This is the first time we’ve interviewed a father-son combination here at Dining Out, and this first time is a really great start. Norm Flann and his son Blake are the combo behind BLAKE Canmore, PD3 by BLAKE, and YUGO EAT by BLAKE. Their newest endeavour, the flagship restaurant BLAKE Canmore opened around January of this year and it has already garnered enough attention that they have been approached by interested parties wanting them to open a sister location in Calgary. But the road to becoming restauranteurs had a few bends in it.
Blake started as a dishwasher at Stewart Creek Golf Course when he was 13, and worked his way up the kitchen hierarchy in the Bow Valley area until he became Head Chef at Canmore’s Trough Restaurant. At 23 he moved to Vancouver to become head chef at Crime Lab before enrolling into the accelerated programme at Pacific Institute Of Culinary Arts, where he graduated as class valedictorian with some of the highest marks ever awarded. While Norm’s restaurant experience was restricted to managing a bar 30 years ago, he has been a general contractor, designer and builder for most of his life. He believes that no matter what you do, you need to be a good businessman in order to succeed, and his approach to the BLAKE brand is all about business.
After graduation, Blake took some time off to travel through Asia. Writing home to Norm he said he wanted to come back and work to save some money but it didn’t really add up for Norm. Food trucks were an emerging craze at the time but Norm didn’t think a single category venue on wheels would showcase Blake’s culinary skills. It was around that time that a friend told him about a double decker bus for sale, and when Norm saw it he thought it was perfect, because now they could have a mobile restaurant. He bought it as a surprise for Blake’s return.
Between them they spent 9 1/2 months tearing it right down to the frame and converting it to what they believe is North America’s only fully mobile gourmet restaurant. PD3 by BLAKE is a 1962 British Leyland Titan PD3, one of only two known to still exist. With the help of the British Leyland Society Norm discovered the life expectancy of the buses was originally only about 15 years. When they were done they basically took the drive train out and burnt them, so they are exceedingly rare. The only other known example of this model is in a museum in England and surprisingly, was the next example off the line based on the serial numbers.
PD3 by BLAKE has a full gourmet kitchen downstairs with a full dining room upstairs that seats 16. There’s a bar with Prosecco and beer on tap, state of the art propane heating, LED lighting, a full stereo, a dumb waiter to take food between the floors, a hydraulically lifted roof and hydraulic stabilizers, and a completely modern drive line. It’s fully self contained with a matching trailer that’s a bar cart, so they can pull up and you can order your food and drink and then sit on a patio or in the upstairs dining room. Despite the modernity they tried to pay homage to the original bus wherever possible, including retaining the original painted ceiling and the “No Standing No Spitting Allowed” sign. In operation for about three summers now it’s become a well known attraction in the Bow Valley.
Midway through building the bus, Norm’s cousin offered him an authentic Japanese fire truck. He had a BBQ setup on it, but it wasn’t very efficient, so Norm made a number of modifications. They use it for Japanese style hotdogs, and the little Subaru now also has a fridge and a popcorn machine. As part of paying homage to the original, they retained working lights and sirens, and it’s fully licensed and road legal. YUGO EAT by BLAKE (Yugo means “fusion” in Japanese) is a ton of fun that they hope to set up at Canadian Tire for the summer between running to events.
Looking to grow their business, Norm saw the potential right away in the former Midway Auto service center, and another way to expand the BLAKE brand. He knew exactly what he wanted to do with the space as soon as he saw it, and in collaboration with his son they decided on a modern-industrial feel. The result is a clean interior with a clear design language. BLAKE Canmore makes extensive use of glass and dark metal, which offsets the bright white walls and frames impressive views of the Rockies. There’s a small second floor balcony accessed by a set of glass stairs that can be winched up to the ceiling, with a conference table that features a 9′ stainless steel trough that could be used to hold ice and champagne, or goldfish, or seafood.
Their motto is “Eat. Explore. Experience.” It’s all about exploring and experiencing different things, different styles, different cultures, and Chef Blake’s food is a melting pot fusion of things from all over the world, places he’s been, things from his childhood, influences from his parents and grandparents, all in a mash-up that’s designed to take you somewhere else when eaten. This is definitely not your normal three-course type of meal, and despite having three restaurants, so to speak, this is not your typical chain either. Each location has its own unique approach and menu, and reflects their motto, whether it’s the experience of eating on a double decker bus, sampling authentic Japanese hotdogs from a fire truck, or watching the play of sunlight on the Rocky Mountains through an open 13′ garage door.
Chef Blake and father Norm are all about pushing boundaries a little bit, while exploring the culinary world. This can be seen in their truly striking washrooms. Recent changes to the Building Code mandate there must be an accessible stall, and between the necessary turning radius outside and within, it takes up quite a lot of real estate. Norm’s approach was to totally rethink the approach to washrooms, and his unisex bathroom is like no other I have seen. There’s a screened area at one end with urinals for the gentlemen, and the accessible stall at the other. Between the two are five completely freestanding bathrooms within a bathroom, each with its own wash basin, hand dryer and toilet, soundproofed walls, and lockable doors that offer a really comfortable, private experience. Nothing like those unisex bathrooms you may have experienced in Paris!
In a touch of sophistication, there are ten foot windows facing you when you enter the restaurant, and through them you can see the kitchen. Located in one of the old tire bays, the floor has been polished and epoxied, and the old grease pit lined with a stainless steel trough. The kitchen can be pressure washed right into the floor, and is all gleaming white and stainless fixtures. Diners can look in and appreciate that their food is being prepared in a classic clean, safe, hygienic kitchen. Chef Blake’s stage is a true showpiece.
Another item that can be seen upon arrival is an award for winning the Best Caesar in the Bow Valley. The recipe was a collaboration between Chef Blake’s recipes and their staff . With the use of his Umami Ketchup by BLAKE that they’re ramping up to sell, along with a few other secret ingredients. Mott’s approached Blake Canmore to host their Best Caesar competition and they agreed, then ended up winning. Norm mentions that additionally they’ve won Best New Business with the PD3 bus, Best New Innovative Business in Canmore, and were recently voted by John Gilchrest as one of the top new restaurants in Alberta. He says the accolades are great, but he’s always tried to teach his son to let your work speak for itself, let your food speak for itself, let the experience speak for itself, and their success is all on the back of Blake’s magic in the kitchen.
But there’s no doubt that some of the magic is due to Norm’s design and realization of the restaurant. There is a beautiful patio with a fireplace, and they took care to make the space as multi-purpose as possible. 13′ video screens drop down in front of the overhead garage doors and can be used for private screening or other events, the pillar between the front two garage doors (there’s three in all) is wired with enough electricity to pull in a band or DJ, and the bar can extend out the rear garage door to become indoor/outdoor with a rolling extension. And don’t forget the stairway that can be lifted up to the ceiling to make more room on the restaurant floor.
These two are a real powerhouse pair. With plans to expand into sales of branded items like their ketchup, black salt, and flavoured popcorn, they are poised to expand the Blake brand as their view on business is “The world is your Oyster, and you’re only limited by your imagination”. They are definitely a family to watch.