When Calgary’s Telus Spark science centre sought to revamp its foodservice operations, the venue’s management tapped celebrity chef Roger Mooking to be its culinary director and rebrand its on-site restaurant to Social Eatery by Roger Mooking. Mooking then set out to find a local chef to help bring his vision to life.
For chef Alison MacNeil, it was the perfect fit. “I liked what they wanted to offer, which was better, healthier food choices…with less of an emphasis on pre-fabricated foods.”
As chef de cuisine, MacNeil manages the kitchen in a very hands-on manner. “I’m active in the kitchen, as I’m usually doing the breads in the morning and making sure everyone is ready to go,” she says.
The tag-line for the restaurant, ‘Home Cooking with a Global Twist,’ also aligned with MacNeil’s cooking philosophy. “It’s important to cook fresh food, from scratch,” she says. “[I would] describe my cooking style as comfort food. My background is part Italian so I cook lots of pastas and I like to cook French cuisine — peasant dishes that are comforting and warming.”
MacNeil’s approach was forged in her childhood home, where cooking was part of family life. “I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t cooking. We cooked every day and when I got into highschool I already know I wanted to go to culinary school.”
MacNeil entered the culinary program at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT). Following graduation in 2002, she apprenticed at the Wildwood in Calgary under Joseph Wiewer and Roghelio Herrera, followed by two years at Toronto-based Teatro restaurant under executive chef Dominique Moussu. She then moved to Canadian Rocky Mountain Resorts, where she spent six years helping to develop the foodservice and hospitality businesses.
In 2014, she and her husband, chef John Michael MacNeil opened Black Pig Bistro, a Spanish-themed restaurant in Calgary. “I wanted to bring Spanish food to Calgary and when we opened, we were voted as the number-1 restaurant in Calgary. I could not have been happier.” She sold the restaurant to her business partner in 2015.
Social Eatery is focused on fresh food and working with local providers for ingredients. The menu changes with the seasons in order to highlight the fare of local farmers — fresh berries in the summer and root vegetables in the winter, for example. Popular items include baked-daily cheese buns made with aged Canadian cheddars ($3.88); the Stacked Sandwich featuring 10oz. of shaved Alberta beef ($15.88); and the Spolumbo’s sausage on a bun ($7.88). The menu also features many vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free foods, as well as a kid-inspired menu. “Now, we are giving people freshly prepared foods — foods that are not your standard cookie-cutter approach. It’s been very well received by everyone.”