Written by Laura Bridgman fro CLUBLIFE Magazine. Connie DeSousa photographed by Kevin Yee.
The global food scene is moving away from high-end fine dining and trending toward a back-to-basics approach. Tiny droplets of sauce and towers of vegetables are being replaced with big cuts of meat, fresh crusty bread, and family-style plates accompanied with good beer or wine. One person introducing this style of cuisine to Alberta is Connie DeSousa, chef and owner of Charcut Roast House in downtown Calgary.
The home-grown Calgarian has been able to experience the world thanks to her ambitious career – obtaining a Le Cordon Bleu Paris Certificate, competing at the world Culinary Olympics in Germany, and opening the Mobil 5-Star St. Regis hotel in San Francisco, to just name a few. Most recently, DeSousa received nation-wide fame as one of the finalists on the first season of Food Network Canada’s “Top Chef Canada”, where she was able to showcase her talent and represent Alberta.
When DeSousa, co-chef John Jackson and their respective spouses, Jean Francois Beeroo and Carrie Jackson, opened Charcut in 2010 their focus was to evolve simple, local ingredients.
“You know what’s in season by visiting your local farmers market. Whatever is abundant is what’s growing, and that’s how we plan our menu,” said DeSousa.
“When I think of summer one of the first things that comes to mind is berries, especially strawberries. There is nothing like eating a strawberry right off the plant when it is warm and juicy. When most people think of strawberries they have that white centre, and that’s an underripe strawberry. They are supposed to be really sweet and red when you bite into them, with juice running down your chin.
“Watermelon is another one of my favourite summer ingredients; I like to eat it sprinkled with a little bit of sea salt and it goes really well with fresh basil, which is a great summer herb.”
The chefs wanted to know their farmers and producers on a first-name basis, and know exactly where each product came from and how it was grown or raised. They wanted their ingredients to come from the field and go straight to the fork. After visiting 40 farms in 40 days, the team handpicked their desired suppliers.
“We live in a great province that produces an unbelievable product. Our beef is world renowned; our pork is hormone-free, antibiotic-free, and pasture raised; our chickens are phenomenal; fish is harder since we are landlocked but we source from local lakes,” said DeSousa. “Our growing season is a little short in Alberta, but we found asparagus growing just outside of Calgary and artichokes up by Innisfail.”
This isn’t special treatment for chefs and restaurant owners, most farms love to showcase their product and have visitors to their land. These relationships can also be built at the market by talking to individual farmers. You will be able to get an idea of what produce will be ready soon, and can even request specific cuts, have meat ground, or even turned into sausages. A good butcher can be your best friend and introduce you to cuts that you wouldn’t normally try.
“Something that we’re really interested in preparing now is beef heart. People get a little squeamish when they hear about organ meats and offal cuts, but heart is really interesting,” said DeSousa. “Yes, it is an organ in the body, but the heart is a muscle and it has such a different density and complex flavour to it. The texture of heart is similar to eating a New York strip streak. If you put heart and strip steak side by side, grilled and marinated the exact same way, most people wouldn’t know the difference.”
When it comes to meat, DeSousa stresses the importance of naturally and humanely raised, hormone and antibiotic-free animals.
“I always go back to pork since a few years ago there was this slogan ‘the other white meat’. Factory farmed pigs that have been raised in a confined environment and fed things like powders and bleach will produce light-coloured meat, while a cut of pork from a naturally raised pig will look almost like beef.
“We get our pork from Spragg’s in Rosemary, Alberta. Their pigs run around in the pasture and in the winter the farmer builds these igloos, that he calls pigloos, so the pigs can keep warm. As for our beef, it is from Spring Creek in Vegreville, just outside of Edmonton.”
DeSousa’s eyes sparkle and her passion for food is evident, but how can that translate to someone whose definition of cooking is takeout on china dinnerware?
“There are simple ways to get into the kitchen, and I think it starts with meeting the producers and shopping locally and seasonally,” said DeSousa. “It all goes back to getting really good ingredients. If you have that, you don’t need to do much to make it taste great.”
Even her description of simple food leaves this at-home chef salivating and eager to get into the kitchen.
“If you have a perfectly ripe tomato, top it with salt, pepper and some olive oil and pair it with buffalo mozzarella. For meat, drizzle it with nice olive oil before you grill it on the barbeque, and it will taste great. Accompany both with some greens and you have a fantastic meal.”
Using the best ingredients available also keeps a menu healthier. DeSousa adds, “You don’t have to manipulate a product too much or add a whole lot of high-cholesterol or high-fat ingredients for it to taste good.”
With a life that revolves around food, it can be challenging for a chef to stay fit. DeSousa is thankful that fitness has always been part of her life.
“I studied ballet for 12 years before wanting to be a chef; it was a huge part of my life and I still take a ballet class every Saturday morning. I go to the gym, and I love running, especially outside in the summertime and fall.
“I’m in the restaurant a good 12-15 hours a day, so I’m on my feet running around, but at the same time I’m constantly tasting the food we’re making. I love what John and I make, but I think everything in moderation is the key to being healthy.”