Apiece of petrified wood surrounded morels from the Northwest Territories acts as a centrepiece for a broad oak table. It dominates the spacious interior of Share at The Westin Edmonton. The display is a surefire conversation starter, but it’s actually a chef’s table reserved for Ryan O’Flynn‘s tantalizing eight-course tasting menu. It also doubles as an homage to all aspects of Canadian cuisine, including his use of First Nations traditions of northern Alberta and his insistence that all meals incorporate local and seasonal ingredients.
Such a presentation is an example of how the competitive nature of the hospitality industry has challenged chefs with the task of invigorating all our senses. Food is expected to taste good, exhibit creativity in flavour and technique, and look like a work of art. Tasting menus are fun ways for chefs to explore this artistic space and express their passion.
Chef’s tables help enhance this experience by giving guests a semi-private experience. Restaurateurs strive to make these tables stand out, as is the case with one at Hardware Grill. An elegant granite corner table is set in a nook separated from the restaurant, with a live view of the kitchen. Patrons enjoy the sights and sizzles of food being prepared, executed and plated under giant chinois strainers repurposed as kitchen chandeliers.
At Share, the chef’s table treads the line between five-star flair and rustic, boreal minimalism. “We’ve got old pictures of Whyte Avenue at a time when Edmonton was actually a part of the Northwest Territories and we weren’t even a province. We want to get away from the tablecloth idea of a hotel setting to dining on wood,” explains O’Flynn.
True to form, his menu reflects these elements. The soft flavours of red deer tartare served with wild boar bacon have a resounding local theme, but the bison short rib is the showstopper. O’Flynn recreates an elaborate First Nations underground meat preparation by curing it in pinesap and pine needles, after which he slowly cooks it buried under soil and birch twigs on hotel pans in his kitchen.
A couple of blocks east of the Westin, the imagery of a French kitchen at Hardware Grill is matched by the French-inspired, prairie-influenced food for which chef Larry Stewart is well-known.
Hardware Grill’s specially designed tasting menus runs at around $100 while Share’s is around $120 (wine pairings extra) and must be booked ahead of time. Modern restaurant menus are already quite imaginative, so why do chefs feel the need to go over and above to create these experiences? According to Stewart, his five- to six-course menu is a popular option, but the key is providing a surprise element.
“While there may be a couple of menu items incorporated, a minimum of three out of five courses will be something that is new and specially designed for the table,” says Stewart.
The ability for chefs to have a creative release is an important piece to this puzzle.
Back when he was at the downtown restaurant Hundred Bar & Kitchen, chef Andrew Cowan would often entertain pre-planned, special-menu dinners, giving him an opportunity to “flex a bit more culinary muscle.”
“Some days, I’d have brought in an entire pig at the restaurant and the tasting menu might be eight courses of pork. Other days, it’s a seasonal product from the farmers’ market. No two tasting menus would be the same.”
O’Flynn recommends more restaurateurs and hotel restaurants to do this. “You get a chance to cook a lot more creative food for people looking for it.”
At RGE RD, chef Blair Lebsack offers a daily six-course RGE RD Trip tasting menu. “Sometimes they are super-seasonal products that are only available for a couple of weeks,” and through the RGE RD Trip, “we want to give our diners a new taste memory with our seasonal elements.”
Creativity aside, it is also about chefs’ motivations to ensure diners enjoy memorable occasions. “It’s not about making a big pile of money,” says Cowan. “It’s about giving them a great experience.”