Outside of the restaurant kitchen
by Mary Bailey
People become chefs because they like to cook and they like to feed people.
Usually it looks like this: culinary school; apprenticeship; work their way up in a kitchen; become a chef; maybe start their own place. The hours are terrible and the pay? Not so great.
Some cooks still want to feed people but not down that path. They start food businesses. It could be to bring in some extra income, or to have a creative outlet. To create a work schedule more suitable for family life or to scratch an entrepreneurial itch.
One thing we know for sure, these chefs are still making really tasty food.
Chef Rebecca Grant, Violet Chocolate Company
NAIT Culinary grad Rebecca Grant started The Violet Chocolate Company five years ago selling chocolate bars at the City Market Downtown on 104 Street; now her chocolate wins international awards.
“I don’t remember chocolate in culinary school, says Rebecca. “When I graduated in 2008 I wasn’t thinking chocolate, though I remember talking chocolate with Peter Johner when I apprenticed at Pack Rat Louie.” (Violet uses Swiss Felchlin chocolate, as did Peter.)
“A wedding cake business was the original plan. I attended Bonnie Gordon Confectionary School in Toronto to learn wedding cake design. I worked at the Manor and was the head chef and manager at Health Fare in downtown Edmonton. It was a brand new business and the experience taught me a lot about what not to do.
“When I started to do the design and production at Kirstin’s Chocolate, I fell in love with chocolate.
“It’s a unique medium to work with, creative, yet with this science side. And the hours are much better than being in a restaurant.”
The business is named in honour of her childhood pet, Violet the golden retriever.
“I was also taking management and marketing at NAIT. It was a three-year program so I was going to school full time and doing chocolate full time. Back then I was making 50 bars a day. Now we make anywhere from 400-800 depending on the season.”
Violet has a seasonal collection every six months along with Christmas (the Advent Calender sold out in days) and Easter specialties. Their best seller is the honey rosemary dark milk. Big this Easter were the charming Meltaway Eggs, six flavours in white, milk and dark chocolate, packaged in a see-through egg carton.
Does she have retail plans for Violet? “We’re talking about it, but we’re not rushing it. Somebody said we should open a chocolate truck. I’d love to be in the perfect space, a retail shop, with production space attached.”
Find Violet Chocolate at the City Market Downtown on 104 Street, Swish Flowers, Evoolution, Tix on the Square, Makers Keep, Barking Buffalo Cafe, Harlow, Wish List, Carbon and online, the-violet-chocolate-company.myshopify.com.
Brad Smoliak, Kitchen by Brad
Chef Brad Smoliak had spent 10 years cooking in restaurants (Brad and his wife Leanne opened the Hardware Grill with Larry and Melinda Stewart). Life intervened. Parents of a young son, they decided that the restaurant biz was no longer for them. Brad went on to be the culinary director at Trail Appliances and ran Alberta House during the Vancouver Olympics. Now, he is a research chef, helping companies develop foods such as the next best-selling product for a grocery store or restaurant chain. Kitchen by Brad is also the place to enjoy an intimate winemaker dinner, take a cooking class or have a bespoke event in the handsome kitchen studio space.
“Kitchen came from a desire to get back to the roots of why we have dinner,” says Brad, “to enjoy other people’s company and good food.”
The two faces of Kitchen, the dinner parties up front and the private client activities in the back, sometimes come together.
“Let’s say we’re developing a sauce for a retail customer,” says Brad. “We might serve a version of it at a party at Kitchen and get some instant customer feedback.”
Other times it’s just Brad fooling around and coming up with great flavours. Take his first big hit—Brad’s BBQ Rub. The signature rub, made with chilies, garlic and brown sugar, is a pantry staple. Try it on your next chicken bound for the roaster. Or, the Devil’s Butter. This savoury concoction of butter, horseradish, spice and garlic is the perfect balance of heat and creaminess slathered on potatoes, a steak, or in a grilled cheese sandwich. A peek into the cooler rewards the curious—tubs of crème fraiche, whiskey caramel sauce, hot fudge sauce, ready to go home with you.
His work as a research chef gives Brad the food science knowledge necessary to create high-quality products the way he wants to. “There are a lot of products out there with a lot of crap in them. We make products without fillers, or things like calcium silicates.”
The most exciting thing? “What I love about what I do is that I’m face to face with our customer. We had a dinner last night for 20 people. I got to talk to every single one.”
Kitchen by Brad is at the 124 Grand Market May long weekend to October long weekend, Friday’s for Meatball Madness, 11:30am-1pm and some Saturdays, kitchenbybrad.ca.
Chef Stuart Whyte, Original Red Head Condiments
Chef Stuart Whyte is a hot sauce master, who knows how to create flavour along with the heat.
“I was working at Maenam in Vancouver. They made this Thai fermented pork sausage, which got me interested in fermentation, so I started fermenting things. I was trying to figure things out and find something to revitalize my love of cooking, so I made a hot sauce program for the Pourhouse in Gastown. One day a customer asked for the red head’s sauce.”
The name stuck.
“When I moved here, I was working with Steve Furgiuele at Culina, trying to show him what I could do by making these hot sauces and salsas.”
His tasty hot sauces started perking up the plates at Culina.
“I wasn’t planning on doing this, it just kind of happened,” says Stuart. “People started to ask for it, and now I don’t think I can step away.”
The Roja is a pureed salsa with roasted tomatoes, apple cider vinegar and seven different toasted and ground chiles. It has a deep and robust flavour and smoky heat. The Verde, made with fresh tomatillos, jalapenos, spice mix, garlic, honey and apple is tart and refreshing with a pure jalapeno heat. The Jalapeno Leek sauce is made with leeks, garlic and jalapenos that have fermented for a month. It’s savoury, garlicy, with lots of flavour, not just heat. The Hops Honey Mustard is made with dried hops from Bent Stick brewery, mustard seed, honey, vinegar, salt and spices. The Original Red Head Thai chili and garlic fermented hot sauce is the hottest. It will blow your mouth off, depending on your Scoville unit tolerance level. Delicious on grilled cheese or with fatty meats.
He’s a reluctant sauce maker still working full time as a chef. “It’s a side business for now, we’ll see how it goes this summer.”
Buy at Riverside Golf Course, the Local Omnivore and online at originalredhead.ca.
Chef Mary Anne Korn, The Happy Camel
Mary Anne Korn’s story is proof that there is life after the kitchen.
I met Mary Anne when we worked together a million years ago in a restaurant. We met again at the Westin; then Mary Anne and her husband Ron opened Hemingway’s on 124 Street, which they ran for five years. It was then she asked herself, “do I really want to be doing this when I’m 40?” She moved to the front of the house; became a food and beverage manager; took some time off to have a baby; wrote recipes for Company’s Coming. When it was bought out, she was laid off. That might have looked like a deadend to someone else. Not to Mary Anne.
“I had always done a bit of catering and one of my customers owned Cook’s Corner. We made a deal and they sold the dip part of that business to me. Then we bought out The Happy Camel.” Her husband Ron (also a chef) joined her in the business full time this year.
The puffy pita bread, labneh, tzatziki, various hummus and cream cheese-based schmears (the smoked salmon is my go-to) have legions of fans. Yes, she is back in the kitchen, but completely on her own terms.
You can find Mary Anne’s tasty dips at The Happy Camel market stand in the Old Strathcona Farmers’ Market and at three summer markets, including the City Market Downtown on 104 Street; at The Happy Camel store on the south side of the Callingwood Mall; at the Bon Ton Bakery (under the Bon Ton label); the west end and north side Italian Centre Shops (under the Cook’s Corner label); at Planet Organic, Blush Lane, Andy’s IGA and The Kabob House. She also makes some gluten-free products for Nourish, happycamel.ca.
Chefs Peter Keith and Will Kotowicz, Secret Meat Club, Meuwly’s
Peter Keith and Will Kotowicz first met at Café de Ville. It was Peter’s first job out of NAIT Culinary, where he had gone on a full scholarship. “I was an apprentice at Café de Ville,” says Peter. “Will was starting to explore that whole world of fermented and cured meats. I remember thinking, this guy is going to be a master.
“We have been thinking about this for seven years. What drew me was Will’s incredible passion for learning; he’s gifted. He wants to know everything about these meats.”
They both went on to work in several kitchens, Jack’s Grill, The Marc, Fairmont Hot Springs. Will ran the kitchen at Duchess and also worked at a packing house, Sangudo Meats and Artisan Meat Share in Charleston.
“We had our first daughter when I was 23, I became a chef when I was 24; a second daughter came along,” says Will. “It was always tough to balance family commitments and work hours on a chef’s salary.
The meat, at first, was a way to create value in-house in the restaurants I was working in. The more research I did, I realized it could be a business.”
Will and Peter invited us over to taste some meats earlier this year—honey ham, dry-cured anise and fennel sausage, pepper salami—deeply-flavoured, clean and (an odd word to use when you are talking about a cured product, perhaps) fresh tasting. My most recent Secret Meat Club delivery had dry sausage, a toothsome, lightly smoked bacon and pâté, as well as pickled grapes, fermented onions and a really delicious herbed mayo.
What makes their products different? “It’s more about what we don’t use;” says Will, “liquid smoke, maple flavour crystals, potato starch. We are salting, drying, curing, fermenting. Nothing is bulked up with water or starch. And we start with high quality meats, pasture raised pork from Bear and the Flower Farm.”
Let’s have the bad news first. “The Secret Meat Club is fully subscribed,” says Will. “We have a long wait list.”
The good news? Meuwly’s. The Secret Meat Club will transition into an actual deli, named after Will’s grandfather, on 124 Street this fall. Expect to find all sorts of charcuterie, ham, salami, and other hand-made local products. You can also find their products on the menus at Bar Clementine, District Cafe & Bakery, La Boule, Meat and Three Boars. secretmeatclub.com
Chefs Will Kotowicz and Shaun Hicks, Upson’s Classic Lemonade and Cordials
Will Kotowicz and Shaun Hicks, general manager of Three Boars and Wishbone, created a lemonade concentrate (which they based on a family recipe of Will’s grandfather) when they were working together at the Enjoy Centre. The idea that it didn’t need to be refrigerated appealed to other restaurants which led to wholesale accounts.
The Upson’s lineup includes the original lemonade, lavender grapefruit with Salt Spring Island lavender, rose lemonade and bitter orange with burdock and dandelion root. New this year is apple cider and they are working on a honey ginger lemon cordial. The cordials are lovely with sparkling water, or in a cocktail.
What is most exciting to Will right now is the commercial kitchen they put together to make Upson’s, which is available for other chef’s side projects.
“We know the roadblocks we had and we want to see other people do cool stuff in Edmonton,” he says.
Find Upson’s at Color de Vino, Elm, Ernest’s at NAIT, District, Little Brick, Meat, Next Act, Northern Chicken and in Calgary at Brasserie Kensington and the Cookbook Company.