Friday, February 11, 2011

My River Cafe Conversation

There is a place here in Calgary just off the downtown core in the middle of the Bow River on Prince's Island Park called River Cafe.

I have mentioned it here before as it is one of our city's better places to go have a great meal and a nice night out. Last week, I was able to sit down with Proprietor Sal Howell and her chef, Andrew Winfield at the restaurant and find out how they run such a tight ship, able to serve such great food and still be kind to the environment.

I was able to sit and talk to them both separately as it was a busy time for each. I had a pile of questions and wasn't sure how to conduct an actual interview. I told them both this and they were fine with it. Whew! There goes most of the pressure. Anyways, Sal came over and sat with me for the better part of an hour. I asked a few tough questions (I didn't plan on any of them being difficult, sorry Sal) and got some good answers. Then it was Andrews turn. Our time was shorter as I expected it to be, but it was still as interesting as I had hoped. Both Sal and Andrew are very good at what they do but in the same respect come across as very humble, so it was easier to consider this a nice conversation rather than an interview.

When you walk into the place, it looks fairly rustic but then you realize not only is it fancy, it's quite comfortable and well done. Everywhere you look there are fly fishing rods and paraphernalia everywhere along with canoes and other things to make you feel as if you're in a fishing lodge.

Windows surround you and the restaurant is flooded with natural light. You also get a great view of the downtown core, the river and the park which surrounds the building. It's certainly a nice place to have a meal, especially in the summer months.

After exchanging pleasantries about the little people in our lives, I began to ask her questions. Sal, now a mother of 3 year old twins, started River Cafe back in 1991 in a smaller building which was already there and built up the building to what it is now in 1995. With a fine arts degree in photography and painting, her education comes out in the design of the place. I think of cooking as an art, so to see what she has done with the place and even though she says she has no real hand in creating the menu, I believe part of her background comes out in the food which Chef Andrew and his team work hard to create in the kitchen. It's nice to see one artist working with one another on two separate canvasses coming together to create something special which we all can enjoy, meaning great food being served in a picturesque atmosphere.

When asked "What is the hardest part of running a sustainable restaurant?", Sal's response had many different parts to it. First, very labour intensive. One of the main things they do in the restaurant is grow a lot of their own ingredients around the building and work in partnership with Highwood Crossings Farm in High River just south of town to grow some of what they require there. Also, they try to cook with as much local and seasonal ingredients as they can. This means there is a lot of canning in-house going on to preserve what they grow which means over the winter their menu can still feature locally grown ingredients. As far as the building goes, they have an extensive recycling and composting program in place and they are Bullfrog powered. They are also on Bullfrog's Green Gas Program list which will hopefully start sometime soon. A lot of the herbs they use are grown around the building and I asked how they control pests such as flys and mosquitoes so they don't bother the customers, especially outside on their patio. Sal answered they have a Lemon Geranium outside to naturally take care of that. This is a great way to scare away all the unwanted bugs. Take note all of you gardeners and patio party enthusiasts. I know we'll be planting one of those baby's out in our garden this year for sure. Sal also mentioned she learned a lot from visiting The Sooke Harbour House in Victoria, B.C. Aside from enjoying the fine food there, she was able to learn from their extensive garden and how they explore their immediate ecosystem.

As a sustainable restaurant, this also means dealing with suppliers which are local. I asked "Do you seek out your purveyors or do they come to you?" Sal said they go around to a lot of the rural farmers markets and get to know the people there. It's always good to know who and where your ingredients come from. They used to have to go out and find the right people to deal with, but they are more well known now and suppliers come to them more often.

In Canada with our small population and extremely large land mass, local sometimes means in the next province, about an 8-10 hour drive away through the Rocky Mountains in British Columbia. The Okanagan Valley is home to an extremely large fruit and vegetable growing community as the summers are long and hot. This is where the much of our city's local produce comes and quite a few of the city's farmers markets and restaurants all deal with growers from this region. Chef Andrew mentioned they source many things from this area including morels and other types of mushrooms, fiddleheads among other things and some of their wines also come from there as well.

With many awards and accolades being handed to them over the years, I asked Sal which one meant the most to her. Her response was that they don't go out everyday to try and win a certain award or anything like that, but instead seeing the immediate gratification from the customers is what really makes them happy. Staying focused on what they do best every single day and serving great food which keeps people coming back is their best reward. But, she added, the one award which does mean a lot to her on a business level was being recognized as a Leader In Sustainability by Imagine Calgary. This meant a lot due to the fact it is an award from outside of the restaurant community. This is big to them because it means people from other industries are taking notice and using them as an example. It's not very common for those big associations or magazines to do something like this. On a personal level, the award which means the most to her is receiving the Best Independent Restaurateur in Canada award at Food Service And Hospitality Magazine's 2010 Pinnacle Awards. It's nice to see it's not all about what plaques are on your wall at River Cafe, but more about the food on the plate, the smiles on the faces and the seeing the same faces again and again along with many more you don't know, but soon will.

My conversation moved over to Andrew and as I expected, was an interesting one for me. I have talked with many chefs over the years, but have never had the chance to chat with one who truly knows how to cook with seasonal ingredients. I know there are many chefs like this out there, but unfortunately I haven't run into one yet so I was looking forward to talking with him.

Having attended SAIT for his training, travelled around the world and actually worked a little in London while doing it, he has now been working at River Cafe for 10 years, is now the chef and enjoys it very much. Travelling and seeing how different cultures and chefs go about their business helped change his mindset about food. I asked him what inspires him as a chef, and "seasonal ingredients!" came out of his mouth right away.  He gets excited when there is a new season around the corner as it gives him a chance to create new dishes with different ingredients from what he is presently using. To show you how forward thinking he is, as we spoke he was already having visions of asparagus dancing through his head, and beyond that morels were calling his name.

I unfortunately didn't get the chance to see the back of the kitchen or their basement which houses an extensive wine cellar consisting of around 3,500 bottles and an in-house smoker where smoking their own bison meat and scallops are among some of the treats coming out of it. Maybe, hopefully there will be a next time when I will have that chance.

I'm very grateful Sal and Andrew gave me the chance to sit down and talk with them. It was an interesting and educational experience for me. I only wish there would've been more time, but I was happy with the time I was granted. It's exciting to see such passion and enthusiasm from the two people (the chef and owner) who, in any other restaurant at any given time, are run down and always needing more time to do things. Of course, River Cafe shuts down every January so the staff can relax and nurse themselves back to health, so maybe that helped a little.

A sustainable restaurant is a place we should all embrace. In the future, I hope to see more and more of these places springing up as they are nicer to the environment and are healthier places to eat due to the fact there are less toxins in the food on their menus. After all, I love going out as much as the next guy but if I can have a healthier meal while enjoying a night out, all the better. If you're ever in Calgary or if you live here and have never been, try River cafe. You won't be sorry you did and your body will be better for it.

Quote Of The Day:

"To eat is a necessity, but to eat intelligently is an art."

- Le Rochfoucauld (1613-1680) French noble and writer

Until next time, good eating everyone.


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