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It’s perhaps not the hardest cross to bear, but one of the drawbacks of spending four decades as a restaurant critic and food writer is that food largely loses its ability to surprise.
A critic might be satisfied, or even delighted, but rarely surprised.
Calgary’s John Gilchrist, who has written about and discussed food in newspaper columns, on television, on radio and in 11 best-selling books, has been exercising and refining his palate for the past 40 years.
But in one episode of Rocky Mountain Cuisine, an upcoming food show that finds the (mostly) retired food expert visiting top chefs and restaurants in Canmore, Banff, Whitefish, MT, and Jasper, Gilchrist meets up with a chef who offers unexpected results.
Gilchrist is visiting Chef Blake Flann at his restaurant, 4296 — named after the elevation of Canmore, where the restaurant is located — and enjoying some of his culinary creations that he has watched Flann prepare.
“I have a pretty good idea what a dish is going to taste when we’re preparing it,” says Gilchrist. “When I’m at 4296 in Canmore with Blake Flann, I say to him ‘What excites me about your food is I don’t know what it’s going to taste like, but I know I want to try it.’”
Flann’s dishes are contemporary and Asian-influenced and, more importantly, unpredictable.
“You see him putting together a dish and he is adding one thing and then another thing and you say ‘Are you going to keep adding stuff to this?’” Gilchrist says. “It’s remarkable food. And, again, I don’t know what it’s going to be like. But I’m really interested in it.”
He hopes that interest is shared by potential viewers.
Rocky Mountain Cuisine was co-created by Gilchrist and Calgary filmmaker and producer Wendy Hill-Tout, who follows the former food critic to more than a dozen restaurants. He interviews the chefs as they prepare two to three dishes for him and talk about techniques and culinary influences.
“It’s not a competition,” he says. “Nothing blows up, there’s no foul language or anything like that. We’re just trying to do an intelligent show about food and restaurants and the Rockies. I’m sick and tired of all the food competition shows. It’s not rapid-paced, nobody is running around the kitchen. This is what kitchens actually are like. We’re filming in the kitchens and trying to get the chefs on their home turf and let them talk. Chefs don’t often get to just talk about what they do. It’s great to be side-by-side with them at the stove and asking them about particular ingredients and styles. Some chefs open up right away, others are a bit more difficult to open up.”
Viewers can get a sneak peek of the series, which hasn’t been picked up by a network yet, on Friday at the Globe Cinema. There will be a screening of the first episode, which has Gilchrist and the crew visiting executive chef Andy Blanton at the Kandahar Lodge in Whitefish, MT, and Sylvain Bernard, Christian Redois and Monika Reiber at Canmore’s EPICanmore, followed by a Q&A with Gilchrist and Hill-Tout.
Hill-Tout first approached Gilchrist to be a consultant on a series about food from the Rockies. At first, he was adamant that someone else should host: “I said to her, right from the get-go, ‘I should not the one in front of the camera,” he says. “‘You need somebody younger and prettier than me. At the very least, younger.’”
But they couldn’t find anyone suitable, so Gilchrist eventually signed on as host as well. It’s a good fit. As his online bio for the series states, Gilchrist as “eaten his way around the world,” but has always been partial to restaurants around his home and specifically those that delve in the unique culinary culture of the mountains.
Highlights include Storm Mountain Lodge in Banff, to Jasper’s Fiddle River Restaurant, which specializes in seafood, to Hello Sunshine and others in Canmore, a town that continues to impress Gilchrist with the creativity and energy of its young chefs.
What is Rocky Mountain cuisine, exactly? Well, it’s definitely not one thing. Many of the chefs featured in the eight, half-hour episodes bring influences from all over the globe while dealing with the hard-and-fast expectations many tourists have for these sorts of restaurants.
Historically, the cuisine was based on the unique elements available in the area — elk, juniper berries, for instance — and a Swiss sensibility, Gilchrist says. Increasingly, chefs are coming from around the world so the influences are all over the map. Chefs originally Germany, Sri Lanka, Japan and other areas are featured in the series.
“They bring their sensibility to the Rockies and they play with the foods that are around, but they are not limited by them,” says Gilchrist. “They bring in their ingredients that they want, the flavours that they want and meld that in with what they think the mountains and, of course, what they feel the tourists will like. We say far too frequently in the shows, when the tourists come to the mountains they have an expectation they are going to see things like elk and trout. They aren’t looking for the downtown diner kind of situation. So they can play with that a lot. So if there is a theme that runs through it, it’s shaped by a their own background, it’s shaped by what the tourists want.”
John Gilchrist and Wendy Hill-Tout will be at the Globe Cinema on July 21 at 7 p.m. to kick off the series, Rocky Mountain Cuisine. Tickets are $20.