It might surprise you that after a busy dinner service, the last thing chefs want to eat is more of that beef tenderloin they’ve been cooking all night
Instead, they seek refuge in comfort foods to soothe their sore bodies, and take time to break bread with their kitchen staff, over what industry insiders call a staff meal.
So what do they eat? “Basically anything that’s not on the menu,”says Christine Sandford, head chef at Culina Mill Creek. “You make stuff you want to eat. You’re not trying to please your customers. You’re trying to please your staff.”
In the kitchen, the friends join forces to make a meal guests won’t forget.
But what’s been Sandford’s nightly ritual has become one of the city’s best food excursions – a series of one-night-only, pop-up feasts aptly titled, “Staff Meal.” Sandford and her four chef friends – Andrew Hess, Heather Dosman, Roger Letourneau and Chris Tom-Kee – thought itup while “geeking out about food,” cooking for one another and dreaming of a food trip to Spain none of them could afford.
Each themed meal is in a different location, such as upscale pub food at the Empress Ale House, and each chef cooks one course of the meal. “We like to draw inspiration from the space we’re in,” says Dosman.
A dish of trout was cured overnight with herb salt, then hot-smoked for two hours
The May meal at Duchess Bake Shop was their largest yet. The five-course formal French affair sold out in two days and saw the caf’s round marble tables replaced with draped communal buffets seating 88 people who each paid $50 and helped bring that dream vacation to Spain a little bit closer.
The organic beefsteak tartare amuse-bouche hinted at what was to come. Sandford’s take on French onion soup followed, with savoury bone marrow toast, rich onion broth, sharp pecorino cheese and sweet, crispy onions. Hess’ fish course was perfectly moist trout cured overnight with herb salt and hot-smoked for two hours. It hugged the Verjus-dressed asparagus salad. The Fanny Bay oysters were kissed by cucumber water, lime juice and sake. One course after another dazzled: Sheep feta ravioli with ginger and beurre mont, duck confit cassoulet, and a dessert of braised pineapple, dark chocolate creme and mango choux. Not only did the chefs cook, but they served the food and happily watched us devour it.
“That’s why I love these functions. We get to see people eating and enjoying the food,” says Sandford, a rare treat for chefs who always toil away at the back of the house.
Clearly, it’s about more than just fundraising for these chefs. They get to be creative. “We can get away with creating things that might never sell on our restaurant menus, like blood sausage, goat’s stomach or tongue,” says Hess. “But mostly, it’s about bringing our community together, and the relationships.”
Look Who’s Cooking
Christine Sandford, 25, Chef de Cuisine, Culina Mill Creek
Graduate of NAIT‘s culinary program, Sandford cooked at Il Portico and D’Lish before Culina Mill Creek, where she’s been running the kitchen for a year and a half.
“I love braising and butchering all meats. I get made fun of at work for my love of it.I like to set time limits every time I take apart meat so I can get really fast!”
Three items always in your fridge:
“I always have cheese – I love cheese.Tropicana orange juice. Sambal(a Southeast Asian hot sauce).”
This NAIT graduate spent two years cooking at Burrowing Owl estate winery’s restaurant in the Okanagan and came back to Edmonton last year for a stint at Zinc before moving to La Persaud, which he recently left to attend university.
“My little black book. A chef that I admired always carried around a handy little notebook filled with all of his best recipes. Now, once I’ve perfected a recipe, it goes in the book.”
Dosman ditched her cell biology degree to cook. “Too many prokaryotes, not enough people,” she says. With her NAIT apprenticeship in hand, she now heads the Culina Muttart kitchen, and makes a killer braised pork bulgogi.
“A ravenous appetite for learning. Reading books.Prodding other experts.”
Three items always in your fridge:
“Sambal, an assortment of perishable gluten-free flours and lots of cheese.”