Chef Connie DeSousa at Appliances Unlimited

Just in time to launch the second season of Top Chef Canada, Calgary-based Chef Connie DeSousa of CHARCUT was in Edmonton last Sunday to help promote the kick-off, as well as one of the show’s major sponsors. Appliances Unlimited, one of two vendors in the city that offer the GE Monogram line of appliances, hosted the appearance. The hour-long session saw Connie demo not one, but two dishes.

Connie DeSousa at Appliances Unlimited

Chef Connie DeSousa

The Edmonton Journal’s Liane Faulder did a wonderful job of mc-ing the morning, asking Connie a variety of questions spanning her career, time on Top Chef, and home cooking habits.

Connie DeSousa at Appliances Unlimited

Liane Faulder on the mic!

Five things I learned about Connie that I didn’t know:

  1. She has a background in ballet.
  2. If she had a choice, she would take on Bobby Flay on Iron Chef America.
  3. Hot chocolate is her vice.
  4. Her favourite home appliance is her immersion blender and stand mixer (plus all of its attachments).
  5. She has dined at both D’Lish and Corso 32 in Edmonton.

Connie demoed two applications of her recipe for homemade goat cheese. The first was a goat cheese-topped roasted beet salad. This dish really showcased CHARCUT’s philosophy of “evolving simple ingredients” – trying to highlight the best of what quality, local ingredients have to offer.

Connie DeSousa at Appliances Unlimited

Roasted beet salad with goat cheese and lemon-infused olive oil

I particularly liked her second dish, a no-bake cheesecake that layered preserved cherries and graham crackers between the whipped goat cheese. At CHARCUT, these desserts are served in half-cup mason jars, but whatever the vessel, I could see myself making this at home!

Connie DeSousa at Appliances Unlimited

No-bake goat cheese cheesecake with cherry preserves

Edmontonians might be seeing more of Connie in the near future. We asked her about rumours that Charpop (CHARCUT’s wildly successful pop-up restaurant concept that took Calgary by storm) would be setting up shop in Edmonton, and though she wouldn’t confirm (or deny), I’d like to think it’s a safe bet with the number of fans she has in this city.

Connie DeSousa at Appliances Unlimited

Connie with two of her fans

Thanks again to the event organizers for the invitation!

You can take a look at my full photoset here. Liane and Chris recapped the demos as well.

Calgary Steak-Out: CHARCUT

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.

Charcut

Straining the blood

Charcut

In goes the blood

Charcut

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.

Charcut

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.

Charcut

Our view of the kitchen

Charcut

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.

Charcut

Mortadella, brassica mustard and baked raclette

Charcut

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.

Charcut

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.

Charcut

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).

Recap: Weekend in Calgary

At the end of July, Mack and I decided to escape to Calgary for a weekend, eluding the boxes and avoiding the general chaos that surrounded us after the move. I had good intentions to write a series of posts about all of our epicurious encounters down south, but as you can guess, I put it off. I figured – better late than never, and better something than nothing at all.

Belmont Diner

It’s no secret that Mack and I adore diners. so it wasn’t a surprise that our first stop ended up being a diner.

Belmont Diner in Marda Loop had been on my hit list for some time (operated by the same people behind Galaxie Diner and Myhre’s Deli), and though our driving schedule meant we would reach our destination towards the end of their operating hours on Saturday, their all-day breakfast menu meant we wouldn’t be penalized for our late arrival.

Belmont Diner

Mack loves his Coke

Though we had a decent experience at Belmont, I think our visit to Galaxie Diner coloured our introduction to Belmont. The layout and menu were strikingly similar to Galaxie, and unfortunately, my burger ($10.75) was dry. Thankfully, the bottomless(!) hash browns saved the plate – though they don’t look like much, the slightly crispy potatoes were nicely seasoned with an interesting blend of spices.

Belmont Diner

Burger

Mack had better luck with his hearty “everything” Calgary sandwich ($12.25), which also included a side of bottomless hash browns.

Belmont Diner

Calgary sandwich

While we would eat at Belmont again if we were in the area, based on this meal, we wouldn’t go out of our way to return.

Phil & Sebastian Coffee Company

After lunch, we wandered into the nearby location of Phil & Sebastian. This storefront opened in late November 2009, and based on the excitement exuded by the food folks down south, it was evident Phil & Sebastian has long outgrown their original booth at the Calgary Farmers’ Market.

Phil & Sebastian Coffee

I love their packaging

There is no question is it an absolutely stunning space. With a high ceiling, a clean white and black colour scheme and interesting light fixtures (a huge, Pixar-like arm lamp near the door, and of-the-moment Edison bulbs), I wouldn’t think twice about relocating my mobile office here.

Phil & Sebastian Coffee

Phil & Sebastian at the Marda Loop

Charcut

It’s hard not to salivate when reading about a 35 pound poutine, made with 3kg of cheese curds and fries simmered in duck fat. So although the family-style serving wouldn’t be in the cards for us, I knew a visit to Charcut would be, after reading Julie Van Rosendaal’s post.

Charcut opened in February in the swanky new Hotel Le Germain downtown, the name reflecting the “custom-built rotisserie and charbroiler” (char) and “featured vintage-style slicer and hand-crafted charcuterie eating bar” (cut). We would have loved to sit at the back of the restaurant, facing the kitchen (and the charcuterie cooler, complete with two pig’s heads), but they were unfortunately full that night.

Charcut

How cute is the porcine paper clip?

I wasn’t too fond of the “ranch” touches in what could have been a sleek dining room – a cow mural, wooden beams, and wagon wheel light fixtures featuring mason jars – but I suppose they reminded diners of the rustic nature of the food.

Charcut

Interior

The menu isn’t extensive, but changes every day (old menus are recycled into dish liners), and prominently highlights local producers. We decided to share three dishes, which although seemed doable at the time, filled us up in no time due to their sinfully rich nature.

Charcut

Amuse bouche of turkey terrine and peaches atop a brioche crostini

The lamb croquettes ($15) were delightfully crispy, and were lovingly smoked, which enhanced the flavour of the meat.

Charcut

Lamb croquettes

The share burger, “Charcut style”, consisted of a roasted garlic sausage patty, cheese curds, and a fried egg ($2.5/oz, minimum 9oz). It was interesting to try a sausage patty, dense and fatty as it was, but it was overcooked, making it even more difficult to eat. The brioche and egg, on the other hand, were perfect, the latter fried to a wobbly, yolk-bursting precipice.

Charcut

Share burger

And the poutine ($8)? Heaven. The truffle oil assaulted our senses first, and gave way to fries that had been simmered in duck fat and drenched in a generous amount of cheese curds. The gravy was a bit thin (Mack prefers it thicker), but truly, it’s a dish to fight over.

Charcut

Duck fat poutine

The trend of throwback desserts caught us, as it did at Farm. We couldn’t pass up their animal crackers, accompanied by a garden rhubarb and summer berry crème brulee ($8). The shortbread cookies didn’t taste quite like those boxed crackers of our youth, but went really well with the warmed custard (it was actually warmed through! a pet peeve of mine with restaurant crème brulees). Mack especially liked the softened fruit, which was distributed evenly throughout the custard.

Charcut

Crème brulee

It’s worth noting that the kitchen was efficient, and that service was attentive but respectful. But regardless, need I say it again? Duck fat poutine.

Fiestaval 2010

On our way home from dinner, we stumbled upon Fiestaval, Calgary’s Latin Festival. Olympic Plaza was filled with food and product vendors, and we were able to catch the tail end of their last performer of the day.

Fiestaval

Olympic Plaza

Between the crowd and the energy (people were dancing in the square), it’s hard to deny that Calgary has their own festival culture.

Fiestaval

These pink gophers still crack me up

Over Easy Breakfast

Located just down from Diner Deluxe (one of my Calgary favourites), Over Easy has become a popular breakfast destination.

I loved the chalkboard ceiling just bursting with colour, and the equally fun “We Got Huevos” t-shirts (similar to the cheeky “Line Tamer” shirts at Diner Deluxe). Our server was exceptionally friendly and ensured we were never left wanting for coffee, and was notably excited when we told her it was our first visit to the restaurant.

Overeasy Breafkast

Ceiling

Unlike Belmont Diner, Over Easy has an extensive menu, and one I could see locals returning to many times without compromising variety. And though they got my pancake order wrong, it was a happy mistake – the waffle was sweet, crispy and finished with icing sugar and berries, was like having dessert for breakfast.

Overeasy Breafkast

Fruit-topped waffle

Mack’s blue plate special (actually served on a blue plate), featured a nice amount of fruit, and wonderfully crispy bacon.

Overeasy Breafkast

Blue plate special

We’ll be back!

Sun & Salsa Festival 2010

We ended our weekend at the Kensington Sun & Salsa Festival, which I had added to our itinerary once seeing it on Andree’s blog.

Our introduction to the festival wasn’t pleasant – we couldn’t find parking in the neighbourhood for the life of us. Driving around in circles, it seemed to us that the entire city of Calgary had decided to drive to the event that day (our original plan was to take the C-Train there, but as it was our last stop, it didn’t make too much sense to backtrack on transit). We eventually secured a spot, and wandered into the grounds to see what all the fuss about.

Kensington Sun & Salsa Festival

Kensington

It was actually pretty cool – patrons were invited to sample over 40 salsas put together by local businesses and organizations, with proceeds from the taco chips going to charity.

Kensington Sun & Salsa Festival

The salsa from Naked Leaf was more chutney than salsa – a jasmine-infused peach salsa – but it was creative an unique

Though many stations were out by the time we made our rounds, our favourite was the salsa by Higher Ground – mild, tomato-based, but tasty.

The streets were closed to cars, and were packed shoulder to shoulder with people. A haphazard mix of booths lined the streets (with no method to the madness – non-profits placed at random in between municipal election candidates and private businesses), as well as outdoor food vendors. Though I think the food could have taken some attention away from the salsa (especially when the salsa stations weren’t clearly marked), the salsa didn’t seem to be the focus of the event anyway – instead, the intention was to bring people into the neighbourhood and to promote the area merchants.

Kensington Sun & Salsa Festival

Sun & Salsa

It was a fun event, and really, such a great idea – kudos to the organizers!