From left to right: Chef Kyle Groves, Chef Hayato Okamitsu, Chef Darren MacLean, Chef Michael Allemeier, Chef Duncan Ly, and Chef Justin Leboe at the Visa Infinite Oceanwise “Surf and Turf” dinner at Catch Restaurant.
Follow Me Foodie to Calgary:
A recap of the Visa Infinite Oceanwise Surf n’ Turf Dinner at Catch Restaurant w/Calgary’s All Star Chefs.
Am I smitten for Calgary? And did I just say that out loud?! I don’t know. It’s too soon. I’ll call it a crush for now. And why is that so hard to admit? I’d shock my friends if I told them because I don’t quite identify with Calgary and they would never identify me with Calgary, but I think I like it. No, I mean I like Calgary. Whoa. That’s weird. I do? I do. I like Calgary. I like Calgary… yes,
I guess I do.
A born and raised Vancouver girl liking Calgary… it’s not uncommon, but it’s not common. I mean I’ve been there less than a handful of times and the last time was only last year – see Follow Me Foodie to Calgary. Mind you, that was a great trip and I ate really well, but it helped having locals guide me.
The locals certainly have to do with it. I could be biased, but I’m charmed by Calgary and the camaraderie especially amongst the chefs. As an invited guest of Tourism Calgary and on this occasion Hotel Arts as well, I might see just one side of it and perhaps only the surface, but compared to Vancouver it feels different.
Vancouver isn’t necessarily a “big city”, but it is in the context of Canada. It is no doubt the most cosmopolitan on the West Coast. As a local I find it actually a small city with big mind mentality, so when I go to places like Calgary it feels even smaller. I love big cities and fast paced lifestyles, but they don’t have the same sense of community as smaller cities and that’s partially why I like Calgary. Even if you don’t have an “in”, the people are warm and friendly whereas in bigger cities, like Vancouver, people tend to stick to their social circles, groups and neighbourhoods. They have a comfort zone which is natural, but I think we could learn a little something-something from Calgary. Cuisine-wise, we take the lead in most areas (no harsh offence to Calgary), but cooking is more than just the food alone, it’s the culture and an industry, but not limited to the industry.
So when I was invited to attend the Visa Infinite Oceanwise “Surf and Turf” dinner at Catch Restaurant I was pretty stoked. I’ve attended Visa Infinite dinners in the past as a guest and as a paying customer. I knew what to expect, but it was my first time attending one outside of my hometown. I should really consider doing it more often because some of these concepts and chef collaborations are worth flying for. I know it’s not that easy, but these are the “concerts” of the culinary world. And no! It doesn’t make you a groupie! For the love of food… and yes, the people making it too.
I’m not keen on the whole “celebrity chef” culture, which seems to be synonymous with being an ass in the kitchen nowadays, and I listed it on my Top 10 Food Trends I want to see die in 2013. Being a celebrity is different than being a chef, but it’s important to be able to work all angles. Often, hardcore “foodies” are there for the food as much as they are for the chefs, and these intimate events help bring it all together. Guests get to meet the chef, the chef is guaranteed to be in house, and he’s actually cooking and often interacting.
As if the 10 course “Surf and Turf” dinner wasn’t special enough, much of the excitement for this event was for the chefs involved. This collaboration dinner took the creme de la creme of chefs in Calgary which included: Chef Michael Allemeier from Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT), Chef Kyle Groves of Catch, Chef Duncan Ly of Hotel Arts, Chef Justin Leboe of Model Milk, Chef Darren MacLean of Downtownfood, Chef Hayato Okamitsu of SAIT, Chef Andrew Winfield of River Cafe and emcee, food critic and journalist, John Gilchrist.
If you’re familiar with Calgary’s food scene, these are the heavy-hitters, however there are still more outside of the mentioned. For example, pioneers like Chef Michael Noble and Chef Paul Rogalski (who I call the “godfathers” of Calgary’s food scene) are certainly heavy-hitters themselves, but more or less have taken a step back from endless hours in hot kitchens. They have certainly worked hard and put in the time to get there. Both are very different in train of thought and equally as respected by industry peers as successful restaurateurs and mentors.
Calgary is a hub for young culinary talent and it is only a matter of time before they become established names. Their “creme de la creme” is not reserved for the “godfathers” and young chefs are the driving force behind Calgary’s food scene. The food scene in Calgary is still growing and I’m looking forward to seeing what it evolves to in the next 5 years.
Chef Michael Allemeier
Speaking of “godfathers” and influencers, Chef Allemeier is another mentor for many chefs. He was actually one of the chefs I wanted to meet last time I was in Calgary, but didn’t get to. He has roots in Vancouver working with Bishop’s back in the day when Vikram Vij was still there too. He’s currently passing on the torch at SAIT and is an asset to Calgary’s future chefs. It was an honour to meet him.
Chef Kyle Groves
Chef Groves I’ve met before and it feels weird calling him Chef Groves, so I’m calling him Kyle. This is a blog, not a book.
As one of Calgary’s Avenue Magazine’s “Top 40 Under 40” he’s a catch leading the kitchen at Catch… that was good huh? Worthy of at least a couple points.
Catch itself was a drawing factor for this dinner because it is where many of Calgary’s notable chefs got their start. It was the Disney Club or MADtv of the culinary world. It was what Diva at the Met in Vancouver was in the mid-late 90’s, when Chef Noble was executive chef.
In 2001 Noble left to open Catch, and not-surprisingly he pumped out another award-winning restaurant with his hand-selected brigade of up and coming chefs. This big kitchen had some big talent… along with big personalities… I can only imagine.
Diva at the Met and Catch back in the day were powerhouses and home to budding chefs. When it first opened it was a hot-spot for a few years after, and while that’s died down, Catch still remains a deeply rooted classic serving seafood in Calgary.
This Visa Infinite Oceanwise dinner was a bit of a “Catch-in-the-90’s” reunion too because Chef Ly, Chef Okamitsu, and Chef Nicole Gnomes (previously on Top Chef Canada) were there as well. They are part of the original Catch alumni and even worked there at the same time. Chef Gnomes was attending as a guest, but the boys were featured chefs of the evening. I hope they don’t all kill me for dating them a bit now.
Chef Duncan Ly
Chef Ly and I met on my last trip in Calgary and it was like meeting an old friend. We have mutual friends since he was part of the “Diva at the Met club” in the 90’s, so he’s worked with Vancouver’s key players like Pastry Chef Thomas Haas, Chef Hamid Salimian, Chef Quang Dang, Chef Matt Stowe (Top Chef Canada winner), Chef Chris Mills, Chef Andrew Springett, Chef Jenn Peters, and the list of ridiculously talented chefs goes on and on. In a nutshell, if you were a chef at the top of your game, you were likely at Diva at the Met at some point in the 90’s.
I also saw Duncan compete at The Canadian Culinary Championships: The Gold Medal Plates this year in Kelowna. He took home a silver medal for Calgary which was bitter-sweet. Having competed before he was the most feared competitor, and for good reason.
He is a classically trained French chef, but his passion is modern Vietnamese. This style of cuisine is one-of-a-kind in Calgary and it is featured at his rather newly renovated restaurant Raw Bar by Duncan Ly at Hotel Arts. Unfortunately I didn’t have a chance to experience a full meal there, but order the beef carpaccio and check out the well designed cocktails.
Duncan is also the chef/co-owner of Yellow Door Bistro located beside Raw Bar in the same hotel, and Chef’s Table. Chef’s Table is an AAA 4-Diamond rated 24 seat destination fine dining restaurant tucked away in Calgary’s only Relais & Châteaux property, Kensington RiverSide Inn. All three restaurants are associated and under Hotel Arts (who also owns the Inn).
Chef Justin Leboe
Chef Leboe is the co-owner and executive chef of Model Milk. A self-taught chef originally from White Rock, BC, I knew of his name, but met him for the first time at this dinner. Model Milk is one of the most well known and current restaurants in Calgary. It was named Top 10 Best New Restaurants in EnRoute Magazine in 2012 and Leboe was recently named Chef of the Year in Avenue Magazine. Boom.
I’m a bit embarrassed to say I haven’t had the opportunity to eat at Model Milk yet, but I actually tried his food at Rush back when he was executive chef (in 2009) and I really liked it. I came to check out Model Milk last time in Calgary for a drink, but he was out-of-town. Their bartender David Bains who was last at Diva at the Met before leaving Vancouver joined Model Milk last year. The rustic yet contemporary room is fantastic and it’s definitely on my bucket list for next time.
Chef Darren MacLean
Chef MacLean I met at Slow Food Calgary’s 12th Annual Feast of Fields at Rouge Restaurant last year. He is the chef and owner of Downtownfood, which I got to experience this time around, and it was a great experience. The menu was a bit all over the map, but he knows good food and is a well-rounded chef with an excellent palate. He can cook.
He’s big on Asian flavours so a lot of his food is Asian-inspired and often salty, sweet, tangy, and occasionally spicy all at once – a common characteristic in Southeast Asian cuisine. Don’t be fooled by the name “Downtownfood” though, it’s actually quite sophisticated, and not casual like I assumed.
Full disclosure: He gave me a slab of his incredible 777 bacon (cured for 7 days, hung for 7 days, and smoked for 7 hours), which I gladly accepted. Bribery? Perhaps, but if you knew me… then never. I would need at least 2 slabs. Joking aside, the bacon is incredible and his restaurant is worth a visit. His menu will be more streamlined over the next few months which will make it even better than it was.
Chef Hayato Okamitsu
Chef Okamitsu… 1, 2, 3… awww! If you don’t like him, you’re probably just bitter. Originally from Japan he moved to Vancouver before making Calgary his home. He was also part of the original Catch crew and Diva at the Met crew. He was another one I didn’t meet last time, but had heard of because again, it goes back to the mutual friends. I was pretty excited to meet him.
Okamitsu was the executive chef of Catch in 2008 and won Gold Medal Plates in 2009 beating silver medal winner chef Frank Pabst of Blue Water Cafe in Vancouver. Frank is one of my favourite chefs in Vancouver and one of the most renowned in the city, so it was quite a feat. I was really looking forward to trying Chef Okamitsu’s food.
Chef Andrew Winfield
Chef Winfield I met at the Top Chef Canada Dinner at River Cafe last year. It’s another local and tourist favourite in Calgary and frequented by both. It is far from a tourist trap and one of the classic restaurants in the city. He’s been cooking at River Cafe for 10+ years and he’s built the restaurant to what it is today – a highly respected and frequented restaurant known for farm-to-table cuisine and sustainability.
The Visa Infinite Oceanwise Surf n’ Turf Dinner
Now can you see why I was excited about this collaboration? If you knew the background of all the chefs already, then reading that might have been really boring, or it might have been a reminder of the incredible talent behind this dinner. It was a big deal and tickets sold out before news about it really got out.
The food was enjoyable and each of their personalities came through in their dishes, but I valued the experience most. They all have different palates and styles of cooking so besides “Surf and Turf” there was no other theme.
You might be thinking “why would I want “surf” in Calgary?”, but let go of the stereotype. Seriously, just let it go. Right now. It might sound odd to associate Calgary with seafood, “surf”, and Oceanwise, but welcome to Calgary in the last couple years. It’s changing. It’s evolved – into something better.
I mentioned last year how it wasn’t just “meat and potatoes” (although their steaks are pretty damn good) and their culinary scene is all over the sustainable seafood. Great news for Oceanwise and diners, but keep in mind just because it doesn’t have the label “Oceanwise” it does not necessarily mean it is not sustainable. On that note, there is confidence in the Oceanwise brand and I support the program which started in Vancouver. It’s rewarding to see the movement gaining so much momentum in other provinces.
Being from Vancouver we’re spoiled by seafood, but that’s not to say Calgary can’t do it better. It’s all about how long the food as been in the supply chain which determines the freshness of the ingredients. The top quality seafood does not always stay in Vancouver either and often it gets shipped to countries willing to pay the bigger dollars for it. I’m getting a bit technical, but I want to emphasize the point that seafood can be good in the interior.
It is hard to compete with “fresh off the boat” seafood, but a chef could mess it up, then it doesn’t matter how good or fresh the ingredient was to start. An excellent dish starts with an excellent product, but it has to be executed properly too. For this surf n’ turf dinner, we were in good hands.
The wine pairings were all Wines of BC and most the seafood was also from BC, so it was almost like eating at home. The chefs had their own take on everything and it was nice to see their vision for the ingredients. It is not like it was their first time working with BC seafood either and many of them serve them at their restaurants or teach students how to cook with it.
If you have the opportunity to visit Calgary, try to check out one of the collaboration dinners either with Visa Infinite or outside of it. They happen fairly often it seems and that goes back to the camaraderie I like so much in their culinary scene. It’s a tight knit community.
I’ve been to most of these restaurants individually as well, except for Catch (I haven’t had a proper sit-down experience here yet) and Model Milk, but I would visit them all regardless of a collaboration. They’re solid restaurants and even SAIT has a student run cafe which is always worth supporting.
Calgary is not a destination hot spot yet, but they do have young and enthusiastic chefs building their future dining scene. There are certainly restaurants worth trying and talent worth discovering, and it won’t disappoint. Many people visit Calgary not expecting to be impressed with their food scene because they still think it’s “meat and potatoes”, in which case they’ll be pleasantly surprised it’s growing to be so much more. However, still have that one high quality steak experience.
Note: Due to the nature of the event, I’m not going to go into details about the food since it was a one-off Visa Infinite dinner for around 80 guests. I would never use a collaboration dinner to “judge” what a chef could do because they’re not working in their own kitchen, let alone with their own staff. Also at events like these they take on a bit of a “volume” mentality where plates have to be designed to serve quickly and efficiently. It’s like driving in a new city. Many of the courses were served cold, but they were all still tasty dishes. I’m not making excuses, but just giving perspective and it genuinely was a very good dinner.
On the table:
- Pairing: NV Summerhill Pyramid Winery Cipes Brut, BC VQA Okanagan Valley
- Looks like Northern Divine has finally reached Calgary!
- I was introduced to the lovely Northern Divine caviar when it first hit the market in Vancouver at C Restaurant in 2011 – see here.
- I pretty much see it at every single restaurant serving caviar in Vancouver now, so the market is saturated. In due time, the same will happen in Calgary.
- The caviar is really clean tasting without a fishiness and the texture is smooth and creamy.
- There is no pop because it’s not soaked in borax and it’s a rather milder tasting caviar without an aggressive saltiness.
- Oysters and caviar? A classic. My favourite one to date? The one at Per Se! Epic.
- Giant Pacific octopus, cedar, apple, fennel, sea urchin bottarga, tonnato by Chef Andrew Winfield of River Cafe
- Wine pairing: 2012 Serendipity Winery Rose, BC VQA Okanagan Valley
- It was a cold plate and a good start to dinner.
- Chef Winfield is passionate in curing his own meats and house made charcuterie, so this was very him.
- Cotechino is a traditional fresh and fatty cooked Italian sausage, similar to salami, and this one was made with bison which was a Calgarian twist.
- It was not meant to be traditional Italian, but if it was, it would be made with pork and served on a bed of braised lentils.
- Bison is lean and a bit sweeter than beef, however there was enough fat in this that it wasn’t dry.
- The meat looks raw, but it was smoked for 8-10 hours and simmered for another 8-10 hours.
- It was well seasoned without being too salty and was remittent of pepperoni in flavour.
- The slice of octopus terrine was tender and I’ve never had it with bison before, but it was a new take on surf n’ turf.
- I was looking forward to the sea urchin bottarga most, but I couldn’t taste it because there was too little.
- Usually Cotechino is a heavy, hearty and rich dish, but this was executed as a charcuterie course and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
- See my post on Il Zampone I had at Campagnolo Roma and modern Cotechino at Sepia in Chicago.
- By Chef Darren MacLean of Downtownfood
- Wine pairing: 2012 St. Hubertus & Oak Bay Estate Winery Riesling, BC VQA Okanagan Valley
- This was a crowd favourite. It was also the winner of the Vancouver Aquarium Ocean Wise Chowder Chowdown in Calgary.
- He was asked to feature this chowder at the event.
- I’m not familiar with Cambodian cuisine, but Amok chowder is Darren’s creation.
- In Cambodia there is seafood/fish Amok which is a traditional curry, but it is eaten with rice and not as a soup.
- The flavour was similar to a Thai curry (they share culinary influences) and it was sweet, savoury, tangy and spicy all at once.
- It was aromatic with ginger, lemongrass, and garlic, and it was very comforting and perfect for the cold weather.
- The sweetness was from the coconut milk and sugar which is typical in South East Asian cuisine.
- The savoury came from likely fish sauce as well as all the other seafood, and the tang came from lime juice.
- There was lobster, a spot prawn, steamed clam, raw scallop, tempura halibut for crispy texture, and coconut fluid gel.
- I liked how each piece of seafood was prepared a different way so that nothing would overcook. Overcooked seafood is a tragedy.
- It was smooth and well rounded in flavour, but the texture of the curry broth still came across as more sauce-like. I would have liked it a bit thicker.
- Clams with mustard, celeriac fondant, sauce vierge by Chef Michael Allemeier of SAIT
- 2012 Terravista Vineyards Fandango, BC VQA Okanagan Valley
- I could have eaten 10 of those nuggets.
- My friends Dave and Tanis make ones very similar and I’m obsessed with them.
- The crispy nugget and a melt-in-your mouth buttery rich shredded pork meat filling.
- Since the nugget was made with pork head, it was quite fatty, but not noticeable in the sense that it comes across as pork butt/shoulder (pulled pork).
- Pork butt and shoulder and also fatty so it’s not surprising they are similar.
- It was crispy with a panko breading and served with I think Japanese Kewpie mayo.
- The clam component tasted exactly like a deconstructed Caesar and I loved it.
- It was light and refreshing to balance the heavier head cheese croquette.
- It was elevated pub food, or gastropub food, and it was a modern and fun take on a bar snack and cocktail pairing.
- Tuna and leek press, bouillabaisse broth by Chef Duncan Ly of Hotel Arts
- Wine pairing: 2011 Sandhill Small Lot Viognier, BC VQA Okanagan Valley
- The ravioli was a bit cold, but the hot broth helped compensate a bit.
- The bouillabaisse broth was made from fresh halibut bones and lobster shells and it had intense umami.
- I couldn’t taste much of the lobster, but it was an excellent broth with good acidity.
- The tuna and leek press was wrapped with smoky prosciutto and there was some caramelized endive as well.
- The ravioli skin was slightly thick around the edges, but it was nicely filled with an ahi tuna and veal bolognese.
- I could taste more veal than tuna, but the filling was tender and well seasoned.
- It was nice to have a lighter broth served with the ravioli which is typical in Asian cuisine, but that ravioli would be called a dumpling.
- Asian mushrooms, duck confit gyoza, miso squash puree, dashi gel by Chef Hayato Okamitsu of SAIT
- Wine pairing: 2012 Tinhorn Creek Vineyards McLean Oldfield Series 2 Bench White, BC VQA Okanagan Valley
- I loved the look of this place and it was competition material. The plating was avant grade and he’s capable of even more.
- It was a Japanese influenced dish, but again it was on the cold side and the detailed plating might have affected that. It was still good though.
- The skin on the gyoza was a bit hard and chewy, but the duck confit filling was delicious.
- The filling was a bit mushy, but I didn’t mind and I could taste some vinegar and ginger in the stuffing as well.
- Normally gyoza is dipping in vinegar, but in this case he incorporated it.
- The dashi gel was technically very well made and it had good savoury flavour.
- The fish was tender, but I would have loved the skin crisp, although Asian cultures usually serve fish steamed with the soft skin like it was.
- There was also some crispy breadcrumbs beside the dumpling for texture.
- Wine pairing: 2012 Meyer Family Vineyards McLean Creek Pinot Noir, BC VQA Okanagan Valley
- You can’t go wrong with sablefish. I call it an “idiot-proof” fish because it’s almost impossible to overcook because it’s so fatty and oily.
- I loved the chorizo crust, but wish it was crispy because the dish was missing crispy or crunchy texture. I’m big on texture.
- The house made fermented chorizo was almost like a paste and I just wanted it seared and caramelized.
- The broth was made from clam, star anise and spring vegetables despite it not being spring.
- The snap peas had overcooked, but I could overlook it.
- There was also smoked olive and tomato and I think it was in the chorizo, but I’m not sure.
- The chorizo was fatty and the sablefish was oily, so I was glad the broth was light.
- I’m not sure if the already oily sable needed more fat from the chorizo, since it wouldn’t overcook, but I would want to try this technique with halibut.
- Beef tongue torchon, umeboshi gastrique by Chef Kyle Groves of Catch
- Wine pairing: 2011 Stag’s Hollow Winery & Vineyard Renaissance Merlot, BC VQA Okanagan Valley
- You can’t go wrong with a beautifully seared Alaskan scallop.
- There was a lot of puree for the amount of scallop, but this was dependent on plate.
- The umeboshi (pickled plum) gastrique was a tart and sweet sauce for the beef tongue torchon.
- It was actually my first time trying beef tongue torchon although I’m a fan of beef tongue and (foie gras) torchon.
- The torchon had a crispy crust, but the inside was slightly dry which is unusual since beef tongue is so fatty.
- The balsamic puree was a bit bitter and I could taste some shiso in it too.
- It was a very interesting play of ingredients with Japanese ingredients and I’d be curious to see how and if it relates to Catch’s regular menu.
- A Gouda Experience: Medium, Aged and Grizzly, Sylvan Star Cheese, AB
- Wine pairing: 210 Red Rooster Winery Meritage, BC VQA Okanagan Valley
- The aged Grizzly Gouda is amazing!
- The cheese plate was served with sea asparagus which tastes like asparagus with a briny aftertaste.
- It’s a rather new ingredient, but chefs have been experimenting with it in the last year in Vancouver.
- By Chef Kyle Groves of Catch
- Wine pairing: 2010 D’Angelo Estate Winery Dolce Vita Rosso, BC VQA Okanagan Valley
- It was a rich dessert, and the small bite was just enough.
- It had a crispy feuilletine crust (who doesn’t love that?), and then a chocolate and peanut butter pâté on top. Think mousse meets ganache.
- It was served with a raspberry sorbet which kind of tasted like strawberry-raspberry.
Where to stay?
I was hosted at Hotel Arts which is where I stayed last time too. It was a pleasure to come back and I got to preview their newly renovated suites. The bathroom mirrors in the new suites have built-in televisions. It was pretty sick and I can’t wait until renovations are complete. It’s a contemporary boutique hotel with an outdoor pool which is a hot spot in the summer with a live DJ. It’s a bit “Vegas-y” in concept and it’s all welcome.
Even if you don’t stay here you might consider trying one of Chef Duncan Ly’s restaurants. The Yellow Door Bistro is nice, but still family-friendly and approachable. It is more of what you might expect from a hotel restaurant, although he’s still invested in the menu and it has a very modern ambiance.
Raw Bar by Duncan Ly is the sister restaurant which specializes in modern Vietnamese cuisine. Duncan is half Chinese and half Vietnamese so his food is influenced by his background. The flavours come across effortless and the presentation makes it suitable for the clientele it caters to. It’s not “Asian food for non-Asian people” because as an Asian person I could still appreciate it (mind you, I only tried 3 things), but the prices are obviously higher than mom and pop shops in Chinatown – you can’t compare. It’s apples and oranges and you do pay for the ambiance which is worth it. They just renovated and it’s sophisticated, yet youthful and a great dinner or hang out spot for pre or post drinks.
By the way, the last photo is of Pastry Chef Karine Moulin of Top Chef Canada Season 4 (this year). I was lucky enough to bake with her and she showed me her peach pie recipe she made for one of the episodes. She’s sweeter than her desserts and hope she makes it until the end.
I also stayed at Calgary’s only Relais & Châteaux property the Kensington RiverSide Inn (part of the Hotel Arts group). It’s quaint and charming as expected if you’re a Relais & Châteaux property, which I love. It’s further from downtown compared to Hotel Arts which is walking distance from fun. If you’re looking for something more quiet and perhaps romantic, I’d recommend this one. It’s for a more mature clientele and you can feel the difference immediately. Neither is better or worse, it’s just different styles for different travellers.
If you stay here, the hotel restaurant is Chef’s Table which is considered one of Calgary’s destination restaurants. Chef’s Table is an AAA 4-Diamond rated 24 seat restaurant where Duncan gets to showcase his fine dining side. If you like modernist or avant grade cuisine, this would interest you. Unfortunately I didn’t get to try it because they were booked for a private party, but be sure I will one day.