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.
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.
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.