Where the tracks met the old wagon road stood a barrier no one but me could see
“What does it mean to be an Aboriginal executive chef in Edmonton, in charge of my own kitchen and staff?” Shane Chartrand only somewhat rhetorically asked me as we sat down to a table set with white linen, gleaming cutlery, and china for what is unfortunately a unique experience in Canada: a fine dining Indigenous restaurant. “What does it mean to have four different nations working for me, looking for guidance on how to express their ambitions, their dreams, and their identities through food?”
These questions have been weighing on chef Chartrand’s mind for quite some time. Chartrand is 42 years old. His hair is shaved on the sides and he has a wide strip of thick black hair on top, which he wears slicked back. He’s usually upbeat but rarely smiles. His look is one of intensity.
Chartrand has come from a background of foster care, followed by adoption (into a family of mixed Métis, British and Mi’kmaq heritage), full circle to his home nation on Edmonton’s western edge. And now he’s on a mission to piece together his Enoch Cree identity through food.
Since 2014, he has been the executive chef at the River Cree Casino and Resort, where his flagship restaurant Sage straddles the steak-and-seafood expectations of the slot-machine-and-cards crowd and the foodie set who seek out his contemporary Indigenous approach to cuisine.
We get together every few weeks to talk about food—there’s always a new restaurant or bar opening, it seems—or because Chartrand is working on a new idea for a big national cooking competition or a fancy celebrity chef event somewhere in Canada. One day, he puts a fuchsia pink beet-cured salmon gravlax in front of me. Another day, it’s strips of paper-thin bison carpaccio draped over leafless willow branches, like a small semi-edible bonsai garden.
With every dish, Chartrand reminds me that food is edible culture. And as a city with an embarrassment of cultural riches, it’s no wonder Edmonton has finally hit its culinary stride. Yes, we’re eating well here these days. There’s an energy I’ve never seen here before, and for the first time in my life—and I’m 46—we’re a city of tastemakers. I might even venture that we’re the envy of other parts of Canada.
It begs the questions: Why us? And why now?
After all, we’ve had some exceptions to our comfortably mediocre culinary reputation for quite some time. Back in 2004, chef Brad Lazarenko opened a southside spot called Culina that was unlike anything Edmonton had seen. It billed itself as comfort food and a neighbourhood bistro. It was certainly both, but the menu was also confidently bohemian, a nod to Edmonton’s cultural mashup and Lazarenko’s Ukrainian heritage. The room was candle-lit and sultry, and the décor oozed cool. Some got it; some didn’t. That was maybe the point. It wasn’t the usual everything-to-everybody space that Edmonton had ill-advisedly made its signature. Soon after, Lazarenko added Bibo, a sliver of a wine bar next door that served more wines by the glass than the number of people it could squeeze in.
In 2008, Cindy Lazarenko (sister of Brad Lazarenko), was reinventing her Highlands restaurant after a business-partnership split. When she reopened as Culina Highlands, her riff on Ukrainian contemporary cooking earned the restaurant a Top 10 spot on enRoute magazine’s list, “Canada’s Best New Restaurants.” After that, something definitely tipped. In 2009, Duchess Bake Shop, a cake and pastry business, opened its doors on 124 Street. It was elegant contemporary Empire Style, including a chandelier, Parisian white-on-white interior and long display counters laden with comestibles we’d never seen here: made-from-scratch pâtes à choux (like éclairs with rich vanilla bean crème pâtissière), prinsesstårta (the signature Duchess dome-shaped cake draped in a pistachio-green marzipan) and the rainbow colours of various macarons. Duchess single-handedly created a culinary locus on 124 Street that continues.
In 2010, chef Daniel Costa opened Corso 32, a skinny 34-seater on Jasper Avenue that served his version of rustic Italian cuisine; it remains the hardest reservation to get in the province. And then Tres Carnales (2011), Three Boars (2012), Canteen (2013), RGE RD (2013), Rostizado (2014), North 53 (2014).
By 2015, we had a dozen restaurants I’d put up against any in the country, yet the critics’ praise was invariably a version of “and you’ll never believe that it’s in Edmonton!”
We even charmed the stretchy pants off of Vogue magazine, its writer gushing about many of the aforementioned hotspots as well as Uccelino, Bar Bricco, and Café Linnea.
This year, an astonishing three Edmonton restaurants made it on to enRoute magazine’s 10 Best New Restaurants list – three of the country’s top 10 restaurants are here. (And that’s not to mention a nearby spot that made the longlist – Chartier, in the Franco-Albertan town Beaumont, a mere 30-minute drive from downtown Edmonton.)
Are we finally willing to admit that Edmonton has (and maybe has had for quite a while) the breadth and depth to be one of Canada’s great food cities? Sometimes you need to have some distance from it for a while to see what was right in front of you all along.
“We were those people,” Giselle Courteau said with a laugh as we sat in her new cooking school space, Duchess Atelier, just a few blocks from the bake shop that sells thousands of macarons every Saturday from its 124 Street flagship location.
Courteau admitted that she and her then husband now business partner, Garner Beggs, left Edmonton as soon as they could, moving first to Victoria then Vancouver then Tokyo. There, they began to plan their return. “We grew to realize that it was the place we wanted to make our home. Because it always was our home. And we didn’t know that until we left.”
Courteau and Beggs dreamed of opening a French-style patisserie in Edmonton to which they’d bring the macaron craze that was happening in Paris and Tokyo. Why not? Courteau spent four years maniacally perfecting recipes in a toaster oven in their tiny Tokyo apartment kitchen.
“We don’t give Edmontonians enough credit,” said Courteau. “They are well-travelled and open-minded.” There were enough of us who had tasted and loved macarons and other French pastry treats abroad and were more than happy to pay for them in Edmonton. But side-by-side with the macarons were saskatoon pie, rhubarb galette, and Courteau family tourtière, crafted from her Franco-Albertan roots. The lesson was our city was ravenous for the finer foods in life, which included our own culinary traditions.
And while I’m thrilled that so much of our talent is getting the recognition it deserves every time another sensational downtown hotspot opens, I feel that Edmonton’s restaurant geography owes much to the unsung heroes in our community who have expanded our culinary horizons despite the challenges and lack of recognition.
Amsale Sumamo arrived in Edmonton in late October 1983. Prior to that, she had walked for seven days avoiding detection and peril as she made her way from Ethiopia to Sudan. It was 47 C in Sudan when she left. It was -10 C when she landed in Edmonton. As it does for immigrants like Amsale, the Government of Canada chose her destination. Her husband was able to join her a year later.
The Sumamos both found work, and began to raise a family. In 2004, after years of prodding by her husband, Amsale opened Langano Skies, a restaurant serving made-from-scratch Ethiopian food. But would Edmonton embrace injera and Berbere spice mix?
I caught up with Amsale this past summer in Sir Winston Churchill Square at her food cart, an extension of the restaurant during the busy summer festival season. “Open your mind and give it a try!” she said to passersby as I sat with her. Between serving customers, she told me candidly of their early struggles to educate Edmontonians about Ethiopian food. Few people knew where Ethiopia was and even fewer had tried its cuisine. That said, Langano Skies has maintained a steady, loyal clientele throughout its 13 years. When a fire in 2011 in an adjacent nail salon caused a five-month closure of the restaurant, the Sumamos received countless emails of support. Customers who had become friends brought flowers to their house.
“Well, we were poor when we opened the restaurant, and we were poor again,” said Amsale of having to rebuild her business after that fire.
I bought a plate of spiced stewed beef, pinching mouthfuls with the delicious spongy injera, a soft flat-bread made with teff, a grass cultivated for its tiny seeds that are ground into flour. What was not to love? Amsale still sources her spices from Ethiopia to ensure flavour. As I downed the last of her delicious cooking, she pointed to the other food carts, which hawked a depressing collection of deep-fried offerings, including spiralled potatoes on skewers or donuts, all for the same price as one of her dishes, each of which took hours of patient slow-cooking and from-scratch preparation. Someone walked by us eating a sloppy, stringy glob of poutine.
Perhaps Edmonton still has a ways to go.
For this, we need a solid middle ground, which isn’t as sexy as a skinny downtown bar but, to me, it’s where Edmonton’s blue-collar soul gets to flirt with its metropolitan ambitions.
Andrew Fung’s restaurants sit in that middle ground. Fung came with his family to Canada at age 15 from Hong Kong. There, his exposure to restaurant dining was limited to Pizza Hut and McDonald’s. (Western food was terribly exciting, as was its signature product: ketchup.) But from an early age, he had a goal: to own his own restaurant.
At 39, he already co-owns two: XIX Nineteen Terwillegar and XIX Nineteen St. Albert. Chefs go to his place on their nights off and sink into the leather club chairs for lobster ramen or a steaming pot of mussels in gorgonzola cream. (So goes the rule with any food-focused city: go where the chefs go on their night off.) Fung is the guy in the strip malls our city needs to compete against the tide of Cactus Clubs and Earls; his restaurants are places where people can stretch their palates and the kitchen can incubate the next generation of talent. There he can draw diners, and get them excited about homegrown restaurant talent, or get them ready for the next step in their culinary education. “People can’t go from Burger King to Corso 32!” he said.
Fung has had to be patient, and sometimes pull back his culinary ambitions. He put steamed buns with sweet slow-cooked pork inside on his menus, the same “charsiu bao” that everyone is going nuts for now. But that was a few years ago, and a few years too soon. Now he does a five-spice bao benny for brunch, which people love. He’s the middle step the city needs. As his staff bustled around the 150-seat Terwillegar dining room polishing glasses for the busy night ahead, it was apparent that occupying the culinary middle ground in the city is paying off.
Shane Chartrand just got back from a three-day wine country cooking event in B.C’s Okanagan Valley, at which he was a special guest. He has an interview scheduled with an Australian food journalist after our meeting, and he’s excited about being in the running for the next season of Top Chef Canada. (He has already been on Chopped Canada.) He’s on the verge of signing a cookbook deal with a major Canadian publisher, and yet he’s still unknown to many in his hometown. We often are slow to recognize these major shifts when they are happening right in our backyards.
That doesn’t rattle him. He’s focused on being a role model for a generation of Indigenous kids who might be Canada’s next rockstar chef. And he is still trying to sort out how his Enoch Cree heritage with his Métis and Mi’kmaq traditions from his adopted family can help him define his own culinary mission.
“I remember being alone. I remember going from place to place,” Chartrand said of his early childhood. He recalled being hungry all the time in foster care, until he landed at the Chartrand home at the age of six. There, they ate as a family around the dinner table every night. Chartrand’s earliest food memory is not a specific dish. It’s simply that he was no longer hungry. His mom, Belinda, still brings up how Chartrand always said thank you at the end of each meal. He knew that he was one of the lucky ones.
Now that Chartrand is in the business of feeding people, I feel like one of the lucky ones. People like me, who grew up on the same land, same Treaty 6 territory—though my side has only just begun to learn about and acknowledge it—are getting an entirely new perspective on what Edmonton food is and can be.
So when people ask me for an explanation of why Edmonton dining is suddenly hot, I’ll point to the visionaries and the list makers who trained the spotlight on the city. But then I’ll also talk up the community builders who have always been there, contributing to our collective table without fanfare even though they deserve it. And then I suggest we all keep an eye on Chartrand, especially his special events where his creativity is really let loose. He, his staff, and a handful of other Indigenous and Métis colleagues are going to rethink and remake Canadian food.
It’s satisfying that we’re finally comfortable with who we are and ready to let that lead us to the table. Edmonton, it seems, is at its best when our chefs connect with their personal stories. But hasn’t that always been our strength? I guess we just needed a little outside reassurance.
This essay is courtesy of the author and Edmonton Community Foundation.
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