The vision of Eat Alberta is simple: to create interactive opportunities for people to learn how to source and prepare local food directly from the experts in our community – producers, chefs and local food advocates. We were also hoping that participants would connect with one another and perhaps foster relationships that would extend beyond one isolated event. Because after all, there are only so many farmers’ markets to visit and shops and restaurants to patronize that showcase local food in Edmonton!
I had great intentions to write a post to sum up our inaugural Eat Alberta conference last year, but it fell by the wayside. I regret it now, because it would be nice to have a reference point, since our second Eat Alberta was so different in many ways.
On April 14, 2012, we welcomed over one hundred attendees and eighteen presenters at NAIT. In comparison to Eat Alberta 2011, we had nearly doubled the number of participants and sessions offered, so our classroom footprint had to grow accordingly as well. Although there were many positive attributes about our previous base venue of Enterprise Square, it did not contain kitchen facilities, and for a hands-on cooking conference such as ours, it became clear that they were a necessity. So we were thrilled when NAIT agreed to allow us to book their kitchens and adjacent classrooms as a venue, as this was the first time they have opened their doors to an external group.
The sandwich spread from NAIT
Lunch also included this wonderful stout cake
The NAIT staff did a wonderful job in taking care of many tasks –from setting up meals to dishwashing – that had fallen to the organizing committee and volunteers last year. Of course, that did mean the cost of putting on the conference increased (and as a result, heightened the attendee fee), but from an organizer’s perspective, it allowed us the time and space to manage other things, and for a few of us, even the opportunity to take in a few sessions!
Mack learning how to make spring rolls from Elaine Wilson (a lot of the photos I’ve used in this post were taken by Maki, our volunteer photographer – she did a great job!)
The keynote from Danny and Shannon of Nature’s Green Acres was a great way to start the day. They shared their farm story – how labour intensive their methods are, how their children are involved in the day-to-day chores. I think it set the tone for the conference – one of humble appreciation for producers like the Ruzickas and the hard work involved in bringing consumers a quality product!
Danny and Shannon Ruzicka
Afterwards, I did a quick walk-through of a few of the hands-on sessions in the kitchens, and it looked like people were having a blast.
Cheesemaking with Alan Roote
Knife skills with Kevin Kent
Pasta making with Kathryn Joel
Much of this can be attributed to the stellar presenters that volunteered and took it upon themselves to plan practical and insightful workshops, and were able to impart both their knowledge and their passion in the limited time available. I think there was a lot more tweeting going on this year than last, so it was neat to see some of the real time comments of participants – talk about immediate feedback!
Owen Petersen’s class making sourdough babies
I was also able to sit in on two sessions that day. The first was with Martin Osis of the Alberta Mycological Society who addressed the topic of Foraging for Mushrooms. I’ve heard Martin speak before, and he certainly hasn’t lost his sense of humour about fungi. There was no doubt attendees were engaged, and had Martin not warned the crowd numerous times about the exceptions to the edible mushroom rules, I’m sure people would have wanted to start foraging for mushrooms right outside the walls of NAIT.
In the afternoon, I joined Chef Blair Lebsack’s session on how to prepare bison. Blair was among three NAIT Culinary Arts instructors we were fortunate to have, as they are the mentors behind the next generation of the city’s culinary talent.
Blair didn’t show us just one, but three ways of cooking bison so we could taste the difference between different cuts and preparation methods. He started with a roast from First Nature’s Farms, seasoned it, then placed in a hot oven (it reminded me that I need to get myself a probe thermometer!). Blair then pointed to a brisket he had started earlier that day, having cooked it low and slow for several hours. It was fork tender, surrounded by the aromatic bath it had been prepared in.
Lastly, Blair divided up a striploin into individual steaks so participants would be able to cook it up on their own to their liking. Many chose to pan-fry their steaks, but I went with the grill, mostly because the barbecue isn’t something I get to play with all that often!
Seasoning up my steak
The plenary panel was something we had great fun designing. “How to survive a zombie apocalypse” was an off-beat way of asking some really important questions about how one would be able to fend for themselves in our Prairie context. I think Allan did a great job moderating the panel, though I know we had some minor clarity issues for those seated at the back.
Zombie apocalypse panel
Valerie and Allan deserve all of the credit for the tasting boards served at the wine down. They were a sight to behold, all lined up in Ernest’s, and yes, they were as lovingly prepared as they appeared to have been. My favourite taste was similar to my favourite last year – the Cheesiry’s pecorino with a drizzle of Lola Canola honey.
Valerie preparing the boards
Maki’s beautiful shot of a tasting board
In all, I think it was a really successful event. We achieved what we set out to do, and hope everyone thought it was a worthwhile day as well (you can check out what others said here). That said, we know there is always room for improvement, and for the future, there will be some minor adjustments (for example, ensuring that all attendees have the opportunity to participate in at least one hands-on course). And if you have any other suggestions, please get in touch with us – we’re all ears!
In reflecting back on the day, I feel indebted to so many people. Thanks to everyone who attended, and took a chance on our event. I want to thank the tireless volunteers – the event truly could not have taken place without your energy and hard work. Thanks also to the Italian Centre, Mighty Trio Organics and Gold Forest Grains for sponsoring us – it means a lot that small local businesses believed in our vision as well. Last but not least – so much of the feeling I am left with now is an intense respect for my fellow committee members – it was such a pleasure to work with you, Allan, Mack, Ming, Nicole, Su and Valerie. Here’s to Eat Alberta 2013!
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