The clichés surrounding Prairie cuisine may still play a role in its evolution. With the plethora of top-grade beef, grains and pulse vegetables, the next generation of culinary masters are putting their own spin on the local bounty to create distinctive dishes that pay homage to the cultural diversity and strong community spirit that runs throughout the region.
Food choices and preparation were built around the realities of life in the 1800s. Growing seasons were shorter and survival depended upon crops that would last through the winter months. Come winter, cellars would be overflowing with the year’s harvest of root vegetables and beans. Indigenous plants helped round out their menus, from wild berries to mushrooms. Family members became experts at pickling, preserving and smoking — an art that today’s chefs are happy to showcase.
German, Scandinavian, Eastern European, South and East Asian and French settlers all played a part in the culinary heritage. Virtually every small town that dots the landscape has a Chinese restaurant — a throwback to the days when Asian labourers came to the region to build the railway. Add to that more recent influxes of Middle Eastern and Filipino populations and you now have a vast community where chefs are inspired by cultural differences and are willing to share their ideas and expertise.
ALBERTA: COMRADES IN CUISINE
For Evan Robertson, executive chef of Market Calgary, the strongest draw is the camaraderie between chefs and restaurants — a common theme across the Prairie Region. “There’s a lot going on here and lots of opportunities for chefs to stretch their wings.” He admits the culinary scene used to be quiet and traditional. “We’ve made a large jump from the days of greasy spoon hole-in-the-walls in a strip mall. Now, younger chefs are making their marks. A lot of those chefs like to help and promote each other [through] collaborative dinners and pop-up events. That sense of camaraderie just keeps growing, which helps the younger crew of kids in the kitchen.”
Robertson’s menu reflects the diversity of the local region, from his chicken and waffles to Korean-style BBQ dishes to home-made jerky (a very traditional Prairie staple). Bison, maple syrup, Brussels sprouts, duck, Saskatoon berries and, of course, beef are all elements in his menu choices.
While local vegetable supply may not be as “luxurious” as what can be had in Vancouver, he says, they always go as local as possible. “We are what you might call ‘ultra-local.’ The ranchers and farmers are so close to home. I can travel outside the city for 45 minutes and talk to a person raising cattle, see the grass and see how they’re raised.” Blair Lebsack, chef and owner of RGE RD in Edmonton takes his local connections more seriously than some. His closeness to the farm community goes beyond a day trip. “We have family dinners and sleepovers at our farms and consult with them on seed choices each year.”
He adds, “There are lots of cattle ranchers in Alberta and plenty of the best black topsoil for vegetables, so the products we get are phenomenal.” While his menu changes with the season and crop availability, dishes such as sautéed mushrooms with green beans, asparagus and/or Brussels sprouts are always on order.
Lebsack also draws inspiration from First Nations’ cooking. He is currently working with two wood-burning ovens for firing and smoking, using different types of wood, including Saskatoon-berry branches.
There has been a big change in the Edmonton food scene over the last decade, Lebsack says. In fact, the “Alberta movement” towards local dining actually started 20 years ago with A-listers such as Jack’s Grill and Hardware Grill. “They really started the trend of people wanting to eat in their own town.”
That movement has had a big impact on independent restaurateurs in particular, he adds. “I see a lot of small restaurants with chef/owners in the kitchen or out front working the floor. They are very hands on. They want their diners to have a good time.”
SASKATCHEWAN: MORE THAN A BREADBASKET
Often hailed as the breadbasket of the world, Saskatchewan’s agricultural offerings are more diverse than many realize, says Clinton Monchuk, executive director for Farm and Cook Care Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. “We are more than a big wheat field,” he says.
Saskatchewan’s major claim to fame is that it has the most arable land of any province: up to 35 million acres are devoted to agricultural production, which accounts for roughly half of Canada’s arable land, Monchuk estimates. “What people don’t realize is that we’re not bordered by water, but a majority of the province is forest. Everything from that forest line to the U.S. border is arable land.”
The variety of crops has had a significant influence on chefs. The post-war era — from the 1950s to the ’70s — saw new crops being cultivated that could adapt to the shorter growing season, including rye, barley, rapeseed and flax. More research led to investment in pulses (i.e. peas, lentils, chick peas, beans) and, in the 1960s, mustard seed rapidly became a thriving cash crop.
“Lentils are huge in Saskatchewan,” says Dan Clapson, Canadian food critic and Eat North co-founder. “Canada is the largest producer in the world and Saskatchewan grows about 95 per cent of what is produced here. Overall, the Prairies also account for 90 per cent of the mustard produced in Canada.”
The Eastern-European influence is particularly strong, Clapson adds. “Pierogies are huge, from casual mom-and-pop to drive-thru restaurants. It’s the food of Saskatchewan, for sure. You also see a lot of berry desserts and syrups.”
Dee Hobsbawn-Smith, a former chef, cooking educator and food advocate, and author of Foodshed: An Edible Alberta Alphabet, says Saskatchewan food is truly about its roots. “We’re really down to earth about what we eat; the ingredients we use are as earthy as they come. The whole is always better than the sum of parts because people had to make do with very little.”
Beans and lentils with smoked or cured pork products count among the staples in western-Canadian diets. “It keeps body and soul together when there’s not a lot of meat on the table she says.
Baked classics include yeasted sourdough and egg breads. When you think about the Prairies, it’s easy to be disparaging about root vegetables and beans, Hobsbawn-Smith says. “It comes back to one-pot meals made with ingredients that could be kept through the winter.”
Summer is a different story. Berries and hardier strains of fruit are the natural bounty of the Prairies. “Sour cherries are one of the best things to come out of Prairie agriculture,” she says.
MANITOBA: THE BEST KEPT CULINARY SECRET
Chef Tim Appleton is proud to call himself a Prairie boy. The award-winning Culinary Arts instructor for Red River College in Winnipeg says that one of the biggest stereotypes about the province’s food scene is the agricultural aspect.
But what intrigues him most about the culinary community in Manitoba is the “huge ethnic scene that goes hand-in-hand with the agriculture. If I [were] to walk a half kilometre circle, I would come across 40 different ethnic cuisines, from Indian to Thai. We’re even starting to get into African-based restaurants.”
What’s especially exciting in Winnipeg, he says, is the growing presence of niche restaurants with small-plate menus. “These independents are really strong. They’re not too big, but they’re always busy.”
The ethnic diversity has also spawned a wave of fusion restaurants, he adds. “Chefs are looking more at indigenous foods and utilizing them in modern ways, like spruce tips for pickling or smoking. There are tons of mushrooms in Manitoba and so many berries. Another favourite is birch syrup. The variety of mustards is [also]extremely popular with chefs.” As he sees it, “A lot of products are now more respected in terms of how they are being utilized in our industry, including in cocktails. Highlighting a product in its natural form is a big thing.”
“Everyone is into charcuterie,” Appleton says. “It has blown up here and butcheries are coming back.” Local fisheries offer up plentiful supplies of goldeye, walleye, northern pike and trout.
And, of course, everyone loves pierogies. “Even the highest-end menus have altered versions, such as wildberry stuffed pierogies, as a side dish with elk, or duck-confit pierogies as an appetizer.”
Clapson believes Winnipeg is the most underrated food city in Canada. “There’s a lot of history there. In the late 1800s and early 1900s it was the most booming city in Canada. It also has a large Aboriginal population, so you see bannock, foraged berries and bison on menus,” he says, adding that a massive French population brings classic French dishes such as tourtière and poutine to restaurant tables.
Volume 49, Number 12
Written by Denise Deveau