Hall’s been seeing all across the city. In 2006, the street was home to a few independent shops and restaurants-including the Blue Plate Diner and deVine Wines and Spirits, and some that no longer exist.
“Now, nearly every storefront is independent,” says Hall, her hand sweeping past several coffee shops and restaurants, bakeries, an independent grocery store and even a fitness studio that incorporates a cafe. The City Market Downtown, which draws crowds of about 40,000 on a given Saturday, started here in 2003 with just 40 vendors and a few intrepid shoppers.
Ten years ago, Hall, now a Red Seal chef who runs a cooking school and gives food tours, was calling herself a food activist – she knew people were interested in eating locally produced food, but she thought they weren’t being active enough about exercising their buying power. “I used to tell people in my classes: ‘You have every right to ask for things that you want to buy, and that your friends want to buy,”‘ says Hall.
She believes that people started to expect more from restaurants and shops in the last several years. More local producers started growing food – even inside the city. New by-laws allow producers to grow vegetables on front lawns or empty lots and sell them at markets; and beehives are kept in the city, hosted in places like the Hotel Macdonald.
Within a few years, she saw that shift so much so that she started offering local tours involving producers in and around Smoky Lake, Gull Lake or Markerville to her roster of once only international culinary destinations. And people were (and still are) eager to sign up.
Just a block away from 104th Street, Daniel Costa’s been in the kitchen (or more accurately, several kitchens) for hours. He began the day in Corso 32 making pasta, then came over to Bar Bricco to help in the kitchen, and finally he’s taking a moment to chat with a customer at Uccellino.
Five years ago, Costa opened Corso 32 (the subject of an Avenue cover story) and, now, the 31-year-old has three restaurants all lined in a row along Jasper Avenue. “I think we’ve seen a boom of interesting restaurants over the last few years. And I think what happened was that independent chefs saw that there were opportunities because Edmontonians were open to trying new things,” says Costa.
Costa himself is no stranger to trying new things. His business is almost the antithesis to many chain restaurants that are synonymous with our city: He owns three restaurants that are not only tied together in subtly different Italian themes, but in location as well.
But in recent years, there has been a shift in how chefs grow their businesses in our city. Costa’s not the only one with several similar restaurants, each with its own twist on a common theme. Frank and Andrea Olson, owners of the long-standing fine dining establishment the Red Ox Inn, in 2012 opened the more informal Canteen on 124th Street. And, within a few years of opening Tres Carnales, the owners also unveiled Rostizado – both have Mexican menus, but focus on very different styles. Caf Amore’s owners have also followed suit – opening Black Pearl, also with a Mediterranean flair. And, soon, a third and fourth restaurant will be added to the Caf Amore empire. Zaika’s owner, Joti Dhanju, helped open Cured Wine Bar right next door and plans to open three more Indian-style restaurants with different concepts from her original brand in the next year or two.
Over on 109th Street, Oscar Lopez is preparing for the evening crowd at Pampa; the giant room is clean and nearly ready to go. A few staff members are pushing in chairs, and making sure the napkins are on the tables – a must when it comes to all-you-can-eat-meat.
Lopez says chain restaurants are almost “in our DNA,” since we’ve been surrounded by them and many have started here – Earl’s, Boston Pizza, Sorrentino’s. But he’s also quick to point out that having a common menu, or a corporate owner isn’t always a bad thing. It doesn’t have to equate to stale offerings that shun local ingredients or refuse to take risks. After all, his restaurants – of which there will be three with one in Calgary, and another on the way on the south side – and the menus definitely don’t just play it safe.
Instead, Pampa often uses local ingredients prepared using a cooking style from another part of the world. In 2011, Lopez opened the first Pampa; it was also the city’s first Brazilian steakhouse. While meat, and steak especially, is familiar territory in our province, serving it in an all-you-can eat manner in a giant open room was a new concept. At the beginning, some people complained it was like eating in a cafeteria.
Now, it’s one of many restaurants in the city that caters to people’s desire for something unique. At Three Boars just off Whyte Avenue, you never know what you’re going to get since the menu is constantly shifting, almost on a daily basis. Chef Brayden Kozak will often pick up ingredients from a local market and make meals around whatever is seasonal. Meanwhile, chef Blair Lebsack serves food at farms in the area where the food is actually grown – and his restaurant, RGE RD, serves adventurous plates including the Questionable Bits, an ever-changing offal dish. Unique offerings have even extended into the streets with entrepreneurs trying their hands at food trucks. Kara and Nevin Fenske opened Drift in 2010 when some Edmontonians still thought of them as roach coaches.
“There was a stigma for the first few years, but now people actually get excited when they see us,” says Kara, explaining that the number of trucks has grown from a handful to over 60. And every year, the What the Truck?! Festival draws a huge crowd, a further testament to their popularity.
“The people we met along the way are little people like us, who are like, ‘eh, let’s just try something’ and they’ve done really well. We’ve seen more risk taking and success from that,” says Kara.
Larry Stewart knows what it’s like to take a risk. When he started the Hardware Grill in 1996, Edmonton had a long and fruitful love affair with chain restaurants but Stewart wanted to try something different. He served offal dishes including sweetbreads, and was the first in the city to offer foie gras.
“We tried to open things up to people and not make dining restrictive. So, I’m happy to see the growth of new young chefs, and independents coming out and leading the charge and moving that forward,” says Stewart.
Today, things are different. The biggest shift Stewart’s noticed is in the demographics of his customers – they went from being older, more established patrons to young people in their 20s and early to mid-30s with an interest in good food, and drink.
“Things have opened up for a variety of reasons from social media to food shows – people have become more interested in food and wine, cocktails, and craft beer. It’s all driven a much higher awareness,” says Stewart. Back in 2013, Stewart himself expanded his brand, opening Tavern 1903 in the Alberta Hotel – but the restaurant closed a year later, after disputes with the sublandlord of the newly-restored building.
And while the dining scene has changed, there’s still much that Stewart finds familiar. His list of former employees reads like a who’s-who of many main players in the Alberta food scene. Brad Smoliak of Kitchen by Brad was once a partner at Hardware Grill, while Andrew Fung, owner of XIX Nineteen, worked in the kitchen. Red Ox Inn’s executive chef Shawn O’Connor, along with Jordan Clemens, the principal bartender at Woodwork, and Cam Dobranski, owner of two Calgary restaurants and a chef apparel company, all learned from Stewart.
Many of the chefs who have gone through Stewart’s kitchen grew up in the province, left for culinary school or travel, and then returned. While Edmonton was once a place that chefs wanted to leave to make a living, it’s now a place to build a business.
It can take decades to become an executive chef at someone else’s restaurant, but a young chef can create his or her menu right away. For those with the talent, work ethic and drive, the opportunities are here to make a mark on the food scene.