Alberta Chefs Cook It Raw

Chefs gather on Cucumber Island for part one of Cook it Raw 2015: Alberta

by Mary Bailey

The Alberta Cook it Raw journey begins on Cucumber Island in Winston Churchill Park, Lac la Biche, on a glorious weekend in late May.

The idea? Put several of Alberta’s top chefs together in an isolated place to get to know each other. Why? To experience Alberta’s food culture on the land.

Blair Lebsack (RgeRd, pictured), Brayden Kozak, Alessandro Porcelli and videographer/outdoorsman Kevin Kossowan went to the island early to build the mud oven and the grills.

Blair Lebsack (RgeRd, pictured), Brayden Kozak, Alessandro Porcelli and videographer/outdoorsman Kevin Kossowan went to the island early to build the mud oven and the grills.

It was a smoky and delicious couple of days. The fish were jumping. There were colossal stuffed pike cooked over an open fire along with charred root vegetables and spring greens; a tub of watercress was kept cool in the lake. There was time to catch up, for walks around the island and canoeing. Only chefs were allowed in the sweat lodge on the second day. All seemed transformed when they came out. Was it the smoky heat or the experience? Or both.

Brayden Kozak (Three Boars Eatery) and Eden Hrabec, (Crazyweed) did a lot of prep on the island.“I made some great connections with some talented chefs,” says Brayden. “By the end of the trip it was ‘all you people are awesome’.”

Brayden Kozak (Three Boars Eatery) and Eden Hrabec (Crazyweed), did a lot of prep on the island.“I made some great connections with some talented chefs,” says Brayden. “By the end of the trip it was ‘all you people are awesome’.”

“I started Cook It Raw because I wanted to bring chefs back to a ‘raw’ state of mind,” says founder Alessandro Porcelli. “Textures and sensations were becoming more important than deliciousness. All of the food conferences that I attended were very ascetic—no contact with ingredients, food. The most interesting aspect was what was happening behind the scenes with the chefs. This is what I wanted to bring attention to.”

Alessandro was interested in Connie and John Jackson’s approach at their restaurant Charcut and invited them to Cook it Raw in Charleston.

“We were cooking with people we didn’t know in an unfamiliar place,” says Connie. “It was uncomfortable; then it was great.”

Connie DeSousa (Charcut) prepares a dish in Violet’s cook shack.

Connie DeSousa (Charcut) prepares a dish in Violet’s cook shack.

Connie and John then introduced Alessandro to the Alberta Culinary Tourism Alliance (ACTA) when ACTA brought Alberta chefs to the Terroir Symposium in Toronto. Seeing an opportunity with Cook it Raw to launch Alberta cuisine on to the global stage, ACTA brought the avant garde program to the province in 2015.

From left: Shane Chartrand (Sage), Eric Daniels, (sweat lodge ceremony leader) and Alessandro Porcelli. “This experience is bigger than life,” says Shane.” It’s emotional, meant to make us think and dream. I can’t quite explain it, but it’s the unanswered questions that make it exciting.”

From left: Shane Chartrand (Sage), Eric Daniels, (sweat lodge ceremony leader) and Alessandro Porcelli. “This experience is bigger than life,” says Shane.” It’s emotional, meant to make us think and dream. I can’t quite explain it, but it’s the unanswered questions that make it exciting.”

 

Food culture marries tradition, technique, customs, ingredients and people. Food culture is what grows here, and what people bring to that. Ours is rich—think in terms of aboriginal traditions and practices, settlers who brought farming and ranching, modern immigration. Japanese, Chinese, Celtic, Nordic, English, French, European, middle-Eastern, Mediterranean, Caribbean, east Asian, south Asian, Latin, who hasn’t contributed?

On the last night of the Lac La Biche experience chefs were paired with an Alberta ingredient and producer. Over the summer each team will work on creating iconic dishes, then come together as a group this fall in Canmore and the Kananaskis region to collaborate with seven international chefs. Their work will be celebrated at Cook it Raw dinners in Calgary and Edmonton this fall.

Violet Cardinal demonstrates how to scrape a bison hide. She teaches traditional arts and crafts and creates cultural education experiences. We spent a day at her place on the Beaver Lake Cree Nation, where the chefs broke down a bison and helped scrape the hide, then cooked a meal for 40 on open fires. They made dinner with the Alberta ingredients each chef had brought including dandelions, stinging nettles, morels, bison and barley.

Violet Cardinal demonstrates how to scrape a bison hide. She teaches traditional arts and crafts and creates cultural education experiences. We spent a day at her place on the Beaver Lake Cree Nation, where the chefs broke down a bison and helped scrape the hide, then cooked a meal for 40 on open fires. They made dinner with the Alberta ingredients each chef had brought including dandelions, stinging nettles, morels, bison and barley.

Why Alessandro Porcelli and Cook it Raw?
These chefs are already at the forefront of Alberta’s culinary scene, interpreting our food identity in their restaurants and kitchens, but doing it for the most part as individuals. Cook it Raw allows them to work collectively. Like the wake of a canoe, what the chefs learn from their Cook it Raw exploration ripples through their kitchens and beyond.

“We’re Canadian, we’re humble, we don’t really know what we have here,” says Tannis Baker, the executive director of Alberta Culinary Tourism Alliance.

“Sometimes it takes an outsider to say ‘wow, look at this!’

At its core, Cook It Raw Alberta is a mentorship program helping chefs, producers and farmers identify the materials and techniques unique to our region in order to craft a compelling culinary narrative that resonates with a global audience.”

Left to right: Mysoon Tarrabain, Fatima, Sheraz Moghrabi, Alessandro, Nadia Abougoush, Riya Abougoush, Annie Tarrabain

Fatima Tarrabain of Portage College gets together with a group of women from the Lac La Biche community to cook traditional Lebanese dishes. The women descended upon the island one night, bringing their sunny energy along with tubs of creamy hummus, home-made paper-thin bread called khobz marquq, beef koftas and garlic-scented chicken to be skewered and cooked. Lebanese people first settled the Lac La Biche area early in the 1800s. The tradition of female communal cooking exists everywhere in the world and evoked family memories for many. “It was like cooking with my aunts,” said Connie. Left to right: Mysoon Tarrabain, Fatima, Sheraz Moghrabi, Alessandro, Nadia Abougoush, Riya Abougoush, Annie Tarrabain.

The September Teams 

  • Blair Lebsack, Rge Rd, and Cam Dobranski, Brasserie Kensington: root vegetables
  • Brayden Kozak, Three Boars and Paul Rogalski, Rouge: bison
  • Connie DeSousa, Charcut Roast House and Duncan Ly, Yellow Door Bistro: honey
  • Shane Chartrand, Sage and Andrew Winfield, River Café, Andrew: red fife wheat
  • Scott Pohorelic, SAIT, and John Michael MacNeil, Black Pig Bistro: Saskatoon berries
  • Darren Maclean, Shokunin, and Liana Robberecht, Winsport: canola
  • Eden Hrabec, Crazyweed, and Justin Leboe, Model Milk: beef

The Public Campaign: Alberta Culinary Ambassadors

Be a part of Cook it Raw. What does Alberta food look like to you? Visit http://www.cookitraw.org/cook-it-raw-alberta-public-campaign/ to enter to win a spot at the invite-only dinner.

Alessandro Porcelli appreciating the quiet charm of a northern lake

Alessandro Porcelli appreciating the quiet charm of a northern lake.

All photos by Mary Bailey.