Rihanna is blasting over the speakers as a crowd gathers in front of the stage where a butcher breaks down a 200-pound Duroc heritage pig into chops, bellies, and loins. The Cascade Ballroom in the Banff Springs Hotel has seen its share of parties over the years, but animal butchery on the dance floor is new.
I’m attending Cochon 555, a hip culinary competition that matches five chefs with five heritage-breed pigs and five sommeliers to see who can make the most out of the porcine bounty. Cochon started a decade ago, with the humble goal of making people more aware of the variety of heritage-breed pigs farmers are raising. Today, dozens of cities around the US have hosted the prestigious event, but this is the first time it has ever been held in Canada — and the choice of Banff was a bit of a surprise to some.
Banff, of course, has a lot going for it: beautiful mountains, great skiing, abundant wildlife, but food was never really a draw — until recently.
Scott Hergott is the newly installed chef at Sky Bistro, the steel-and-glass viewfinder at the top of the Banff Gondola. His menu of Alberta-sourced dishes — bison tartar, twice-baked pork belly, and duck wings glazed with local honey — proves that a distinct food scene is developing.
“Things have really started to improve in the past five years,” Hergott says. “You’ve got places like Park [Banff’s first craft distillery] in what used to be a Hard Rock Café.” Today, Banff’s new local flavour is found in the smoked, air-dried buffalo at Deer Lodge, in the King Cole farms rabbit with haskap berry chutney at the Juniper Hotel Bistro, and in the smoked s’mores at Park. The city’s proximity to British Columbia means that wine lists are their own strong showcase of what the region has to offer.
For another rich taste of Alberta, head to Chuck’s Steak House, on Main Street, where the menu includes a map of the province that flags its top suppliers: the 65-year-old Mackay’s Ice Cream, the 130-year-old, family-owned Wine Glass Ranch, and Brant Lake Ranch, the source of the restaurant’s wagyu beef.
Chuck’s is overseen by chef Shelley Robinson, who for years owned and ran the renowned Baker Creek Bistro, off a side road between Banff and Jasper. The restaurant was celebrated, but a bit ahead of its time. “I left in 2012 after seven years of slogging it out,” Robinson admits, “But I came back this year because people who come here now are coming from other countries, seeking a real taste of the place, and that’s a big deal. Owners and operators are starting to hear that message: let’s give them what we do, and be proud of it.”