“And we don’t ever do this, do we boys?”
Chef Burton inserts a chocolate-smudged finger in his mouth and makes a dramatic smacking sound, then grabs the cloth at his belt. “We work with a towel, always with a towel at the ready, don’t we boys?”
Executive pastry chef of the Fairmont Banff Springs hotel, Mark Burton was guiding two culinary apprentices through the basic ABCs of artisanal chocolate making. I was part of a small, drooling group on a kitchen tour. This Willy Wonka room was stop four.
It’s a rare privilege to witness the command centre of a massive hotel. The added pleasure was having the top toque of The Banff Springs, Executive Chef jW Foster, guiding us through the labyrinthine kitchen he helms and meeting some of the 160 chefs who work in it.
Thirty of those chefs are students in various stages of a three-year culinary apprenticeship program. They’ve come from across the country and around the globe to further their trade at ‘Canada’s Castle in the Rockies’ and, increasingly, to become familiar with the local product this teaching hotel is committed to sourcing. Local sourcing of exceptional ingredients for a hotel this size can mean buying to suit the needs of just one of its eight restaurants. Like the beef I ordered at the intimate 1888 Chophouse. Sourced from Brant Lake Wagyu, it was some of the most succulent and flavourful I’ve ever eaten, hand cut in house and grilled on wild cherry wood.
Students in these kitchens are also learning whole animal butchery, as well as dry and wet aging of the meat they cut. They are also smoking the hotel’s meat and fish, making artisanal bread, pickles and charcuterie. And, in this fragrant little room off the main pastry kitchen, they are learning the fine art of happiness making.
“Sure, you love me now,” Chef Burton grins as he offers us samples – salted caramel truffles, snappy squares of bittersweet chocolate studded with dried strawberries and spiked with crushed pink peppercorns, and the latest experiment with caramelizing pure white chocolate (to the colour of peanut butter) “…but you’ll all hate me later.”
We don’t. It was easier, in fact, to love him, than the chef-instructor showing a trio of students in a refrigerated kitchen how to carve up a pig carcass. It was a riveting lesson, but no samples were on offer.
Though there was one kid with candy-store eyes watching the butchery class. Tyler Thompson is the twenty-five year old Fairmont Banff Springs chef who would soon be inheriting the pig’s head. An Ontario lad, he credits time spent on Chef Michael Stadtländer’s celebrated Eigensinn Farm (in Singhampton, Ontario) for knowing what to do with it.
For the past year, Thompson’s been the guy in charge of Grapes, the former reading room now transformed into a cosy wine and charcuterie bar. He’ll be making head cheese this afternoon, adding that delicacy to his impressive stable of charcuterie.
Lunch at Grapes was splayed on slabs of slate that ran the length of the bar. On it were all-Canadian craft cheeses, house-smoked fish, a wide range of pickled vegetables and fruit, plus jams, jellies, honeys, mustards, olives and relishes, breads and crostini, largely made in the kitchens we’d just toured.
Thompson’s also been going hog wild with ice creams. He dishes up, by way of a cheese and charcuterie chaser, scoops of his fragrant thyme, goat cheese and local honey ice cream, swirled with a blackberry purée. Lovelier still, the one made with squash and vanilla bean, served with a dollop of squash jam.
Vikram Vij returns to Banff…
From chocolate to charcuterie to chicken curry. Our final evening in Banff was at ‘Indian Summer,’ a seasonal restaurant overlooking the finest view in the house.
There’s something so ‘Canadian’ about sitting in a 19th century railway hotel, looking out over the splendid Bow Valley and Fairholm Mountain Range, tearing into naan fresh from a tandoor oven and spooning up Alberta goat stewed with curry leaves, cardamom and cumin, created by Indian-born, Austrian-trained, Vancouver chef Vikram Vij. Inarguably one of North America’s most celebrated chefs, his restaurant, Vij’s, is known as much for its innovative Indian food as it is for its nightly queues. But for Vikram, coming to Banff and to this hotel was personal. And a bit emotional. It marked a return, he tells us, to his ‘first love’.
He credits the oomph of a goulash he made for a guest at an Austrian ski resort some thirty years ago, for changing his life. “Some Czech guy in the dining room wants something spicy,” the waiter had announced to the kitchen brigade and Vikram – the only Indian cook in the Saltsburg kitchen – was told to “deal with it.”
He went to his staff bedroom for the box of Indian spices he kept tucked away, and used them to rev-up the plain-speaking stew.
The ‘Czech guy’ was Ivor Petrak, longtime general manager of the Banff Springs Hotel. Six months later, Vikram received a one-way plane ticket to Calgary, bus fare to Banff, and a six-month working visa.
It was 1989, he was a 23-year-old Indian kid with a bit of cooking experience, a bit of English, and an instant infatuation with the castle in the mountains. He stayed for three years until his visa ran its course. “But my love affair with the Banff Springs Hotel never has.”
And now, 25 years later, he’s back. To lend his name to the hotel’s ‘Indian Summer’ restaurant, and to create two signature curries for its menu.
Homegrown Canadian cuisine in the heart of Banff National Park has never tasted so diverse and so delicious.