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YYC Food and Drink Experience all about making the best in Calgary food accessible, affordable

More people looking for culinary experiences as Calgary continues post-pandemic emergence.

Running from March 17 through March 26, the culinary festival of good food, good drinks, and unique chef and restaurant experiences is back for 2023.

YYC Food and Drink Experience is celebrating some of Calgary’s top restaurants, along with bringing to the city a Michelin-starred and Top Chef winner, an exclusive wine and ranch-to-table event, a pop-up Northern Italian gastronomy experience, and the combination of blues and bourbon to close.

The festival is also featuring set-price meal menus that are designed to be an affordable way of visiting some of the city’s restaurants while getting to experience some unique culinary creations just for the festival. Lunches start are $25 or $35, three-course meals are $35 or $45, and the festival’s “gourmet masterpieces” are $65 and $75.

“It’s a really great deal, and a really great time to like get out and try new restaurants you’ve been wanting to check out. Everything’s curated so it all works together,” said Irena Knorr, Culinary Marketing Strategies’ culinary program director.

“There’s no guesswork trying to figure out what to order because the chefs put these together with their heart and soul.”

Among those heart-and-soul experiences is with Michelin-starred Chef and owner of Vancouver’s St. Lawrence, Jean-Christophe Poirier, who will be hosting an evening of his French- and Quebec-inspired creations alongside the Riverside Cafe Executive Chef Scott MacKenzie and his culinary team.

“It’s a beautiful restaurant and I feel is very Canadian, which, like the menu we’re going to do, is about maple syrup,” said Chef Poirier.

“When I grew up, my grandfather had a [sugar shack] when I was young… and we’re celebrating one the best products that we have in Canada.”

Knorr said that having Chefs like Poirier, and recent Top Chef Canada winner Tre Sanderson in Calgary, working with some of the city’s own chefs was all about advancing the culinary scene.

“We have some award-winning restaurants here too—big ones that are on Canada’s 100 Best lists as well. These chefs, they all work together, they cook together, and they get inspiration from one another,” she said.

“The neat thing about bringing in the visiting chefs is they spend a day in the kitchen with the Calgary chefs, they both bounce ideas around and they get inspiration from one another, so it advances what we get to see here in Calgary.”

Michelin starred Chef Jean-Christophe Poirier, left, Culinary Marketing Strategies culinary program director Irena Knorr, and Culinary Marketing Strategies Managing Director Donald House at the YYC Food and Drink Experience kickoff at Barbarella Bar in Calgary on Thursday, March 16, 2023. ARYN TOOMBS / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

Some amazing meals to be had

Chef Poirier said that he would be combining a variety of different flavours together in some perhaps unexpected ways.

Among those items on the menu he created was a traditional Quebec favourite, split-pea soup, but with maple syrup marinated sablefish instead of bacon.

Another interesting take is on the Tourtière, which would normally use pork, beef or veal. His version will use grilled venison loin, pickled fruit and a vegetable ketchup.

“All the flavours are there, it’s just like a bit more finesse, a bit more plating more techniques into it,” Poirier said.

That experimentation from more than 25 years in the kitchen, said Chef Poirier, is how he’s come to create the dishes that earned him one of Canada’s few Michelin stars. St. Lawrence is one of only 22 restaurants in the nation to have stars in 2023.

“When I cook, it’s not always like we get it the first time. it’s not like that,” he said.

“It’s mistake after mistake and finally, we get there after the third time or the fourth time. And then as I go, those flavours kind of get engraved in my brain, so like it becomes a little bit easier.”

He said that he was excited to come to Calgary to promote both the flavours of Vancouver and Quebec, and French cuisine.

“It’s very humbling and I’m so happy to be here. All those dinners that I do throughout the year, they’re always amazing to get a bit of out of Vancouver and promote what we do at the restaurant in a different city.”

Donald House, Managing Director for Culinary Marketing Strategies, said that he was excited to have Chef Sanderson come to Calgary, following his win in Top Chef Canada.

“He’s never been here, and he’s excited to see the culinary team, and make new friends,” House said.

“So I think that it’s important the culture of the city to not only celebrate and promote what we have but bring in some new blood and exchange ideas, create new friendships.”

Chef Sanderson will be working with Fortuna’s Row Executive Chef Mikko Tamarra to put on a multi-course brunch.

Experience helps restaurants and diners

Knorr said that the YYC Food and Drink Experience has been months in the making. The last time the festival was held was in February 2020, prior to the start of the pandemic.

She said that the festival this year was made possible by the work and funding put into getting restaurants on board from the Calgary Downtown Association, Calgary Tourism, and Travel Alberta.

House said that the festival comes at a time when there is increased interest in dining.

"We definitely are seeing a huge resurgence pre-pandemic to people want to get out. They'll do long tables, in-group dining, and stand-up receptions—we haven't done that in years," he said.

"These are some of the first collaborations that chefs have done, you know, post pandemic."

House said that there has been a transformational shift in the fine dining experience as well. Gone are the white tablecloths, stodgy service, and old-fashioned menus.

"Even the top restaurants are much more accessible. Major Tom [Restaurant] upstairs makes a killer burger, and I think that one of the things is that to celebrate culinary it doesn't have to be formal or super-crazy expensive," he said.

"Here at Barbarella [Bar], you're going to have a pizza and a crudo in a beautiful room, top quality product. I think being more accessible and being less formal, and just be more celebratory."

For a complete list of the 70 participating restaurants in YYC Food and Drink Experience 2023, see foodanddrinkexp.com/calgary/restaurants.