Toss the Menu

Five young chefs fund a dream with feasts you won’t find on their menus.

Photography by Shawn Sandford, Bayern Media

It might surprise you that after a busy dinner service, the last thing chefs want to eat is more of that beef tenderloin they’ve been cooking all night

Instead, they seek refuge in comfort foods to soothe their sore bodies, and take time to break bread with their kitchen staff, over what industry insiders call a staff meal.

So what do they eat? “Basically anything that’s not on the menu,” says Christine Sandford, head chef at Culina Mill Creek. “You make stuff you want to eat. You’re not trying to please your customers. You’re trying to please your staff.”

In the kitchen, the friends join forces to make a meal guests won’t forget.

But what’s been Sandford’s nightly ritual has become one of the city’s best food excursions – a series of one-night-only, pop-up feasts aptly titled, “Staff Meal.” Sandford and her four chef friends – Andrew Hess, Heather Dosman, Roger Letourneau and Chris Tom-Kee – thought it up while “geeking out about food,” cooking for one another and dreaming of a food trip to Spain none of them could afford.

Each themed meal is in a different location, such as upscale pub food at the Empress Ale House, and each chef cooks one course of the meal. “We like to draw inspiration from the space we’re in,” says Dosman.

A dish of trout was cured overnight with herb salt, then hot-smoked for two hours

The May meal at Duchess Bake Shop was their largest yet. The five-course formal French affair sold out in two days and saw the caf’s round marble tables replaced with draped communal buffets seating 88 people who each paid $50 and helped bring that dream vacation to Spain a little bit closer.

The organic beefsteak tartare amuse-bouche hinted at what was to come. Sandford’s take on French onion soup followed, with savoury bone marrow toast, rich onion broth, sharp pecorino cheese and sweet, crispy onions. Hess’ fish course was perfectly moist trout cured overnight with herb salt and hot-smoked for two hours. It hugged the Verjus-dressed asparagus salad. The Fanny Bay oysters were kissed by cucumber water, lime juice and sake. One course after another dazzled: Sheep feta ravioli with ginger and beurre mont, duck confit cassoulet, and a dessert of braised pineapple, dark chocolate crme and mango choux. Not only did the chefs cook, but they served the food and happily watched us devour it.

“That’s why I love these functions. We get to see people eating and enjoying the food,” says Sandford, a rare treat for chefs who always toil away at the back of the house.

Clearly, it’s about more than just fundraising for these chefs. They get to be creative. “We can get away with creating things that might never sell on our restaurant menus, like blood sausage, goat’s stomach or tongue,” says Hess. “But mostly, it’s about bringing our community together, and the relationships.”

Look Who’s Cooking

Christine Sandford, 25, Chef de Cuisine, Culina Mill Creek

Graduate of NAIT‘s culinary program, Sandford cooked at Il Portico and D’Lish before Culina
Mill Creek, where she’s been running the kitchen for a year and a half.

Secret weapon:

“I love braising and butchering all meats. I get made fun of at work for my love of it. I like to set time limits every time I take apart meat so I can get really fast!”

Three items always in your fridge:

“I always have cheese – I love cheese. Tropicana orange juice. Sambal (a Southeast Asian hot sauce).”

Andrew Hess, 26, Former Chef at Bistro La Persaud

This NAIT graduate spent two years cooking at Burrowing Owl estate winery’s restaurant in the Okanagan and came back to Edmonton last year for a stint at Zinc before moving to La Persaud, which he recently left to attend university.

Secret weapon:

“My little black book. A chef that I admired always carried around a handy little notebook filled with all of his best recipes. Now, once I’ve perfected a recipe, it goes in the book.”

Three items always in your fridge:

“Sriracha, guanciale (jowl) bacon made from Sangudo Custom Meat Packer’s pigs and a salty, hard cheese like parmesan or manchego.”

Heather Dosman, 25, Chef de Cuisine, Culina Muttart and Cook, Three Boars Eatery

Dosman ditched her cell biology degree  to cook. “Too many prokaryotes, not enough people,” she says. With her NAIT apprenticeship in hand, she now heads the Culina Muttart kitchen, and makes a killer braised pork bulgogi.

Secret weapon:

“A ravenous appetite for learning. Reading books. Prodding other experts.”

Three items always in your fridge:

“Sambal, an assortment of perishable gluten-free flours and lots of cheese.”

Roger Letourneau, 24, Sous Chef, Bistro La Persaud  

This NAIT graduate worked six months in Paris at Maison Blanche and Senderens before posts at The Blue Pear, Normand’s and Wildflower Grill.

Secret weapon:

“The chef at Maison Blanche would check my station every day and drill me if things weren’t perfectly organized. Being organized is my secret weapon.”

Three items always in your fridge:

Piment d’Espelette (a [dried-pepper spice] from Basque country that I need to keep in my fridge to prevent oxidation), lemons and fruity (Portuguese or Greek) olive oil.”

Chris Tom-Kee, 27, Owner, Rota Cafe at 124 Street Grand Market

Ottawa native and NAIT graduate, Tom-Kee spent a gruelling one-month stage at The Fat Duck in England. After four years cooking at Unheardof and baking at Duchess Bake Shop, he started Rota in June.

Secret weapon:

“I am a big fan of written lists. They keep me organized. I always work better with a list.”

Three items always in your fridge:

“Thyme, eggs and pickles.”

When and where is the next Staff Meal?

Aug. 26: BBQ-style farm dinner at Tangle Ridge Ranch, 5:30 p.m. Bus leaves from Culina Millcreek parking lot, $80, includes the ride. (For tickets, email

Sept. 24: Upscale pub food at The Empress Ale House. 7 p.m. No tickets, but come early before it’s all gone!

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