There’s something about Capital Ex that keeps me coming back. In spite of its inescapable associations with teenage excess, there I am, every summer, pounding the midway pavement like clockwork.
Round and round
It’s not any one thing – not the food or the exhibits, not the fireworks or the talent shows, and certainly not the rides – but the atmosphere, the energy, the collective joi de vivre that pulses through the fairground. It’s exhilarating being among a crowd that is living in the moment, searching out the next thrill.
We had picked up our gate admission from Ticketmaster in advance (it actually only saves you $2, but between the two of us, that’s enough for mini doughnuts!), bypassed the ticket lines, and headed straight to the grounds.
We had big plans for deep-fried gluttony, but first, we were fortunate enough for a behind-the-scenes detour. A few weeks ago, Mack had been contacted by Sandra Pysklywyc, Public Relations Manager for Northlands, in order to arrange for a tour of the kitchen, as Mack had expressed interest in their promotional Monster Burger.
Sandra introduced us to Arlindo Gomes, Director of Hospitality and Client Services for Northlands, who actually conceived of Sip!, the Food and Wine Experience at Capital Ex. He said that from a merchandising point of view, most liquor trade shows don’t provide the opportunity for consumers to connect with both the sales representative and the product at eye level, and Sip!, with its bar-height counters, does. He also crafted the feel of the event, intimate and sophisticated, using floor lighting, table accents, and art displays to his advantage.
One of my favourite aspects of Sip! has always been their demonstration stage – it was where I first met Sebastian Lysz two years ago at the inaugural Sip (who has since become an up-and-coming figure to watch in Edmonton’s food scene). This year, the rock stars of the schedule included internationally-renowned mixologists Gavin MacMillan and David Jennings.
Arlindo eventually led us into the basement of Northlands, where the kitchen is located. It had been recently renovated and expanded, with Arlindo ensuring that the design would allow for flexibility in equipment set-up as needed. As a result, all of the machines (flattops, grills, ovens) are on wheels, and save the fume hood, can be moved.
The prize of the kitchen was undoubtedly the combi ovens. The practical ability to cook with both steam and dry heat was demonstrated with some of the food being served at Sip upstairs – beef jerky and a whole roasted pig (which apparently takes only four hours in their oven). Mack and I thought the coolest thing about the oven was the fact that the same cart that holds pans of food can be wheeled out of the oven and directly into the blast chiller, or vice versa.
Arlindo explained that for large-scale functions, this is exactly what happens – food is pre-cooked, plated, loaded up onto a cart (below), then cooled in the blast chiller. Just before the food is served, the entire cart is wheeled directly into the oven to finish cooking. Amazing!
Ready for the next event
Another fairly new feature of the kitchen was their Code Green initiative, seeking to recycle all organic material that comes through the kitchen. The plastic bins were everywhere in the kitchen, filled with everything from coffee grounds to boxes to vegetable peels, to end up in a composting pile. Arlindo said he would have numbers of how much waste has been diverted in November, exactly a year since the program began.
In the cold kitchen area, we spotted racks of hibiscus flowers drying atop slices of lemon. Arlindo explained that a few years ago, he had ordered 200 jars of hibiscus flowers, thinking that they would be all the rage (at the time, they were a popular addition to cocktails and other drinks). Unfortunately, the hibiscus flowers didn’t take off as he had planned, and the kitchen is still working its way through his massive order, and remind him every day of his mistake (chefs at Sip were actually using them to make a floral-scented ice cream).
Of course, I had to take the opportunity to ask Arlindo what Northlands was doing to source products from local businesses and producers. On the subject of coffee (and buying from local roasters), he explained it was an economical decision – Starbucks provided and maintains all of their brewing equipment at no charge, and is able to service the machines quickly and efficiently.
On the subject of local producers, Northlands did just recently start using beef from Spring Creek Ranch. Arlindo said that the 20-30% mark-up on the premium beef does make it difficult for them to use it on a large scale (although they do utilize Alberta beef in all of their facilities), but they have been able to experiment with it upstairs in their Monster Burger outlet. Though the 1kg burger is a promotion specifically for Capital Ex, the outlet will be in operation during all conferences and events, and features not only a 7 oz. Spring Creek Ranch beef burger (priced at just $9.75, with fries), but the first premium Spring Creek Ranch hot dog (with no preservatives, hormone and antibiotic-free, in a natural casing). It was fortuitous that Bern Kotelko of Spring Creek Ranch was having a meal there during our tour.
Bern and Arlindo
Next to Monster Burger is maspasta (“mas” means “more” in Latin). Another one of Arlindo’s initiatives, the pasta outlet is a fast but tasty option for conference and event attendees.
Once the tour was over, we headed back into the hall to use our Sip! tickets (Sandra was generous enough to give us 50 tickets to use at our own pace). We were happy to see local breweries Alley Kat and Yellowhead present, but Mack ended up trying beer from Yukon Brewing Company for the first time (he gave the Yukon Gold a thumbs up). I steered clear of familiar wine brands and found Warrego Wines out of Australia. Their Half-Way Wine lived up to its promise of being semi-sweet.
Yukon Brewing Company
In terms of food, the selection this year of savoury dishes seemed better than in past years, and to add to things, Northlands even prepared recipe cards for patrons to take home if they wanted to recreate the dishes at home.
Recipe cards for pulled pork panini
The Alberta barley paella was a great way to start off, textured and satisfying, but my favourite was the Cuban-inspired pulled pork panini.
Huge paella pan
After seeing his (or her?) poor cousin in the combi oven downstairs, we also had to give the roasted pork a try. I have to say it was difficult to eat without a knife (I try to keep the savage table manners to a public minimum), but the meat was moist, albeit on the fatty side.
Though I can see why beef jerky was on the menu (no need to keep it hot or cold, and keeps well to boot), it was a bit out of place in the elegant setting. That said, out of the three flavours, Mack liked the sweet and sour best.
We ended our experience with a treat from the fun ice cream bar that not only featured fresh ice cream, but also a variety of candy toppings.
We all scream for ice cream
By the time we were ready to hit the midway, the heat of the evening sun had dissipated. In the dwindling light, we soaked up the fair.
Mack’s Capital Ex tradition
I could have watched the poor souls forever, but we were unfortunately positioned in the splash zone
On our walk through, we passed by the outdoor Monster Burger kiosk. For those who didn’t hear about it, it was a 1kg Spring Creek Ranch beef burger topped with 1/2 lb of bacon, onions, lettuce, cheese and tomatoes, and would cost $39.50…unless the person could finish it in one hour. I have to say I love that they took and posted photos of every person who successfully completed the challenge.
Monster Burger challenge
I really do hope it is something they continue in future years – I think it helps expose Spring Creek Ranch to a wider audience, and also benefits the Edmonton Food Bank (1kg of beef was donated to the Food Bank for every Monster Burger purchased).
We were really hoping for fireworks that night, but the skies threatened to open up, so we hustled to our other Capital Ex tradition – a bag of Those Little Doughnuts.
Looks like a vortex is about to open up, doesn’t it?
All I need are doughnuts
Thanks again to Sandra and Arlindo for their hospitality. We had a great time, and are looking forward to next year already!