Finding Identity In Our Ingredients

What is Canadian cuisine?

Photography Curtis Comeau; ​Left to right: Paul Shufelt (Chef, Workshop Eatery), Vinod Varshney (Program Chair, Culinary Arts, NAIT), Ben Staley (Chef, The Alder Room), Shane Chartrand (Executive Chef, Sage at the River Cree Resort and Casino), Doreen Prei (Private Chef and CBC Radio Food Columnist)

The term “Canadian cuisine” is a nebulous one; it often conjures up images of French fries smothered in cheese curds and gravy, or perhaps of any number of food items coated in maple syrup. But, in 2015, chef Ryan O’Flynn changed the discussion when he launched what he called a uniquely Canadian menu at Share at the Westin Edmonton, which included birch syrup, pine needles and bison cooked with methods he’d learned from Canada’s Dene Nation. O’Flynn has since left the Westin, but the discussion endures.

As we found out when we sat down for a roundtable discussion in the NAIT kitchen with a number of Edmonton’s most renowned chefs, Canada is making significant contributions to the culinary world in other ways. We may never see lineups around the block in a foreign city to get a seat at a Canadian restaurant, but what chefs are doing – and, more importantly, what producers are growing – north of the 49th parallel is evolving rapidly and could have a profound impact on how the rest of the planet eats.

Let’s start with the broad strokes: How would you describe the current state of Canadian cuisine?

Doreen Prei: Compared to Europe, Canada goes way, way quicker than any other country. Right now, I find, there’s a lot of interesting talent. They all travel to Europe, and they bring all the techniques and skills they learned back here to work hand-in-hand with all these new producers. Our producers, particularly in Alberta, produce absolutely stunning vegetables and meats – fish not so much, because we are of course a little landlocked, but even then, in the Rocky Mountains, there are beautiful lakes where trout are grown. I’m very excited to be part of this – even as a German being in Canada for seven years now, I see a lot of exciting things coming along.

Vinod Varshney: Right now, [Canadian cuisine] is a combination of fusion and all the multicultural nations that are bringing their own cuisine here. Canadian cuisine has become a combination of everything, using ingredients from all over the world and combining it with fusion cooking and all those things.

Ben Staley: I think the aspect of a cuisine in general may be dead, because we’re such a global community. Everybody is sharing techniques; everybody is sharing ingredients. … Our role is to embrace everybody who has come into this country and not to make it a melting pot, but to take everyone’s aspects and everybody’s views on cuisines in their own countries and bring it to ours.

Paul Shufelt: I feel like, with technology and the fact the culinary community has become one big community, are there going to be trades or techniques or skills or dishes that are distinctly from one country or region anymore? Sure, maybe there are going to be ingredients that are found there, but if somebody makes something incredible in Sweden, he’s probably posting it online, showing a picture of it or doing a YouTube video. And then some guy in Chicago is picking it up and doing it, and then someone somewhere else. It has become more of a global cuisine.

Shane Chartrand: I enjoy getting ridiculous with ingredients, having fun and twisting things around, getting everybody engaged in creating dishes at the restaurant but, at the same time now, I’m kind of going in the other direction. I’m going to stick with Canadian ingredients, and use less ingredients in the recipes we’re using.


Can you see any point in the future where Canada could have its own culinary identity, like Italian or French? Would it be that distinct? Or will it always be an amalgamation of other cuisines, being that we’re a country of immigrants?

P.S.: I think there could be [distinctly Canadian] ingredients, and I think those are going to rise to the forefront – produce, grains, things we can find in our backyards that should be proud of. I think those are going to rise to the forefront. But, I mean, I hope to cook for another 20 or 30 years, and I don’t think there’ll ever be a day when I don’t use a French classical technique that I learned to prepare something. … I don’t know if the Canadian culinary group of chefs is going to come along and say, “We’re change the way the game is done here. This is the way you’re going to peel an onion.” [laughs]

D.P.: When I worked in Berlin, we got Canadian lobster. That was it – we didn’t get any other lobster but Canadian, because that’s the lobster to get. … Alberta produces the best pork in the world, so Japan is looking over here and  buys it all out, so what are we supposed to use? We don’t want to use the stuff from the U.S. This is where you have to put your focus when you talk about Canadian cuisine, in my opinion.

What kind of influence do you think First Nations culture has had on Canada’s culinary identity?

S.C.: I did a study with some chiefs here in Alberta – well, I shouldn’t call it a study. We were talking and trying to figure it out. My question to them was, First Nations cuisine, there’s no sign of it anywhere. It doesn’t matter what archive you look in, it’s very hard to find. So I was talking to the grand chief of Alberta, he came to the restaurant, and he said, “What you’re missing is, there’s no such thing as written-down recipes for aboriginal cuisine because it’s not meant to be that way. We’re supposed to be sitting around a table and enjoying dinner that way.” We make the food and we put it down. It’s not overly complicated food; I think we all can just guess what it’s like overall. It’s not complicated – it’s broths, it’s brodos [soup stocks], it’s boils, it’s meat. Potatoes, fire, smoke, salt. I want it to be more exciting, but that’s my own little journey to go down that path and see if we can make it exciting without plagiarizing or hurting or insulting.

P.S.: It reminds me of recipes from my great-grandmother or my grandma, or even when I call my mom and say, “Hey, you remember you used to make this? How do you make it?” And it’s always like, “Well, you add a cup of this and a pinch of this.” And [I say], “Don’t you have a recipe?” She says, “No! I just have done it a hundred times.” Those sorts of things are meant to be where you’re there with your mother or your grandmother, making it with them, learning their secrets, picking up a little bit as you do it a few times with them.

Coming from Germany, Doreen, did you have any sort of preconception about Canadian cuisine before you came to Canada?

D.P.: My biggest perception was, I can come here – I can come to Edmonton in particular – and I can cook anywhere I want because I speak the language. I come here and I’m thrown back 25 years of some sort. Not to my East German years, but it was very different to what it is now. That’s what I mean with how fast Canadian cuisine has developed in the past seven years I have been here. Just look around at how many farmers are helping all these restaurants be exceptional and try different things. That’s what it’s all about in our cooking culture.

And coming together – sometimes I kind of miss collaboration of chefs. I find the Calgary team-ups are a lot stronger. We had this conversation a long time ago, and we cannot find out why we’re not able to do such a thing in Edmonton. Everybody is their own little niche, everybody is doing their own thing; nobody wants to share. 

Let’s open that up to everyone. What’s your take on collaboration?

S.C.: I think there are some massive walls that need to be broken down. There are a lot of hurt and broken relationships in this town. We’ve seen them already. 

V.V.: I come from an environment, in teaching, where we’ve sort of taken an oath that we have to let everybody know what we know about [cooking]. I mean, I come from the industry, yes, where, as Doreen is saying, a lot of people don’t share what they know. Coming into the school, it’s a different environment where we share everything that we know, and we learn from other people and keep passing information to the students, so they are able to learn what is hidden or what is kept secret.

B.S.: That was one of the pillars of the foundation of the business for The Alder Room: to be transparent. We’re hoping to be transparent in everything we do, regarding ingredients and techniques, equipment and recipes and stuff like that, building a collaborative environment that isn’t just centred on one person or one place. Everybody has a voice.

Given the fact Canada is such an expansive country, and you want to have all these ingredients, but one comes from one area and others come from other areas – plus we have harsh winters that would preclude some of this produce from being grown year-round – do you see that as a challenge as far as trying to do something with these Canadian ingredients?

P.S.: I think it’s actually an opportunity. What we’re going for at [Workshop Eatery] is a focus on cooking like my mom used to; I’ve been saying that over and over again. I grew up in a small town outside Montreal. We had a garden the size of a football field. We raised chickens; we collected our own maple syrup; we had ducks and rabbits. We didn’t waste anything, and we ate stuff when it was seasonally available. And when it was done, it was done – or we had pickled it or jammed it or dried it, to cherish little pieces of it throughout the year. We didn’t go to the grocery store and expect to get strawberries in January from California. We literally would probably cellar 1,500 pounds of potatoes, and that would have to get us through to May or June. That was it. The odd time we didn’t have enough, Mom would go to the grocery store in the spring once or twice, but for the most part, we cellared all of our staples, and we’d eat turnips and squash and beets in the winter – things that, when I was a kid, I absolutely hated. [laughs] But you choked them down. I’m focusing less on regional and more on seasonal, as much as I can. 

B.S.: If I were to say one word that would encapsulate our cuisine, I think that would be “preservation.” I think that has historically played and should play a larger role in the way that we eat now. It’s taking advantage of the stuff that’s grown in our short growing season and preserving it for use throughout the year. For the majority of the public, buying local stuff is not feasible; it’s out of the price range for a single mother or a family working two jobs. They just can’t do it. So importing goods isn’t all that bad. But even then, where do you draw the line? Getting ingredients from Quebec is the same distance as going to California. 

P.S.: Just because it’s Canadian doesn’t make it better.

B.S.: Exactly. So where is that line drawn to develop something? How local is local? I can get something from Ontario, or I can get something better from Montana, but some people wouldn’t say that’s local, because it’s a different country. But it’s closer.

D.P.: But you should support your economy. The Canadian dollar is down; it’s brutal. I’d rather buy something from Ontario or the East Coast than going to California and getting something there.

OK, the last question I have is: Where do you see Canadian cuisine going in the future?

B.S.: I would say it’s going to be ingredient-driven, not reliant on techniques and not reliant on any methods of doing anything. It’s about what we have and how we utilize it throughout the entire year.

D.P.: It’s not about just building a relationship between the farmer and the chef; it has to go way more out there to the person who sits down and eats your food. If we are able to make it open to them to understand what we are doing, and also not overcomplicating the food to [scare] them away, then they’ll go out there and say, “This is exactly what I want to purchase. This is what I want to bring home. This is what to cook for my family.” Then you are creating a new Canadian cuisine.

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