Chef’s Night Out

Find out where Edmonton’s top chefs go when they cool off from slaving in the kitchen.

Photography by Aaron Pedersen

When you cook food for a living, you don’t have a lot of opportunities to sample another restaurant’s fare. You’ll be in the kitchen working right up to the time when your compatriots are, like you, shutting down for the night. You might have Sunday night off – the same night all the other chefs are resting on their ladles.

So where do the chefs like to chow down when they’ve got the opportunity to let someone else do the stirring, stewing and simmering? While we’re at it, who would they most like as their chosen dinner companions and what’s the most bizarre or sublime dining experiences they’ve ever had?

Personally, I most fondly remember my grandmother’s astonishment at how many savoury swordfish steaks a scrawny 12-year-old could put away. The fish came fresh into port aboard my uncle’s swordfish boat and my grandmother cooked it on a wood-burning stove, the only stove she ever used to feed the 12 children she raised.

If I was a chef and had a night out, that’s a place I’d head back to in a heartbeat. Some of the chefs featured here feel much the same way.

Yuksel Gultekin, Sofra

This Turkish restaurant recently added the “as seen on TV” accreditation when it made an appearance in an episosde of Food Network‘s You’ve Gotta Eat Here! scheduled to air in the fall.

Trained as a chef in his native Turkey, Gultekin arrived in Canada 14 years ago and worked in the food and beverage industry before opening Sofra in 2006.

Each table has a glass eye embedded in the centre – a charm against the evil eye. But watching Gultekin perform his magic in his open kitchen, and tasting the culinary results, is all the charm one needs.

“Everything here is from scratch, everything homemade,” he says. “The dips, the marinades, the pita, the salad dressing. Everything. If you’re just buying the same thing everyone else is buying, what makes you a good chef?”

But after working 12 to 14 hours a day, six days a week, Gultekin isn’t exactly craving Mediterranean fare when he’s dining out. “It’s either sushi or Italian,” he says. “My wife and I like Mikado. Their fish is fresh and Jimmy [Mah] is a really good cook. For pasta, it’s Il Pasticcio Trattoria– Nello [Saporito] is one of Edmonton’s great restaurant personalities, and a super host.”

Must-have dish at Sofra: Hummus, Feta and date dips with fresh-baked pita.

Most sublime eating experience: “Breakfast in my mother’s kitchen, eating the Feta dip that I still make now, with fresh hot pita and tea.”

Chosen dinner companion: “My father. He passed away in 1996 and we never had a chance to do that father-son thing together.”

Nathin Bye, Wildflower Grill

Bye is busier than your average chef, and that takes some doing. He’s on the move from 7:30 a.m. until 9 p.m., six days of the week. He’s got the four-year-old Wildflower to take care of, which he owns and where he serves “new Canadian cuisine.” But he also has an interest in both Lazia locations and the newest modern Asian restaurant, East. And he’s not yet 30.

The prairie boy, who grew up in a large family and is a product of NAIT’s culinary program, says he “fell in love with the pure adrenaline of being around people, interacting with customers, the camaraderie in the kitchen and the creativity.”

So where does Bye like to hang out when he has free time – as if?

“I like simple, rustic, unpretentious, unadulterated cuisine. So Urban Diner is one of my favourite places to go for lunch.”

Must-have dish at Wildflower: Lobster braised prawn and Thai green curry garganelli.

Most sublime eating experience: “A lot of my inspiration comes from my grandma’s kitchen… A full-on day of picking blackberries, harvesting vegetables and pickling and canning God-knows-how-many items, and then sitting down to a family-cooked meal with 20-plus family members – just great.”

Historical dinner companion: M.C. Escher.

Jan Trittenbach, Packrat Louie

The Swiss Trittenbach first learned to cook at the Noga Hilton in Geneva. But Edmonton can consider itself lucky that, 10 years ago, he met former Packrat owner and fellow Switzerland native Peter Johner, who invited Trittenbach to work with him. After four years together, Johner sold Packrat to the chef, who kept the name and acclaim.

The darkly spacious room, and lively summer patio, sees a savoury blend of international cuisine, from decadent butter-poached lobster tail to Sterling Silver beef tenderloin. Packrat also serves up some of the finest thin-crust pizzas in town, including one with smoked salmon.

So where does Trittenbach like to head when it’s someone else’s turn to do the cooking?

“I like to change things up,” he says, “from fine dining to something as simple as the Keg. My family likes to go there. I also like to take my wife to Sage, and try to get her to eat different stuff.”

Must-have dish at Packrat Louie: Prosciutto-wrapped prawns with red pepper cream.

Most bizarre eating experience: “I’ve eaten lion and horse. Horse in Switzerland is common – very tasty, very lean. I had the lion in a restaurant in Switzerland. To be honest, I don’t really remember what it tasted like.”

Historical dinner companion: “I’m a tennis fan, so Roger Federer.”

Lara Korpan, Jack’s Grill

It’s not so much that it’s hard to find Jack’s Grill, tucked into a strip mall just north of Southgate Centre. But it’s an improbable location for one of Edmonton’s best dining experiences. And although the location and haute comfort food Jack’s serves up do seem a rather oxymoronic combination, Jack’s has been redefining strip-mall cuisine for over 22 years.

Vegreville native Lara Korpan has been an assistant chef at Jack’s for two years now, after putting in an equal amount of time at NAIT. When she has time off from her 10-hour shifts, she likes “to eat as local as possible. If I work in a local restaurant, I want to help out other local restaurants.”

For Korpan, that means such places as Colonel Mustard’s and Duchess Bake Shop. “I like the Colonel,” she says, “because it’s homey, friendly. A great place for lunch. And Duchess, well, great pastries, and that’s ultimately where I’m headed: Pastry chef.”

Must-have dish at Jack’s Grill: The braised pork belly appetizer with a poached egg.

Most bizarre eating experience: At [NAIT], we had access to a lot of strange meat. So I ate snake, I don’t remember what kind, amd frogs eggs, which kind of taste like watery chicken.

Dinner companion: Georges Auguste Escoffier, a legendary chef.”

Judy Wu, Wild Tangerine

It’s a good thing Wilson – Judy’s brother and co-owner of Wild Tangerine – is on hand to translate, as Judy’s English is not her strong suit. But, then again, Judy lets her food do the talking in their funk-box of a restaurant.

Raised in Hong Kong, she’s been a chef for 30 years now. Together with Wilson, she previously co-owned and operated Polos Cafe, a now defunct cafe that was just off Whyte Avenue. But, for the last eight years, Judy’s been putting in 12-hour days at Wild Tangerine.

As Wilson says, “You have to love what you do or the hours will just grind you down.”

There’s certainly a lot of love coming out of the kitchen into the comfortable and colourful dining area, where East meets West in the form of shrimp lollipops with wasabi yogurt (one of Avenue‘s 25 Best Things to Eat in 2009) and Judy’s famous Thai green curry with prawns and tortiglioni.

And where does chef Judy head to on her time off? “King Noodle House,” she says “and Bistecca.” She breaks out into an ear-to-ear grin and almost caresses the words “osso buco,” a veal dish from her second choice.

Must-have dish at Wild Tangerine: Five-spice octopus salad with spicy tangerine vinaigrette.

Most sublime eating experience: “Pomelo,” says Judy. Wilson translates: “She’s talking about eating the skin of the pomelo. We had it when we were kids. But there’s so many steps to prepare it that it’s a dying art.”

Chosen dinner companion: “My grandfather.”

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