Albertans are seeking alternatives to seeing Bessie on the plate
— Elizabeth Chorney-Booth
It’s an old stereotype that Albertans are only interested in seeing meat and potatoes on their plates, but how often do you default to steak when ordering off of a restaurant menu? There’s no doubt that beef is king in Alberta — we produce some of the best in the world and most decent local chefs know how to prepare it to perfection — but as our food culture evolves, so has the variety of meat that chefs are plating up. Restaurants in Calgary, Banff, and Canmore offer so many different protein selections — if your ordering decision usually means waffling between ordering your New York strip medium rare or medium, it may be time to start thinking beyond the beef.
Chef Kyle Groves is a culinary instructor at SAIT’s School of Hospitality and Tourism and the former executive chef at Catch, a Calgary restaurant that specializes in seafood. Groves says that while Catch’s menu was primarily seafood-based, there was a beef option because Calgarians just couldn’t seem to live without one. But while beef is still a big seller in most restaurants, he sees things changing.
“When I first started cooking things were definitely meat and potatoes, as clichéd as that sounds,” Groves says. “Through the years though I have noticed a bit more of an adventurous eater emerging.”
For diners wanting to tip-toe away from beef, most restaurants have pork, bison, and lamb offerings that give the heft and richness of beef, but with slightly different flavours. Alberta produces a lot all of these meats, making them a good alternative for those who choose Alberta beef in order to support the local agriculture industry (many menus will specify if their pork or lamb comes from a local farm). For those looking to explore beyond chops, the trend towards chefs using pork belly is still going strong, with crispy bits of pork making their way into Asian fusions dishes and tacos. If you haven’t tried it, don’t be fearful of the fat — it truly is a delicious treat, though best served in small portions.
Then there’s the home cook’s mainstay, the humble chicken. Many people are hesitant to order chicken in a restaurant because it doesn’t feel special enough, opting for duck instead if they’re craving poultry. But with a lot of impressive locally sourced chicken available these days, more places are doing outstanding chicken dishes — be they big and juicy rotisserie chicken meals or creative takes on chicken sandwiches or dressed-up chicken breasts.
“I think that chefs are open to working with chicken because it’s relatively cheap. You’re able to offer a larger portion of chicken while doing other things on the plate,” Groves says. “You’re starting to see places that are making a point of offering real quality chicken and there’s a flavour difference. If you look at a place like Cluck ‘n’ Cleaver — they’re sourcing a really good quality product.”
Since we’re landlocked, Calgary has never been a particularly hot destination for fish and seafood, but most fine dining restaurants have a least one fish option on their menus and chefs are working with more than the salmon or sole fillets that Albertans tend to be familiar with. Depending on the season, halibut, trout, and albacore tuna are all menu regulars at higher end restaurants, with seafood treats like octopus, sea urchin, and the more ubiquitous oysters and mussels showing up here and there. Fish that are a little lesser known in this part of the world like mackerel, sardines, and herring are also starting to become more widely available from creatively minded chefs. Many restaurants in the region are also now providing OceanWise™ certified seafood and fish for customers who are concerned about sustainable fishing.
“The thing about seafood in Calgary is there are a lot of people who are not from here originally and they’re comfortable eating oilier fish that have a more pronounced flavour,” Groves says. “Whereas born and raised Calgarians often don’t like that strong fishy flavour. But when you understand that it’s a flavour all in it’s own you can start to appreciate it. The availability to chefs is there, but it’s a matter of getting customers to buy it.”
That same sentiment goes for even more adventurous meats — pigeon and squab (which is essentially a young pigeon with a more appetizing name) are no longer unheard of on Calgary menus and the same goes for rabbit, game meats like wild boar and elk, and even things like alligator and ostrich. Squeamish customers don’t have to reach for the off cuts or gnarlier looking seafood if they aren’t feeling adventurous, but there’s more than enough out there to try next time you’re dining out.