After a banner year in Edmonton for unique concepts popping up, Alberta has set the bar high, not only for itself, but for every restaurateur or chef who has grand plans of launching a new restaurant, bar or otherwise in 2018.
There are plenty of things I expect this year. There will be plenty of new microbreweries, which will no doubt intensify competition within the Alberta beer industry.
Calgary's slow comeback from the economic downturn, combined with a lack of whispers of restaurants on the horizon – save Concorde Group's pinball bar on 17th Avenue and 5th Street and Whitehall being re-conceived into Elwood and the Rabbit, both opening this winter – point to a low number of contemporary openings. Instead, expect to see older establishments reinventing themselves and second or third locations of existing concepts to arise.
Here are four other notable trends to watch for on the Alberta restaurant scene in 2018.
The unification of women chefs and restaurateurs
There is strength in numbers, as we all know, and it's been beyond amazing to see female culinary professionals supporting one another from around the globe, helping to bring forward difficult issues or conversations and, most importantly, keep the conversations going.
The largest all-female culinary initiative of recent months came by way of Winsport's executive chef, Liana Robberecht and her hard work bringing the Women Chefs and Restaurateurs (WCR) conference to Calgary in mid-September. The conference involved a diverse blend of industry experts, including chef and MasterChef Mexico judge Betty Vazquez (Riviera Nayarit, Mexico), the Drake Hotel's head bartender, Sandy De Almeida (Toronto), and Andrea Harling, the VP and executive chef of Made Foods here in Calgary.
The sold-out conference drew attendees from across Alberta and covered a variety of topics, all with the baseline of inspiring younger women in the industry and the importance of feeding camaraderie in a business that – as the multitude of harassment accusations recently made public have shown us – can be very dark at times.
Ms. Robberecht is currently developing several educational sessions for women in the culinary industry that will take place periodically throughout 2018, leading into another WCR conference come 2019.
A pork cut above the rest
Any number of ingredients can pass through the limelight over a year when it comes to Alberta restaurant menus, but rarely are these items something that's especially unique to Alberta. While Mangalitsa pigs are of Hungarian origin and there are a couple of farms offering them in Eastern Canada, this unusually furry heritage breed is raised by two producers in Alberta: Country Accent Heritage Breeds outside of Edmonton and EH Farms in Strathmore.
With exceptional marbling and a large fat cap (the breed was originally raised specifically for its lard), the Mangalitsa is frequently called the kobe of the pork world and it's really starting to perk up chefs' ears across the province. Restaurants such as Fence and Post, The Guild, Corso 32 and River Café have all used the unique meat on their menus over the past year or so and you can certainly expect more to follow suit.
In a growing restaurant scene that gets more crowded by the month, when it comes to the look of a business, a trendy chair and table combination and good choice of wall paint aren't quite enough for restaurateurs who are aiming to separate themselves from the average.
For the most buzz-worthy spots in Alberta, customization will be key.
Take Two Penny Chinese, for example: The Calgary restaurant boasts a variety of custom-made design features by way of Sarah Ward Interiors. In particular, the locally made bar tiles were a custom creation, pulling inspiration from mystical dragon scales and centuries-old Chinese suits of armour.
At Edmonton's Butternut Tree, one finds oneself eating from ceramic plates that were designed by chef/owner Scott Downey and created by Viva Clayworks just off Whyte Avenue. Then there's the front-of-house and back-of-house apparel at Donna Mac in Calgary that has been designed by local clothier Saturday Clothing.
The idea of restaurant owners embracing local artisans to create wares, artwork and more for their spaces can be seen simply as an evolution of the "eat local" mentality.
A rebirth of simplicity
It seems like only yesterday that the hashtag #theartofplating graced the posts of most chefs and self-assured home cooks across the globe. Tweezers, squeeze bottles and the other intricate tools that helped create a dish worthy of Instagram fame (for whatever that's worth these days) have not disappeared from kitchens altogether, but they're definitely gathering dust.
With the gradual return of unfussy plates of food, the previously mesmerizing look of modern plating/molecular gastronomy feels, ironically, dated.
It's nice to see Alberta chefs returning to the fundamentals, using only a handful of ingredients in a meaningful way. The chilled broccoli salad I enjoyed last weekend in Calgary at Bridgette Bar, dressed with a tangy, peanut dressing and finished with fresh dill and dukkah, was the first plate of 2018 that adamantly reinforced the fact that delicious food doesn't have to be complicated.