A Life in Pursuit of Excellence
Chef Darren Mitchell lands at the Grey Eagle Resort & Casino
— Fred Holliss
“My true belief is to try and learn from as many people as you can,” says Chef Darren Mitchell, the Executive Chef – Casino Operations at Calgary’s Grey Eagle Resort & Casino, and, “If you don’t cook with passion and love you’ll taste it in the food.”
If there’s anything Chef Darren has it’s passion. Passion for sports, for cooking, for gardening, for his family and for getting the most out of life. When I meet him, he’s limping his way out from the main kitchen in the back of the Casino. It’s stupid, he tells me, I love extreme sports, but I did this playing with my kids in one of those jumping places. I just had surgery on my patella, the meniscus and my torn ACL.
Chef Darren started work in the local bakery, and worked in all parts of the store, which led him to cooking school at the relatively old age of 19. He did a two year program at the cooking school in Kamloops, BC, then started work at the Shushwap Lake Estates Golf and Country Club. His first break came when their Chef quit and they asked him if he wanted to take over, a challenge he accepted. However, he realized he needed more experience so moved to Calgary for the first time to work under Chef Ito at the Fairmount Palliser, an experience he still relishes. “I go back at least a couple of times a year just to say hi to everyone,” he tells me.
About 10 years ago he took his Certified Chef de Cuisine (CCC) while working at the Waterfront Wines Restaurant in Kelowna in the evenings and harvesting fresh produce from Stoney Paradise Farms in the mornings which he would then bring them to the restaurant and cook at night. “It put passion back into me,” he tells me, “because I knew exactly where it came from. On the weekends I would go out mushroom foraging too.” He then became opening Chef at Le Plateau Bistro.
Citing Chef Ito at the Fairmount Palliser as one of the great influences in his career, he also names Chef Mark Filatow, possibly the Okanagan’s best Chef for the last ten years, of the Waterfront Restaurant in Kelowna as another, especially his focus on farm to table cuisine.
Now you might think that his passion and drive results in a fiery tyrant, but that is not the case. Leveraging his sports background, Chef Darren holds competitions in the kitchen that anyone can enter. Eight keen kitchen staff have an hour to put something together on a theme such as salsa or chilli, then it goes out to the lobby where casino customers sample and pick their favourite. “I got beat by a dishwasher in a bannock competition,” he confides. “Hers was amazing, and that’s something that makes me proud. If someone can do something better than me then I can learn from it.” He also polls the customers, who suggest dishes that then get tried out as specials. If they are popular, they go on the menu. “I have to put my ego aside,” he tells me.
Overseeing five different kitchens, Chef Darren has to have an eye for detail, but he also has to make use of the resource that is his kitchen staff. Most of them have worked there for at least 10 years, and senior staff also make suggestions for the menu. They have freedom to create, although Chef will walk through with them before the dishes get chosen. “We have a lot of ethnicities in the kitchen, and I feel it’s part of my job to get the best out of them. They are part of what makes this place great,” Chef says.
When asked about some of the highlights of his career, besides his experiences with Chef Ito and Chef Filatow, he points to his time in Australia. His wife landed a contract out there, and he went to join her. He was Chef de Cuisine at the Perth Pan Pacific Hotel during the 2014 G20 Summit in Australia. He oversaw the CHOGM conference, and had the opportunity to meet the Heads of State of all the Commonwealth countries, including the Queen and Stephen Harper. Subsequent to that he returned to Canada and moved back to Calgary for the second time, returning to the Calgary Golf and Country Club, where he started his family. That, in fact, was part of why he took the position with Grey Eagle. He is able to see his kids in the morning and return for dinner with them.
You may have gathered that fresh produce is one of Chef’s passions, and you would be correct. He has six separate gardens at his home, each in a different micro-climate terroir in his back yard. He brings some of the herbs he grows to work, but beyond that he has also instigated three huge garden beds built out of pallets in the space between the Casino and the Hotel.
Chef Darren has been able to bring variety and innovation to an establishment that can turn over their tables many times in an evening. Between suggestions from senior staff, the competitions for dishes, submissions from customers, and his own rich history of farm to table cuisine, Grey Eagle is in no danger of having a stagnant menu.