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A dinner scene from the Lentils episode of the Flat Out Food docuseries on CityTV.Taryn Snell/Courtesy of manufacturer

While the past twelve months seemed to flirt on and off with normalcy, it’s fairly obvious that we are not in the COVID-19 clear just yet.

From the debut of a stunning docuseries focused on Saskatchewan to the proliferation of contemporary food falls in Alberta, here are ten notable moments of 2021 in the Prairies food and drink realm.

Flat Out Food docuseries premieres on CityTV
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From the left, Beth Rogers, Jenn Sharp, Thayne Robstad and Christie Peters near Smeaton, Sask. during filming of Flat Out Food.Adam Burwell/Courtesy of HalterMedia Inc.

If you don’t hail from the Prairie province, what do you really know about Saskatchewan?

Writer and author Jenn Sharp set out to educate Canadians on the depth and breadth of her home province’s culinary community and agricultural achievements by way of the docuseries Flat Out Food. The six-part series was produced by Adrian Halter and aired on CityTV Saskatchewan in early 2021.

As the series’ host, Ms. Sharp went foraging in the Wanuskewin river valley with Indigenous elders and in remote forests with chefs like Hearth’s Thayne Robstad and Beth Rogers, ground flour out of heritage grains and made bread with baker extraordinaire Bryn Rawlyk of The Night Oven. She also brewed beer out of lentils with Regina’s Rebellion Brewing.

Things were plenty educational, of course, but it was likely Ms. Sharp’s passion and warm demeanour that helped Flat Out Food get a green light for season two. Look for that to air on CityTV in 2022.

The long-awaited Major Tom opens in Calgary’s Stephen Avenue Place
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Major Tom restaurant in Calgary.Chris Amat/Handout

Restaurants situated at higher altitudes than, say, a floor or two, are typically known for offering inflated prices and subpar food in exchange for some sort of awe-inducing view.

Though it does sit on the 40th floor of a downtown skyscraper, offering a captivating view of Calgary and surrounding area, Concorde Group’s new crown jewel Major Tom makes no sacrifices with its quality of experience.

After being in progress for more than two years and having its opening delayed for months and months because of the pandemic, the restaurant has been the most sought after reservation to get in Calgary since opening in July, 2021.

Executive chef Garrett Martin brings plenty of flare to the menu of what otherwise might be interpreted as a luxurious steakhouse. Start with the fried-jammy-yolked egg topped with pepperoni jam and house-made “tots” with whipped sturgeon and you’ll be riding high in no time.

Saskatchewan chef Jenni Lessard enters the national limelight
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Chef Jenni Lessard stands for a photograph along the south Saskatchewan River in Saskatoon, Sask., on Oct. 30, 2021.Liam Richards/The Globe and Mail

When I bumped into Ms. Lessard in October, she had just wrapped a television production in Toronto and was now cooking up a storm on the east coast. As one of the guest chefs taking part in Devour! The Food Film Fest, she was serving up Indigenous cuisine to eager attendees in the picturesque town of Wolfville, N.S.

I leaned in to listen to the chef sharing stories of her heritage and ingredients native to the Prairies as people approached for a taste of her seared bison steak with stinging nettle puree. She talks of her role with Wanuskewin Heritage Park as a culinary consultant where she leads groups through the river valley to learn about foraging before sitting down for dinner with Indigenous elders.

Being billed as a celebrity chef at a major culinary festival so far from home (Regina), her active participation in the Indigenous Culinary of Associated Nations and her latest work with the Saskatchewan Health Authority to create Indigenous food menus for Indigenous patients are three notable things worthy of three big cheers.

Alberta gains three contemporary food halls
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Located in the centre of Calgary’s Beltline, First Street Market features menu items from nine vendors ranging from comfort food to contemporary eats and vegan options.Handout

With Canadian cities such as Winnipeg, Toronto and Montreal having proved the successful food-hall model time and again in recent years, it always felt a bit odd that both major cities in Alberta remained lacking … until this year.

Edmonton’s 5th Street Food Hall opened earlier this fall as did Calgary’s 1st Street Market, both to much success in their own rights. 1st Street Market in particular features concepts of note such as Pure Street Food (Vietnamese), Saffron Street (Indian) and Moose and Poncho (Mexican).

While Calgary’s other food hall inside of District at Beltline isn’t fully functional just yet, one can bet that this space will be packed in early 2022.

Wilfred’s in Edmonton reimagines itself and reopens in collaboration with Made by Marcus
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Wilfred's in Edmonton.Shaun Hicks/Handout

The imaginative design and atmosphere of Wilfred’s was enjoyed by many since its original opening in 2018. After trials and tribulations related to the pandemic, the eatery shuttered, albeit temporarily.

Fast forward to summer 2021 and it announced plans for a reopening with a twist by way of a collaboration with Calgary’s premier ice-cream maker Made By Marcus. Wilfred’s menu may be simplified, but its feel-good vibes are back and better than ever.

Winnipeg’s Emily Butcher rises to fame on Top Chef Canada and opens her own restaurant
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Nola restaurant in Winnipeg.Courtesy of Nola

The award-winning chef Emily Butcher (formerly of deer + almond) was the first Winnipeg chef in a decade to compete on Top Chef Canada during its ninth season this past spring. While Ms. Butcher may not have cooked her way to the finale, she did land in a respectable sixth place and garnered a reputation as a series fan favourite.

The chef has made the most of the spotlight shone on her and has now opened her own restaurant, Nola, in collaboration with Mike Del Buono of King + Bannatyne. Here, Ms. Butcher lets her creativity run wild on a menu that centres around small plates and unorthodox flavour combinations.

If you’re wondering if her Top Chef Canada episode winning dish of twice-baked potato gnocchi with sauerkraut beurre blanc is on the menu, the answer is yes!

Celebrated Winnipeg chefs return to Canada and turn pop-up into fully realized restaurant
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The salt beef bagel from Winnipeg pop-up, Two Hands.Two Hands

A food scene can always benefit by having some of its most talented individuals go abroad … as long as they return home at some point.

That’s exactly what Winnipeg chefs Mike Robins and Keegan Misanchuk did earlier this year, returning from heading up kitchens in London (Pidgin and Brat, respectively) to launch a wildly successful pop-up, Two Hands.

At first, the pop-up centred around their love of signature English fare such as salt beef bagels and meat pies, but has continued to evolve and expand. Two Hands will now be adding a more permanent vibrancy to Winnipeg’s restaurant scene as Mr. Robins and Mr. Misanchuk are now renovating a bricks and mortar location on West Broadway.

Canada’s first pulse-based spirit produced in Alberta
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Faaiza Ramji, owner of Field Notes, is pictured where her product is made at The Fort Distillery in Fort Saskatchewan, Alta. on June 25, 2021.Megan Albu/The Globe and Mail

Interesting gins, vodkas and single-malt whiskies are but a stone’s throw away these days in the crowded micro-distillery scene. So, what’s a person got to do to stand out from that pack?

Edmonton’s Faaiza Ramji placed her bets on developing a field pea-based spirit – aptly titled “Don’t Call Me Sweet Pea Amaro” – and if the buzz since the product’s summer launch is any indication, she bet right.

The unconventional concoction was brought to life by Fort Saskatchewan’s Fort Distillery and is now widely available across the province. Home bartending aficionados and curious taste buds alike will appreciate the amaro for its herbaceous forwardness and subtle earthy aftertaste.

Calgary’s River Café celebrates its 30th birthday
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Summer time at River Cafe in Calgary, Alta.Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

Given its tenure in the Canadian food scene, it feels fair to say that Sal Howell’s eatery River Café is the most iconic restaurant in Alberta.

Being open for 30 years is a commendable feat in and of itself. On top of that, remaining open for three decades all the while garnering 100+ accolades along the way from regional, national and international publications and remaining a leader in the focuses of sustainability and locality deserves a standing ovation.

The restaurant has celebrated its 30th birthday in many ways, including a special anniversary tasting menu that offers its executive chef Scott MacKenzie’s takes on signature dishes of all of the chefs that helmed the kitchen before him.

New restaurants continue to pop up despite pandemic-related hurdles
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Justin Leboe, left, corporate chef at Banff Hospitality Collective and Chef Kaede Hirooka on their patio at their new restaurant Hello Sunshine under construction in Banff, Alta. on June 3, 2020.Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

For as rollercoaster-y as this year has been for the food-service industry in the Prairies and beyond, there was certainly no shortage of new restaurants and bars popping up across Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

Places of note include the contemporary Japanese concept Hello Sunshine (Banff), Edmonton’s dreamy French brasserie La Petite Iza (that stained glass ceiling lighting!), the addictive Vietnamese eatery Rau Bistro and the brand-new 17th Avenue sake bar Lonely Mouth (Calgary), chef Christie Peters’s new Detroit-style pizza offshoot Primal Pizza in Saskatoon and, last but not least, Winnipeg’s Tabula Rasa and Gladys Caribbean Kitchen.

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