Flavours of Alberta

October 23 2017

Hailing from the farms of St. Stephen, New Brunswick, Chef David Omar cooked his way across Canada, eventually settling in Edmonton, Alberta as the Executive Chef of Zinc Restaurant.

With a culinary motto of simple elegance and an emphasis on building relationships with his fruitful suppliers, Chef Omar’s passion for implementing fresh, locally grown-produce continues to inspire diners and farmers alike.

We recently had a chat with Chef Omar to take a closer look into the world of Alberta-grown goods along with the inspiration and challenges behind sticking to such a refreshing, flavourful concept.

Zinc Restaurant has been recognized globally as a restaurant that focuses on a lot of fresh Alberta ingredients fused with local artisan food products. Describe your inspiration for this style of food program.

The inspiration really comes from my childhood. Growing up in New Brunswick on a small farm, we raised cows, pigs, chickens while also hunting, fishing, growing our apple orchard and wild berry crops. We also had a massive garden, which I hated weeding at the time, but looking back now, it was all an awesome experience, a picturesque, beautiful childhood.

Back then, we didn't have a lot of processed foods. We picked our fruit, peeled them and would make then jar our own apple sauce. Harvest season, we'd go through and pick everything, freezing, pickling or blending them into a puree. It was just a matter of using all of the products we had on the farm.

Now, being a chef, that's the kind of experience I'd like to give to my customers instead of using the processed foods available. Right now, we're in the process of using fall strawberries, these are a little less sweet so we're freezing them down to make jams with later on.

With your dishes being comprised primarily of local products, what is your process for sourcing the highest quality and most flavourful ingredients?

The process has been years in the making but is basic and simple; it comes down to relationships and knowing my suppliers. We even take all of our staff out to our farms and suppliers on these nice tours. We actually just recently got back from the Urban Gardens, they're a big produce supplier for us. They went through with us all of the soil conditions, irrigations and all of their processes so that the staff understand how, for example, they're getting our onions and how they're not just onions, they came from this particular hill and the hard times taken getting the water up to grow them. This is why they're not as big as the ones you might see in a store but you do get a bit more sweetness to them.

Everything is about the people who come into your life, making relationships and having that trust. I trust them when they say, "this is what's happening in the field" and then I have no food questions whatsoever.

For my seafood, being landlocked in Alberta, it's the same thing. I sit down with my suppliers and ask questions like "where does it come from?" "how is it caught?" "how are they being sourced from the water then to me?" Knowing the life of that animal is really important to me because I would much rather use a small line-caught fish than something a large commercial ship dragged a net for, catching whatever they could get.

What are the biggest flavour challenges you’ve experienced with only sourcing local ingredients?

For example, years ago, we had beautiful onions you could eat like an apple. I raved about them. The following year, the conditions were nowhere near what they were before, making the onions smaller, more bitter and less sweet. Mother Nature hadn't given us the sun, dryness or rain when we needed them to produce that same great product. So, with these more bitter onions, we were adding apples for that sweeter flavour.

Using Alberta products is definitely my focus but you have to understand that it changes year to year, it's not a manufactured food like we had in the 50's and 60's when we’re looking for convenience and consistency. That's not what food is though, it changes and evolves, it's always moving. This is why it's good to have an understanding from your suppliers and being aware of the weather, from the blistering sun to the more miserable summer seasons.

Describe the most unique ingredients you’ve sourced locally and how you’ve incorporated them onto your menu?

This year, during a fundraiser called Art on the Block, we partnered with Strathcona Distillery and they were making gin. Adam the distiller comes along, talking to me about his ingredients like the botanicals, herbs and berries, and he told me about this berry called Sea Buckthorn, or Seaberry. This is known as the citrus of the prairie and it's one of the tartest berries I've ever put in my mouth. It's a very vibrant orange berry but it is so sour and we have been integrating it into a vinaigrette along with our lemons and limes for that citrus tinge.

Now that the fall season is upon us, which new ingredients can we expect making their way to the centre-of-the-plate?

Yes, I've just started using Brant Lake Wagyu Beef and have these beef petite tenders. They're a beautiful little cut of meat we'll be serving with brown butter potatoes and roasted beets.