In addition to commemorating the Stampede’s 100th Anniversary this year, Calgary also co-holds the title of Cultural Capital of Canada in 2012. As a result, Tourism Calgary is seeking different ways of marketing their city, including how to highlight their burgeoning food scene. So for two days in February, Tourism Calgary invited several food bloggers to join them for “a new take on steak”, showcasing how five local restaurants are interpreting the old standard of meat and potatoes. Mack and I were fortunate enough to be a part of this group (which included Calgary bloggers Julie van Rosendaal, Gwendolyn Richards and Dan Clapson), and took part in a junket that saw our accommodations and meals covered. It was a first for both of us, and while we acknowledge that we no doubt received special treatment (which colours the experience in a way that no average dinner could live up to), the trade-off in access to the chefs and behind-the-scenes exposure made it worthwhile. Thanks to Tourism Calgary for the opportunity!
Like many other Canadians, I was excited when the popular American television franchise Top Chef finally started filming a Canadian version. I think we need to develop our own host of culinary celebrities to celebrate home grown talent, and this platform could help do just that. The results thankfully improved with time, and hopefully with its second season will continue to do so.
In spite of the show’s wavering quality, however, as a Prairie-dweller, it was a no-brainer to cheer for Calgary-based Connie DeSousa, who was also one of the few female competitors. Her drive, obsessive attention to detail and her mad butchery skills made her a fan favourite, qualities that I hoped would take her to the end. Connie ended up placing a respectable third, though in many respects, it was as good as first prize. The exposure to an audience of Food Network devotees was invaluable to Connie’s reputation as a chef, and on a wider level, in developing CHARCUT’s brand. Though we’d been to CHARCUT prior Top Chef Canada’s debut, it almost seems like a different restaurant today, enlivened now with that touch of celebrity. I’m sure it also helps that CHARCUT has since expanded their initiatives to include the unique alley burger, food truck and pop-up series.
Needless to say, Mack and I were really looking forward to our second full CHARCUT experience on the third leg of the YYC Steak tour. You can also imagine our delight when we found out we would not only be eating Connie’s food, but would be treated to a private demo, too.
Our group was whisked upstairs to CHARCUT’s fairly spacious prep kitchen for a lesson on blood sausage. There, Connie and her partner John Jackson showed us how to make the delicacy. They started with a panade of white bread and milk, added ground pork, fat back, apple, then the main ingredient, blood. The splatter-free counter was a testament to Connie and John’s skills, who neatly transferred the mixture to a plastic bag to be hand-piped into sausage casings. It was clear the pair had a wonderful rapport with one another, and this translated wonderfully into a teaching capacity – I could see this translating to a larger stage quite easily.
Straining the blood
In goes the blood
Into the casing
Connie also showed us how to trim a bison heart, which would comprise the steak that evening. For most of us, it would be our first time sampling this type of offal.
Trimming the heart
The entire session felt a bit surreal to both Mack and I. Being the Top Chef junkies that we are, we couldn’t help thinking, “It’s Connie!!!” the entire time. We’re huge dorks, I know.
Our view of the kitchen
At our chef’s table seats
We eventually made our way to the chef’s table at the rear of the restaurant so our dinner could be prepared. While we waited for the mains, we were served CHARCUT’s take on ham and cheese: the most exquisite house made pig’s head mortadella, paired with an oozing baked raclette that was good enough to bathe in. Notable also was the beer pairing – Naramata Nut Brown Ale, which, as a non-beer drinker, I found not only tolerable, but enjoyable.
Mortadella, brassica mustard and baked raclette
Naramata Nut Brown Ale
The blood sausage was first, served up with fried eggs – possibly the most unique sausage and eggs I’d ever had. The sausage resembled ground meat more than anything else, having burst out of its casing. It also tasted very similar, albeit with a tinge of iron. Mack and I both agreed that there was nothing to be afraid of, though we weren’t sure it was something we would necessarily seek out.
Blood sausage and eggs
The finale was the bison heart, rustically presented on a wooden board, liberally garnished with chimichurri and arugula, complete with a “stake” knife. The meat, which had been marinated for eight hours in olive oil and red wine vinegar, was like a cross between a flat iron steak and liver – tender consistency, with again a tinge of iron. Mack went all out for the side of CHARCUT’s signature poutine, with potatoes fried in duck fat and curds topped with a chicken-fat gravy. Heart-stoppingly good.
Bison heart and duck fat poutine
Though each of our experiences on the steak tour were unique, because of our soft spot for Connie, I think our stop at CHARCUT was the most memorable.
Just in time for the season two premiere of Top Chef Canada on March 12, 2012, Chef Connie DeSousa will be in Edmonton presenting a cooking demo at 1pm and 3pm on March 11 at Appliances Unlimited (6553-99th Street).