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Justin Leboe, left, corporate chef at Banff Hospitality Collective and Chef Kaede Hirooka at their new restaurant Hello Sunshine under construction in Banff, Alta.Todd Korol/Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

As Alberta lifts COVID-19 restrictions that have disrupted the food industry for much of the past year, several new eateries are preparing to enter the fray as chefs, restaurateurs and hospitality groups get ready to launch new projects, including some that have been on hold.

The Westley Hotel, under construction in downtown Calgary, will see a new restaurant from Thank You Hospitality called Fonda Fora. Major Tom, which has been sitting empty for more than a year, will finally unveil itself in July. After teasing its own bricks-and-mortar location earlier this year, the ever-buzzworthy Noble Pie will be opening up shop next door to Metrovino next month.

As bustling as Calgary’s 17th Avenue district in the Beltline neighbourhood can be, it hasn’t seen much excitement in terms of restaurant openings since the onset of the pandemic, but Saucy Burger has been getting lots of buzz and will open this summer.

Co-owned by longtime chef and Southern Alberta Institute of Technology culinary instructor Michael Dekker, the fast-casual concept promises all things comfort. From breakfast burgers to cheeseburgers and waffle fries, Saucy Burger has a local touch that Mr. Dekker says will set it apart from the large-scale burger chains.

It’s a new labour of love for the chef outside of his role in the education of young chefs.

“I have always enjoyed the creativity behind designing food concepts. The past few years I have been working with some great franchises garnering all the knowledge I can about systems and making food truly consistent and repeatable,” Mr. Dekker says. “It’s been amazing to make new connections and design everything from our patty to our bun with Calgary’s amazing vendors.”

After fine tuning all aspects of the menu, the chef is hoping for immediate success, but recognizes that we’re not out of the woods yet when it comes to pandemic-related restrictions.

“I think that reality will always be there, but we are focused on the future and crossing our fingers for a hot, beautiful summer on 17th Avenue,” he says.

Heading west to the ever-popular tourist destination of Banff, the town’s prominent hospitality group has plenty in the works. After recruiting former Model Milk and Pigeonhole chef/owner Justin Leboe as its executive chef in 2020, Banff Hospitality Collective has been biding its time to take advantage of the chef’s creative talents.

The soon-to-open Japanese barbecue and sushi concept Hello Sunshine is a culinary collaboration between chef Leboe and chef Kaede Hirooka. Mr. Hirooka has long worked in the Calgary restaurant scene, but has more recently become a recognizable name by way of his pop-up Respect The Technique.

Mr. Leboe has been a friend and mentor to Mr. Hirooka for nearly 14 years, so the collaboration feels like a natural progression of their working relationship.

“I’ve been trying to open up my own place since 2015. Once Justin saw the food I was creating through RTT, he gave me a shot with this,” Mr. Hirooka says. “It’s been a 14-month on-and-off conversation and all the stars aligned.”

Mr. Hirooka is bringing his depth of knowledge of Japanese cuisine and unique approach to reimagining classic dishes such as ramen and stuffed chicken wings – and even bacon, which he cures in red miso and is for sale at Bite Grocer and Cafe – to help make Hello Sunshine one of the most buzzworthy restaurants in Alberta.

He has brought along a small team of culinary talent with him to Banff. While his sous chef and sushi chef are stationed in Banff, he himself still comes in from Calgary.

“I’m the only crazy one to commute [back and forth],” Mr. Hirooka says. “I compare it to taking the Tokyo subway [to work], but I’m not crammed into a small space for an hour, I’m looking at the Rocky Mountains.”

Slated to open in early July, Hello Sunshine’s design renderings offer up plenty of nostalgia with a 1980s ski-lodge vibe, but with a refined design touch. The open-concept kitchen will feature a focal-point rotisserie as well as a sushi counter. It will also offer karaoke, which after months of pandemic-related restrictions and no karaoke at all, sounds like a real cherry on top.

“There is so much rich history in Banff, we have a huge Japanese population, but there’s not a ton of representation [of this kind of food] in town, so that’s why we were really excited to move forward with this,” says Katie Tuff, Banff Hospitality Collective’s chief of operations and development.

Ms. Tuff says once the hospitality group has launched Hello Sunshine, it will be moving onto other concepts. Most notably, it is conceiving a new Italian eatery that will go into the former Melissa’s steakhouse location.

Ms. Tuff goes on to say that the pandemic has been a struggle for her restaurant group, like most others, but Banff’s decision to pedestrianize its main street was invaluable and helped changed the energy in the town.

“We just hold so much hope now that the main street has come to [permanent] fruition. Things are just feeling so good now,” she says. “There’s been a few dark times, of course, but the park is ready, we’re ready and we can’t wait to welcome back visitors again.”

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