Edmonton chef Christine Sandford recalls the Belgian countryside in such vivid detail that you can practically see, taste and smell the area she called home for nearly three years.
"Working in an all-French environment was so intimidating, but it changed my entire outlook," she says. "I remember going home and just raving about a plum. Something so simple."
Ms. Sandford is part of a cohort of young Edmonton chefs, many of whom passed through the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology's (NAIT) culinary arts program over the past decade, who sought enlightenment abroad before returning to their hometown.
She came of age at a time when Edmonton had but a primordial sense of what its gastronomic destiny could be. She toiled her way through a typical cross-section of eateries, but she couldn't shake the nagging feeling that her experiences were incomplete.
"I wanted to work on my technique, but you have to go to the source for that," she says.
So she packed her bags and, with fellow chef Roger Letourneau, bade Edmonton farewell and settled on Belgium as their destination. "It's this quirky and amazing half-French and half-Flemish place, like two countries in one," she says.
The pair went to Brussels first, finding work at La Buvette and Café des Spores, neighbouring restaurants specializing in enigmatic seafood and all things mushroom, respectively. But eventually, they wanted to get out of the city, so they crossed over to Ghent in the Flemish countryside.
Ghent might be Edmonton's anti-self: a medieval, moss-draped maze to the other's windswept, brutalist oeuvre. They worked at In de Wulf, a Michelin-starred restaurant Mr. Letourneau describes as "basically a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere."
Ms. Sandford and Mr. Letourneau were immersed in an otherworldly realm of sourdough bread and properly cultured butter, underscored by a profound working relationship between chefs and producers and the not-so-revolutionary notion that one should focus on eating what's in season.
"So there we were, up at the crack of dawn, foraging, working 18-hour days. Everything was so hands-on. They fermented their own miso, sodas and liqueurs. There was even a microbiologist there who was writing a dissertation on lactofermentation," Mr. Letourneau says. "We really saw more connection between the farmers and chefs in Europe."
Ms. Sandford adds: "Over here, so many people want things like fish every day, but that has to be flown in. We really learned that we need to focus on what grows here as opposed to importing things."
Mr. Letourneau and Ms. Sandford were both offered permanent jobs in Belgium, but decided they had been away long enough.
"We were missing our families," Mr. Letourneau says, though the decision to return wasn't based solely on homesickness. "We had to look at what was best for our futures, and that was coming back to Edmonton, where the possibility of working for ourselves one day was more realistic."
Mr. Letourneau is set to headline incipient cocktail bar Clementine, which will open downtown in early summer.
Ms. Sandford currently works as a butcher for Acme Meat Market, but operates her own regular pop-up series, with strong notes from her Belgian endeavour – think charcoal, preserves, natural sourdoughs and underdog veggies such as rutabagas and chicory – woven into each menu.
Her next move isn't yet clear. "I want to work for myself," she coyly hints, "but I might need to travel more. I learn so much overseas. I'm not done with that yet."
Another NAIT alumnus, chef David Leeder, came back to Edmonton after time in Europe, but unlike the others, his return was temporary.
Like Ms. Sandford and Mr. Letourneau, Mr. Leeder started working in local restaurants. Eager to expand his range of skills, the self-described "obxnoxiously driven" young chef did a stint at Le Bernardin in New York, followed by the three-Michelin-starred Restaurante Martin Berasategui in Spain.
"I learned about hard work there. We worked long hours and cleaned relentlessly. One of the sous-chefs there noticed that I had a good palate for sauces, and so I was put in charge of that. It's still a reference point for me to this day."
From Spain, Mr. Leeder jetted to Denmark and found work at minimalist Copenhagen restaurant Relae, and then Noma, which holds global acclaim for its pared-down reimagining of Nordic cuisine. He returned to Edmonton last year, but it didn't last long.
He and a bartender friend ran a series of pop-up meals dubbed "Dela." They pondered how Edmontonians would receive nine-course tasting menus inspired by Mr. Leeder's European sojourn. Though Dela proved a runaway hit, with tickets selling out within two hours of release, the tantalizing pull of Denmark proved irresistible. "I realized how much I loved the Edmonton area and the people who live here, but I wondered if there was still a place for me here," he says.
These days, he's labouring over hot charcoal in the damp Copenhagen air at Restaurant 108, the brainchild of chef René Redzepi, the driving force behind Noma. Mr. Leeder was one of only six
international chefs chosen to work at Restaurant 108, and he doubts that he would have been scouted without international credits.
Why, then, return to a city where safety codes concerning smoke and fire are infinitely more restricting, unpasteurized dairy is illegal, open-air markets are limited by oppressive weather, and there's nary a Michelin star in sight?
Established chef Andrew Fung, who cut his teeth in Vancouver, Hong Kong, San Diego and Zurich before opening his flagship restaurant XIX Nineteen in his hometown, Edmonton, and then another in nearby St. Albert, implores young chefs to embrace international experience.
"You need to travel," he says. "Be humble. You might feel like a big fish in a small pond here, but out there you're just a small fish in a very big ocean."