Recap: #MeetInTheMiddle

Early in the new year I received an email invitation to take part in the inaugural Meet In the Middle event, scheduled to take place near Olds, Alberta on Agriculture Day in Canada (February 16). Along with the promise of a five course meal and bus transportation from Edmonton or Calgary, this was the pitch:

“We’re bringing together 150 of the up-and-comings, the established, the industry leaders, the fifth generations and the never-set-foot-on-a-farm to talk about food over a five course meal. Each course is prepared by a different local chef and features food grown in Alberta, paired with a craft beverage from a local brewery or distillery. What better way to celebrate Canada’s Agriculture Day than bringing consumers, producers and industry leaders together – all at the same table!”

The event was organized by A Seat at Our Table, an initiative launched by ATB Financial with partners the Alberta Culinary Tourism Alliance, Tourism Calgary, Edmonton Tourism, and the Alberta Motor Association. I decided to accept the invite, and found myself on a bus to the Willow Lane Barn that afternoon with a dozen or so other Edmontonians.

#MeetInTheMiddle

I was relieved to know that I wasn’t the only one uncertain about how the evening would unfold. The organizers had sent an online survey in advance of the event (the results of which were to be shared with the event partners and provincial crop and livestock organizations) but few details about what to expect. It’s too bad I hadn’t discovered this article before the event! Evidently we were all to be millenials.

We were greeted with Village Brewery’s Blonde ale. Nothing like a little beer to get the conversation going! At some point an announcement was made that a coffee roasting demo was going to take place before dinner. I think Calgary Heritage Roasting Co‘s story is pretty interesting, but I was not expecting that. You get 150 Albertans together, on an Albertan farm, and you show them…coffee? Odd. I skipped the demo and snuck inside to check out the barn.

#MeetInTheMiddle

As you can see, Willow Lane Barn is a beautiful venue. Despite the fact that it is on a real farm, the barn building we were in was expressly built for events (especially weddings). Very Instagram-friendly. The organizers and kitchen staff were very busy preparing hors d’oeuvres and pouring drinks.

#MeetInTheMiddle

The namecards at each place setting were a nice touch and I was happy to see we were seated with people from all over the province. Throughout the dinner some people played musical chairs, a somewhat successful attempt to facilitate networking.

#MeetInTheMiddle

The food was delicious, though somewhat mysterious. There were no menu cards at the table, and while the emcee (Global Calgary’s Amber Schinkel) did speak to the chefs throughout the evening, it was more about their stories than the dishes. I realized part way through that each course flashed up on the screen momentarily, but I think this aspect of the dinner could certainly have been improved. I managed to convince one of the volunteers to send me a PDF of the menu.

#MeetInTheMiddle

I was happy to know only a handful of people in attendance, and I really did have some great conversations over dinner and on the bus ride down and back. I met a pulse farmer, an electrician, a brewer, a physician, a maker of skin care products, a fruit rescuer, a fashion designer, and a rancher, to name just a few. It was a really diverse mix of Albertans.

Willow Lane Barn

I couldn’t resist sneaking outside once or twice during the dinner to take in the sunset. It makes sense that you’d want to hold an event like Meet in the Middle on a farm, but it’s a shame that we didn’t get to see more of it while we were there.

#MeetInTheMiddle

The chefs for the evening included: Samath Rajapaksa from Rajapaksa Catering, Marie Willier from WinSport Canada, Jesse Woodland from Chartier, Rieley Kay from Cilanto and Chive, and Danielle Job from The Pink Chef. Great stuff from all!

#MeetInTheMiddle

Most people seemed to have a good time, but the evening was just too rushed to get much beyond introductions. As soon as the dessert course was served we were being reminded to get on the bus! We left Edmonton at 2:30pm and got back at 9:30pm, but the actual dinner was basically 5-7:30pm. Especially for the folks who travelled from even farther in the province, it’s hard to see how that was a good use of time.

I understand the intent of the event was to get a mix of young Albertans together over dinner and to encourage conversations that might not otherwise take place. The food and drinks were fantastic, the conversations were great, and overall I had a good time. It was certainly a great idea to get everyone together from across the province around a single dinner table, but I think the event could have had a much bigger impact with fewer attendees and less travel. I’d certainly be open to attending future events organized by A Seat at Our Table, but would hope for a more intimate, close-to-home affair.

Thanks for the opportunity to attend!

Highlights from the 2015 Grand Taste Tour

Last weekend I accompanied Sharon on the 2015 Grand Taste Tour, “an interactive educational experience” hosted by Taste Alberta and the 124 Grand Market. As Sharon is a Gastropost adviser, we were fortunate to attend as guests of Taste Alberta. I know she’ll be posting a more complete write-up soon, but for now I wanted to share some highlights.

2015 Grand Taste Tour
The Taste Alberta crew, photo by Linda

There were two variants to the tour: the bee tour which stopped at Wolf Willow Honey and the dairy tour which visited Breveliet Dairy. Both tours also got to see Tofield Meat Packers and Irvings Farm Fresh. As we had toured Bles Wold Dairy in the past, we decided to go with the bee tour.

It was neat to see the bees and hives and to taste the different variants of honey but overall I was a bit underwhelmed. I would have appreciated some more information and guidance during the tasting, for one thing. That said, Doug Chalmers was an encyclopedia of information and it was great learning from him how the bees do their thing! You can buy Wolf Willow Honey at Duchess Provisions.

Wolf Willow Honey
Sharon tasting the honey

Wolf Willow Honey
Bees!

Wolf Willow Honey
Doug Chalmers teaching us about bees

Our next stop was Tofield Packers. It’s a relatively small facility but is the one that Irvings Farm Fresh uses. I definitely enjoyed the opportunity to see the processing part of the process. We walked through and saw where the animals are led in, one-by-one, to the kill floor. Next was the aging rooms where the carcasses were hanging, followed by the freezers and the smoker.

Tofield Meat Packers
Tofield Packers

Tofield Meat Packers
Cattle and pigs

Tofield Meat Packers
It was about -25 C in this room!

Sharon and I have been buying Irvings Farm Fresh products for years now and have always wanted to visit the farm. When the Grand Taste Tour came up it seemed like the perfect opportunity to finally do so! The berkshire pigs looked just as happy as we imagined they would, with lots of space and mud to enjoy.

Irvings Farm Fresh
Berkshire pigs

Irvings Farm Fresh
Happy pigs in the mud

Irvings Farm Fresh
Alan and Sharon

In between touring the farm and lunch we had a butchery demo from Elyse Chatterton. She’s incredibly engaging and did a masterful job of showing us a variety of pork cuts in just a few minutes, even explaining the difference in how things are done in England and here in Canada.

Irvings Farm Fresh
Elyse showing us how it’s done

Irvings Farm Fresh
She had a very captive audience

The “lunch” at the end of the day was unreal. Prepared by Daniel Costa and his Corso 32/Bar Bricco team, it was more like a full dinner complete with eight dishes! A meal like that would have easily cost as much as the ticket to attend the entire tour, so it absolutely made the Grand Taste Tour feel like a good deal.

2015 Grand Taste Tour
The most amazing spring pea & mint with crostini

2015 Grand Taste Tour
We couldn’t get enough of the delicious risotto

2015 Grand Taste Tour
Kirsta with the chefs

It was a great day. Awesome job Kirsta and the rest of the 124 Grand Market team!

2015 Grand Taste Tour
The group that worked so hard to make the day happen

You can check out more photos from the tour here and keep an eye on Sharon’s blog for her write-up!