Cooking up a cultural storm
Lifestyle How Connie and John infuse the essence of Alberta into every dish.
Mediaplanet: How would you describe Alberta’s present day culture from your experience as a local Calgarian?
Connie DeSousa & John Jackson: What drew us back home to Calgary and keeps us here is the city's distinct culture. It is young, forward and thoughtful. Looking a few years back, what was developing -- in the arts, architecture, retail, events and culinary scene -- is now full-on. We are proud to be part of that as chefs and business people. We see Calgary from the hospitality front-line. We know first hand that Albertans know how to live well. They celebrate, collaborate and get things done. Alberta's pioneering spirit and dynamism are deep rooted and historic. That holds true now. The difference is in the day-to-day lifestyle. It is so exciting to have a city and province that embraces the creative thought and small business at every turn. We saw opportunity to help direct the culinary culture through collaborative energy. Our goal before even opening the doors of CHARCUT was "to help make Calgary a culinary destination" and it truly has arrived thanks to a spirit and culture that embraces change.
Mediaplanet: Connie -- did being in the top three of the hit television series Top Chef Canada transform your understanding of Alberta’s culture?
Connie: I was born and raised for my entire childhood in Calgary. Representing Alberta on Top Chef Canada gave me a platform and purpose to think about Alberta in a fresh way. What makes Alberta distinct is more than what comes from the land. It is about the people. The caring, responsible spirit translates into quality of life. This is a source of shared pride. Being so public about Alberta's special qualities made me prouder than ever to promote this place and its character on TV.
Mediaplanet: How do you apply your upbringing as a local Calgarian into your restaurant’s philosophy of promoting an urban rustic dining experience?
CD & JJ: That’s easy. As a young city, Calgary fosters appreciation for simple pleasures. For us at CHARCUT it is all about "Back to Basics and Back to Flavour" and we use lost and forgotten techniques to evolve simple ingredients by preparing everything in-house from the cheese and bread to the charcuterie and pickling. It starts with the relationship with our farmers, ranchers and artisan producers and them moves on to the energy we create at CHARCUT. It’s honest food that invoke memories of the past where you would break bread with friends and family during celebrations and interact with each other to create lasting memories.
“It is so exciting to have a city and province that embraces the creative thought and small business at every turn. We saw opportunity to help direct the culinary culture through collaborative energy.”
Mediaplanet: What would you say is the most creative dish you serve?
CD & JJ: We have several creative dishes but at first glance you might not know it and they may seem all very simple. Our goat cheese for instance, is such a simple thing but we make our own from scratch. We use local goats milk and organic dairy to create something full of Alberta stories to be told. From the first time we met the farmer who produces the dairy to breaking bread on his ranch over the years – we captured the experience and our relationship in a giant painting showcased at CHARCUT.
Mediaplanet: Connie – you practiced ballet for many years before you got into the restaurant industry – how have you applied that experience to your entrepreneurial business venture at Charcut?
Connie: I did ballet pretty much my entire youth but was always surrounded by great food. My father with his Portuguese roots and my mother being Irish Canadian always made meal time a special family event. I guess I really got serious about it when I started taking foods class in grade 7. I found a passion that I never felt before and it was this along with the discipline and focus of my ballet training that helped me evolve to become a chef, mentor and business owner in the city I love.
Mediaplanet: How do you think you are helping to make Calgary a food destination city?
CD & JJ: Connie and I dream and create our own, unique events that promote our city as a "culinary destination" because they are newsy and fun, cause-driven and sometimes, plain curious. Barnburners, 100-chef collaboratives, secret kitchen parties are examples. We go beyond our backyard and have consistently reached out across Canada. Now we are pushing for recognition on a global scale! Professional journalists, bloggers, film crews and more are interested in the Calgary culinary story. These storytellers and our professional network of industry friends are spreading word about why this is such a special time for Alberta. There is impressive development, media relations and marketing support from throughout the province: the Alberta Culinary Tourism Alliance, Tourism Calgary, Travel Alberta and the Canadian Tourism Commission help build the momentum and push the envelope creating experiences that will attract people to Alberta.
Mediaplanet: What do you think are the current food trends in Calgary/Alberta?
CD & JJ: Calgary naturally taps into the global farm-to-table movement. This will always be something that people gravitate to here. Knowing where ingredients originate and who cultivates them is very important. This movement is strengthened further through collaboration and local connections. Our new venture charbar Restaurant and Rooftop Patio opening in the Historic Simmons in 2015 is all about hyper-local business amplifying what each other does best. Our restaurant and patio are juxtaposed with an onsite coffee roastery and bakery. We all complement one another to create a destination for food and drink like few others in a historic riverfront setting. If you can call rich experience through food a trend, we're on it. We are also seeing global inspirations, impromptu menus and with the new, more liberal laws, a potential wave of new craft distilleries that will make pairing more fun that ever. We are looking forward to seeing Eau Claire Distillery -- the province's first -- open doors in Turner Valley and turn out some interesting bar stock. We are also seeing the expansion of new restaurants into the neighborhoods once void.
Mediaplanet: What creative skills do you feel are important to possess in order to be successful in launching and running your own business venture?
CD & JJ: Creative success for us is determining what is the next thing now. Timing is everything when it comes to commercial success and we have been fortunate in that regard. But nothing beats teamwork, free-style thought and love of risk to succeed in the food business. People are always better together when it comes to creativity and the success it can deliver.
Mediaplanet: How has living in Alberta influenced your understanding of creative culture?
CD & JJ: At the city level, Calgary is on par with our former hometown of San Francisco when it comes to creative culture. Look at our ballet, our independent theatre scene, our festival culture, the designers, the chefs, the technology sector here. They are unstoppable. While there is decent funding for creative endeavors -- Alberta gets philanthropy -- the grassroots risk, freedom and reward we see defines Alberta's creative milieu. Albertans are a bold, proud bunch on the whole and anything but shy when it comes to creative expression. In the face of failure, Alberta resolve kicks in and people move on, learning from mistakes. Being here through years of recent change has opened our eyes. The support of our city and the people that visit it is moving. It creates a sense of confidence to continue to create and challenge each other to be better by putting the best of ourselves forward.