Connie DeSousa and John Jackson are at the centre of Calgary’s emerging food scene.
Forget the meat and potatoes once synonymous with Calgary, Connie DeSousa and John Jackson have more up their toques. Just ask the throngs of Cowtown foodies who’ve enjoyed juicy $5 Alley Burgers served in the dead of the night out the back door of CharCut Roast House — the star attraction — which ranked sixth on enRoute magazine’s 2010 list of Canada’s best new restaurants.
The winning partnership began more than 10 years ago when DeSousa became Jackson’s apprentice at the award-winning Owl’s Nest Dining Room in Calgary. Fastforward to 2005: DeSousa joined her mentor and executive chef at The St. Regis San Francisco, as chef de cuisine. Together the dynamic duo was integral to the opening of several properties, working with such global icons as Jean-Georges Vongerichten in Bora Bora and José Andrés in Los Angeles. “We loved opening other people’s restaurants,” says the 36-year-old Jackson. “But there was one key thing that was missing and that was it being our own.”
After some deliberation, the owners — including Jackson, DeSousa and their spouses, Carrie Jackson and Jean Francois Beeroo — returned “home,” creating a concept originally conceived in 2007 and built on authentic quality comfort food.
Launched last year at Hôtel Le Germain Calgary, the 110-seat dining room has been packed since day one with a menu centred around a charbroiler, rotisserie grill and vintage “fire-engine red” manual slicer. Meat is always front and centre with daily evolving dishes such as the popular “fancy bologna studded with truffles and pistachio” (pig’s head mortadella, $9), house-made country
sausage ($14) and spit-roasted Spring Creek prime rib sandwich ($16). “We’re not fine dining by any means — we’re rustic,” explains DeSousa who stresses everything is made from scratch on site, where the chefs do it all — from butchering, to canning, pickling and curing meat. “We’re here every single day; we work like our life depended on it,” she adds.
That passion drove DeSousa to audition for Food Network’s Top Chef Canada at her mentor’s urging. “I had to keep a big secret for almost a year,” confides the chef, who endured weeks of filming, just six months after CharCut opened. “We were living in the hotel where our restaurant is located, so we were here 22 to 23 hours a day and finding little pockets of time when we could have naps. To go from that onto the show, where we’re cooking back to back almost every single day, it was pretty intense.”
Every Monday at 9 p.m. the show is projected onto a big screen to a restaurant of cheering fans, including one in particular. “I’m proud,” says Jackson. “I used to be faster than Connie, and I used to have maybe a little bit better technique, but she’s doing circles around me now and has been for a number of years.”
It’s clear the partners hold each other in high regard. “With two chefs you have to lose the ego a bit,” says the 30-year-old DeSousa. “There are times when we butt heads, but at the end of the day, it’s what’s best for the guests.”
Guests and staff are always top of mind for these entrepreneurs who originally planned to open five restaurants in five years and are already scouting new properties and teasing the next incarnation of Alley Burger. “Get ready because it’s going to be something very exciting
for Calgary,” said Jackson in late May.