By Jamie Drummond
A week before she makes the trip to Savour Stratford, Good Food Revolution had the opportunity to chat with Top Chef Canada contender and Chef/Patron of Calgary’s acclaimed Charcut Roast House, Connie DeSousa.
Jamie Drummond: So Connie, what are you up to today?
Connie DeSousa: Well I just started my day, getting ready for lunch service right now.
JD: So what does that entail exactly?
CDS: Well, as soon as I get to work I write the menu with the other Chef, my co-Chef John Jackson… and that’s normally at the beginning of the week.
At the end of the week we usually start off at the market, as our Farmers’ Market is only open Thursday through Sunday… so towards the end of the week we visit the market to see what’s fresh and looks good, buying for the weekend, and then on Sunday we buy for Sunday through Wednesday.
JD: So how many days a week is your restaurant open?
CDS: Seven days a week.
JD: Ahhhh… That’s quite the challenge. Are you in there all seven days?
CDS: No, John and I both take Sundays off.
JD: So how has your reception at the restaurant been since your time on Top Chef Canada?
CDS: It has been fantastic… You know a lot of people ask me if we have noticed a difference in the volume of business, but you know we haven’t really as we have been so fortunate since the day that we opened, being able to fill the restaurant every day for both lunch and dinner.
But I have noticed a little more of a demand as it is harder to book a reservation now, and we get quite a lot of Top Chef fans coming in wanting to have their picture taken with me, or asking for my autograph… almost every day. It’s really quite strange.
JD: Well, that’s hardly surprising… what with you now being a Television Chef and Culinary Sex Symbol…
CDS: Well, we are really not sure how long it is going to last though, because when the next slew of Chefs come in for the new season of Top Chef I don’t know how people are going to perceive us then, as they will be the new round of Celebrity Chefs.
JD: How long did it take to record that series and how much time did you have to invest away from your restaurant?
CDS: I was away for six weeks.
JD: And how did the restaurant fare without your guiding hand?
CDS: We had just opened six months prior to me leaving, so it was kind-of a grind to get it open and another grind to stay open really.
But one of the reasons that we have been so successful is because we have two Chefs and then our spouses running the front-of-house, so when one of us is away the other really takes over, and it’s always been a smooth transition.
JD: What do you feel is the most important thing that you took away from your experience on Top Chef?
CDS: Well, you know it’s not that often that 16 Chefs get to hang out with each other for six weeks straight.
Although I didn’t win, and that was kind of the aim of being there, I think that the best thing that I took away from that competition was the relationships that we built with each other, and especially the final six Chefs as we got to spend the most time together. We are still friends to this day and I still talk to them weekly… we have actually got together to do quite a number of events.
JD: Having a reasonable understanding of how television is produced/edited and the like, I know that in order to make “good TV”, rivalries, problems or issues between Chefs are often played up. Now you don’t have to answer me on this one… but did you find that you got on with all of the other Chefs or were there exceptions?
CDS: I did, I think I am a pretty mellow person, and I think that was pretty evident on the show. I think that I got along with everyone and that I didn’t rub anyone the wrong way.
JD: Well, you certainly appeared to have one of the most gregarious, friendly characters of all the Chefs on there, and you were also certainly the most modest.
Without wishing to blow smoke anywhere, I was actually rooting for you from the very beginning… and that’s the honest truth.
CDS: Well thank you!
JD: So you are travelling to Stratford, Ontario for Savour Stratford in a couple of weeks for Savour Stratford… and you’ll be presenting a Charcuterie Workshop.
Have you been been to Stratford previously?
CDS: No, I haven’t actually.
One of our Sous Chefs is from Stratford, and they have been gearing me up for the Culinary Festival.
JD: It’s actually a really amazing event. I managed to find time to attend for the first time last year and had a superb time.
There are a number of really great restaurants there… and the big tasting on the Sunday is simply superb… quite the gastronomic experience.
I’m presenting a Wine Tasting on the Saturday, Ontario VQA Wines VS. The World, and so I will certainly see you down there.
Can you tell me a little about the session that you are going to be hosting?
CDS: Sure, I am paired with a local farmer who breeds heritage pigs… and he will be talking about the pigs, how he raises them, which cuts he likes to use for charcuterie, as I believe that he makes some as well. He specialises more in dry in dry-cured meats, so he is bringing some bresaola and prosciutto.
JD: Aha! I was going to ask you about the sausage thing!
You see, one of the reasons I was rooting for you on Top Chef is because I am a sausage fiend, and just cannot eat enough sausage… So every time you decided upon a sausage dish I was screaming “YESSSSS!”… I was so happy.
CDS: You know, on the show I didn’t actually realise how often I had made sausage until I watched the episodes… I think it was three or four times I made sausage? But I’m the same way, I love sausage, and I think that there is always room for sausage at any meal.
So why is Charcuterie so important to you? I’m mean, your restaurant is named Charcut…
CDS: Well, when the four of us partners decided that we wanted to open a restaurant together the concept was heavily based upon charcuterie. The other Chef and I had travelled all over the world cooking and had picked up many different techniques and recipes from many different Chefs along the way. Both of us have a love for butchery… and I think our love for charcuterie grew from there.
Living in San Francisco and being so close to the Farmers, we really began to care about where our food comes from… and we really wanted to bring that concept back to Calgary. We concepted our restaurant for three years, and as time went on our concept fully evolved and it kind-of drew away from the charcuterie aspect and more into the roasted meats.
While our name is derived from charcuterie, the restaurant used to be referred to as Charcut as we opened… and we slowly started adding larger pieces of equipment that became the focal points of the restaurant.
JD: I see. Now what kind of pieces of equipment are we talking about here?
CDS: Well, one of the main focal pieces in our kitchen is our custom-built in Texas rotisserie grill, dual wood and gas. We roast chicken on it daily… we roast large cuts of meat like porchetta, and prime rib... we also slow roast cuts such as brisket, tricep, and chuck.
And so the Charcut Roast House name slowly evolved into “Char”, coming from our char-broiler and rotisserie grill, and “Cut” coming from our manual vintage-style, fire engine red Italian hand slicer.
JD: Now, being based in Toronto I am very much guilty of some serious navel-gazing when it comes to the food scene here, and hence am rather ignorant when it comes to other parts of Canada… In Alberta, what can you tell me about current food trends?
CDS: Well, rotisserie is huge in Calgary right now, and I think that Charcut was kind-of one of the pioneers in the city as before we opened there were no other restaurants with a rotisserie, but now I think that there are three or four… people have modelled their restaurants upon what I feel was our concept in the beginning.
And then farm to table is really huge… When people think of Alberta and Calgary I think the first thing that comes to mind is beef… there are so many people who are unaware of the great produce we have in Alberta… around 30 minutes north of Calgary we found a local farm growing artichokes and we now work exclusively with them.
There are so many other great things… the Heritage pork is wonderful here. Chickens are fabulous in Alberta as well… there are so many resources that people are not aware of.
I mean, we don’t follow the 100 mile diet concept 100%, but in the summer months we are almost 100% Alberta sustainable.
JD: Being slightly wine obsessed myself I was curious to discover what kind of wine program you had at Charcut, and if you enjoyed wine yourself?
CDS: Oh I do… and as well as wine we focus upon craft beers.
One of the main focuses when we first opened was that we wanted to have a very small wine and craft beer program that was kind-of modelled after the kitchen in that we change the menu daily… and while we couldn’t change our beer/wine menu daily as that would have been impossible for us, it changes around every couple of months.
We try to stay as local as we can with our wine and beer program… with 50% of our wines and beers being local Canadian.
JD: Excellent… from Ontario and the Okanagan?
CDS: Yes. And all of our nine beers on tap are local Canadian craft brews. We have some from the Okanagan ranging out to all the way to Quebec.
We also have a special beer cellar that holds all of our aged beers and bottle fermented beers, and those are international.
JD: Hmmmmnnn… I think that I have to come out and visit your restaurant sometime soon.
Now… What does Good Food mean to you Connie?
CDS: Well… When I think of Good Food I always think of family meals… that doesn’t necessarily mean my immediate family, because now we have quite a large extended family… we view all of our restaurant employees as an extension of our family.
Good Food is really all of our friends and family sitting around a communal table enjoying food prepared from scratch… and it doesn’t have to be elaborate or fancy… it’s breaking bread with friends and family over a glass of wine or bottle of beer… and there always has to be sausage… and something spit-roasted as well!
JD: That sounds perfect to me Connie. Thank you for spending time with us today at Good Food Revolution, and I look forward to sharing a few glasses of wine with you at Savour Stratford later this month.
For more details regarding Connie’s appearance at Savour Stratford please click here.
Edinburgh-born/Toronto-based Sommelier, consultant, writer, judge, and educator Jamie Drummond is the Director of Programs/Editor of Good Food Revolution… and if pushed he’ll admit that he has a bit of a soft spot for Chef DeSousa.