Edmonton has a new dining series unfolding this year – and Chef David Leeder is at the center of it all. The Culinary Lab series, sponsored by the Downtown Vibrancy Team, kicked off in April with a collaboration between Leeder and chef Edgar Gutierrez. Culinary Lab 02 is a Canada 150 dinner taking place on August 26, and Leeder will be working with four other chefs- Christie Peters (Saskatoon), Mandel Hitzer (Winnipeg), Ned Bell (Vancouver) and Garrett Martin (Calgary). The chefs will craft their own five-course menus using the flavours of their cities as inspiration for the patriotic pop-up.
How did you get involved with Culinary Lab?
“I’ve been doing pop-ups for quite a while and a couple of the people in EEDC, namely Moirae Choquette, had this idea of doing a dinner series, and using culinary as a way to produce some promotion for the downtown vibrancy program…it just really came together pretty organically.”
What can pop-ups/one-off culinary events offer?
“I think it gives chefs an outlet for creativity and showcases their talents without having a restaurant. It costs tons of money to build a restaurant, and not every chef is in that point in their career. For me, it was always a creative outlet…for a few of us, it’s been a good outlet to push boundaries in the culinary scene without having a restaurant.”
What impact did training/working abroad have on your craft?
“I always had the travel bug, and when I first started cooking it was when I was backpacking. I was in Australia, Singapore, a bunch of places. I already loved food and…I realized my knife could kind of become my passport. I got really serious after travelling, I got a job in Spain right out of school and they gave me a place to live and fed me, I lived at the restaurant, and it’s just one of those weird careers where you can have these amazing opportunities.”
How do you feel the culinary scene in Edmonton has changed?
“The NAIT Program was always really good, they’ve had a pretty good track record, and that’s why I wasn’t scared to come back, there were good teachers, I learned a lot there. Coming back and forth after so many years, you see the scene grow and I think it started with a lot of young chefs, some of the individuals that are doing really good work in the city are in their 30s or just in their 30s, and it’s starting to become more exciting. For a while it was pretty stagnant and you had a lot of the same steak restaurants, Canadian cuisine was like barley, berries and bison, it was boring. And now you’re starting to see all these really cool restaurants open because some of the chefs that have travelled are coming back and opening places…there’s a good scene now and it just keeps getting better and better, especially as there’s a lot more young, hungry talents that are travelling and then coming back.”
What would your advice be to someone who may be hesitant about attending a pop-up culinary event?
“I think sometimes you’ve just got to take a chance. Especially if there’s a good reputation behind the pop ups… Often there’s a lot of camaraderie and they’re usually really well thought out, they’re almost more homey than sitting down at a restaurant because I feel like there’s a sense of community that comes with going to a pop-up, or even the long table dinners that some of the restaurants do.”