Since coming onto the scene in 2004, Culina has been enjoying a love affair with the city and people of Edmonton; nothing comes from nothing, though, and borne of a real need to remind ourselves of who we are and where we came from, we enlisted the storytelling genii of Edmonton’s own Story Engine.
With a simple and clear vision that “people aren’t born to understand strategic planning, marketing, or branding—people are born to understand story,” journalists Shawn Ohler and Todd Babiak plumbed our history and distilled it into some beautiful prose, printed below in its entirety:
Mamma Rosa restaurant has inspired many things: business schemes, ill-advised vinaigrettes back at home, marriage proposals, hangovers, severe crushes on attractive servers, cheese overdose and… one of Canada’s great chefs.
Brad Lazarenko found two jobs when his parents moved the family from Edmonton to British Columbia. During the day he delivered garage doors. And at night he worked in an Italian restaurant. The day job was miserable, and he was still a teenager — prone to all the usual teenage misery.
But at night, it was different.
He loved going to the restaurant at night — everything about it. He loved the smell of the food and the sounds in the kitchen, the festival atmosphere in the dining room, the music, the cute servers. Most of all, he liked what the food and the wine did to the patrons. At Mamma Rosa, Brad was in the business of making people happy.
The owner noticed Brad’s enthusiasm and his intelligence; soon, Brad was pseudo-managing the place and learning every job. But his favourite job was in the kitchen.
Like all good people who venture westward, Brad returned to Alberta and stayed in the business of making people happy. He stayed in the kitchen. In Edmonton he worked at Boston Pizza, harkening back to Mamma Rosa. Then, from the creativity void of a national chain to Boccalino.
Brad ended up at Packrat Louie, in Old Strathcona, where he thrived — and learned how to run a place. The model for a successful independent restaurant is very simple: find good but cheap food, cook it well and dress it up elegantly. Serve it in a pleasant location and charge a pile for it.
There’s a kind of sorcery about all this.
Brad was initially attracted to the restaurant industry because it changed people’s lives in small and impermanent ways: it made them happy, if only for a night. A restaurant is a refuge from our routines, a way to reward ourselves, to make eye contact after a busy day in front of a computer or a welder, to find comfort and hopefully something unconventional as well: a dish we’ve never tried before, the nightly special, a glass of wine you can’t find at the liquor store on the corner.
We fall in love with a restaurant when this magic is repeatable. It’s a one-night adventure that turns into a relationship.
Brad started to develop a philosophy. If food is the basis of so much romance and passion and even city-building, it can’t just be decorative.
Food is not just food.
Diners come for the food yet food is where almost every restaurant compromises. It’s one of the only costs a restauranteur can control. A great chef, which Brad had become, can make anything delicious.
Massive food suppliers, based thousands of kilometres away from Edmonton, are massive for a reason. Cheap finds cheap. But where does that leave the city? What is creativity, if it’s built on a factory model of food production and distribution?
Brad was content at Packrat Louie, but he had always been an independent spirit. He wanted to build his own menu, his own business. And, eventually, he wanted to find a way to explore these burgeoning ideas about food in Edmonton.
Ed Donzelmann weaved in and out of Packrat Louie in the 1990s, as a Big Rock representative. He understood Brad’s talent and energy, and he was also looking for an entrepreneurial adventure — a new way to make people happy.
There was something missing on Whyte Avenue, which had transformed from a charming but grungy arts district to a district of boom-boom nightclubs in a few short years. Maybe Brad and Ed could build it.
The Inciting Incident
Savoy opened with the new century. There was, suddenly, on the corner of Whyte Avenue and Calgary Trail, a place for Edmontonians who weren’t entirely comfortable in top-40 nightclubs, neighbourhood pubs or indie-rock brewhouses. It was designed by an actual designer, Jesse Sherburne, the servers were welcoming and gorgeous and hilarious, the drinks were sophisticated without being pretentious, the music was marvelous and the food was… what the hell was this food?
In Edmonton, if you chose to order food at a bar in 1999, you were in for chicken wings, a hamburger, or a salad that impugned the word salad. The food at Savoy was imaginative and delicious — and affordable. As much as we liked the atmosphere in the room, we wanted the lights turned on from time to time to get a better look at the plate.
One of the dishes, steak over risotto with chocolate sauce, created a crowd of Savoy-obsessives. Soon, this bar was also somehow one of the city’s best restaurants.
If there was a flaw in Savoy, it was almost too wonderful to be a bar on Whyte Avenue in the early 2000s. As it became more and more popular, the early-adopters were soon displaced by a different crowd altogether. It wasn’t the sort of place to have a brawny doorman but soon it felt like the sort of place that required a brawny doorman.
Like Whyte Avenue itself, Savoy’s success was difficult to manage.
In 2004, a clearer distillation of Savoy’s intentions arrived in Mill Creek: Culina. The formula was creative — exotic — comfort food. The steak over risotto with chocolate sauce was still on the menu, along with five or six other main courses that made it difficult to choose what had become, at Savoy, an Edmonton classic.
This was a risk. At the time, upper 99th Street was not a destination. Culina was, unlike Packrat Louie, a small room. If the neighbourhood didn’t support Culina in its first few months it would be in trouble.
The neighbourhood did support it, giddily, and so did the newspapers. Soon, if you hadn’t eaten at Culina and you lived in Edmonton you carried it like a terrible illness.
It wasn’t just a good restaurant. It embodied and represented the city. At first this seemed a mystery: Edmonton’s sense of humour, its humble sophistication, its quiet ambition lived in Culina.
There were plenty of good restaurants in the city in 2004, like Hardware Grill and Jack’s Grill, but none of them seemed as planted in Edmonton as Culina. For the shameless lovers of Edmonton, this was a place we could take visitors from Toronto or Montreal or Chicago to help them understand why we live here.
Brad and his fellow-cooks, his front-of-house staff were not performing or faking anything. They weren’t trying to be any other restaurant in any other city. The secret of the restaurant’s success was in its honesty and authenticity.
The loan to open the restaurant: paid off in a few months.
If success is difficult to manage, how should we manage it?
Culina expanded out of Edmonton, into Brad’s second province of British Columbia: the Okanagan and the Kootenays.
The restaurant also activated a network of creators in the Edmonton area. More than expansion, this was an evocation of Brad’s philosophy. There is a way to make money in the restaurant business and support a community of artisans and growers at the same time.
Culina did away with the multinational food conglomerates and found suppliers in and around Edmonton.
The staff visited the farms. They helped pick weeds at Sparrow Nest Organics, one of its vegetable suppliers. Stars of the farmers’ market played a role in Culina. The house dressing is made with Alberta canola and flax oils and Manitoba hemp oil; it’s pressed in Redwater by Sean and Emily of Mighty Trio organics.
They found small meat suppliers in Alberta like Spring Creek Ranch, Tangle Ridge Farm in Thorsby, and the Lacombe Heritage Breed pork growers. They collaborated with Sangudo Custom Meat Packers and chose to use only Canadian lake fish like whitefish from Slave Lake and walleye from Manitoba.
The coffee and tea at Culina are roasted and blended in Edmonton, by Cally on Whyte Avenue. The ice cream is mixed and frozen in Edmonton.
Brad preferred to tell the Culina story through the restaurant’s suppliers. Staff entered this story-within-a-story when they started working at the restaurant, and rarely left. Culina wasn’t a restaurant group so much as a family. Culina was and remains a site of mentorship and inspiration for other young chefs, restauranteurs, artisans, and entrepreneurs in Edmonton.
But how did they all talk about Culina? How could they put this place into words, and use those words to divine a strategy for growth and evolution? Local, organic, free-range, ethical… all of these words were in the process of Wal-Martification. When Ed Donzelmann rejoined the family, he wondered about the future for the restaurant — the brand.
Expansion into British Columbia could continue. Culina Highlands, a part of the Culina Family, could be a model: take Culina, a small restaurant that negotiates neighbourhood bistro and fine dining in an honest way, and expand into other quarters of the city — and eventually into Calgary, Vancouver, Winnipeg.
Institutions, like restaurants, can only find savings through food costs and through labour. This is why governments, universities and other large employers tend to sign contracts with multinational food service and supply corporations. This is why children in schools, sick people in hospitals, and workers in cafeterias eat miserable salty soup from gigantic cans, frozen pre-made pizza, and assembly-line sandwiches for lunch.
The Muttart Conservatory, in the middle of the North Saskatchewan River Valley, is one of the city’s icons. Its renovation would allow for a café near the entrance. The easy solution was to sign up one of the global cafeteria outfits. But there was another option.
If Edmonton is to succeed as a city, and an idea, it has to be something we can taste, smell, feel, remember. The Muttart Conservatory is a giant greenhouse. Why not grow vegetables in the river valley and serve it in the café? This wouldn’t work with a global corporation, which has protocols to follow, but it might work with a restaurant that sought out local food.
Culina Muttart seems obvious now.
“I could have opened a bunch of high-end restaurants,” says Brad. “But what do I really want to do? I want to serve good, healthy food to as many people as possible.”
Good, healthy food. And a way for a city with an identity problem to look, feel, and taste like itself.
This strategy works in a well-loved conservatory and tourist attraction. What about other institutions?
There was always a cafeteria in the police station: a sad and unimaginative place, like most cafeterias, pre-packaged. The “don’t worry, we’ll take care of everything” approach to institutional food service.
But the city was so pleased with Culina Muttart they were keen to look at Culina Cantina. The food was a little bit more expensive than it would be if Aramark were to run it, but it was also healthier and tastier. The cafeteria itself was suddenly bright and welcoming, a place to spend time — on purpose.
And, like every other Culina property, every dollar a constable spends in the cantina stays in Edmonton and Alberta. It helps build and strengthen that network of suppliers and artisans.
The argument makes beautiful sense, to everyone. Why should one of the most important buildings in the province, the legislature, have a bland and grumpy cafeteria that has smelled like a heated can of Chef Boyardee since 1974?
Culina could and should highlight Alberta creativity and Alberta farmers. It feels revolutionary, to imagine Culina in schools and hospitals and municipal golf courses and recreation centres, but at the same time it makes perfect and elegant economic, social, and cultural sense.
Allison Landin, from Sparrow’s Nest Organics, has joined Culina. She talks about how most restaurants in Edmonton would order a bit of kale from the farm, maybe a few tomatoes, making delivery a money-losing venture.
“Brad would phone and say, ‘Bring us everything you have.’”
Culina is the sort of restaurant where the chefs will know just what to do with “everything” Sparrow’s Nest Organics has in a week. The three best weeks of the year, for Culina staff, are when the little strawberries come in from Sparrow’s Nest.
The Whole Animal Program does the same for meat. Instead of choosing the prime cuts like every other restaurant, Culina decided to minimize waste and maximize taste. By collaborating with farmers and remarkable success stories like Sangudo Custom Butchers, Culina is reviving beautiful traditions and making food an adventure for chefs and for diners.
For people in Mill Creek who want a glass of wine and a good conversation, it doesn’t get any better than Bibo. When the 99th Street construction was making it difficult to serve lunch, a rather typical Culina customer — Allene Hackelman — cried.
“If I was really really good at cooking and running a restaurant,” she says, “Culina is the place I’d open and that food is what I’d make.”
Edmonton is a bottom-up city with a bottom-up aesthetic. It’s not bizarre that the North American Fringe theatre festival was invented here. Artist: meet your curious and courageous audience.
Brad is a self-taught artist and this spirit — an Edmonton spirit — pervades Culina. It’s in the people the restaurant has attracted, as staff and as loyal customers.
Culina has an artistic air without being pretentious. It’s self-conscious but not self-righteous. It’s homey and earthy, professional without being stiff.
The Family has been an incubator for a certain kind of cook in Edmonton: thoughtful, curious, creative, talented but humble. And, most importantly, still in Edmonton.
Culina people are people smart and ambitious enough to leave Edmonton and succeed in Vancouver, Toronto and New York. But they stay here, to build something. They have a feeling for Edmonton and they’re making and celebrating it, in the restaurant and at Muttart and the police station, preserving and pushing it along.
We want to build a community that changes how we cook and eat. Everything is from around here. Not because it’s trendy or because we abandoned our original vocations as preachers. We do it because locally grown food is fresher, it tastes better, and because our suppliers and partners are our neighbours — and yours. You should see these farms.
You know how some rooms try to be perfect, or perfectly contemporary, with the starched whites and the leaning servers with their clasped hands? That’s not Culina. We’re a bit haphazard, in a charming way. Unpretentious, relaxed, a little sly, really cool design, like an amazing craft fair. Have you heard of the Royal Bison? You should go there, too. That’s where we found the woman who made this bowl.
When you walk in the door, you’ll notice something about the staff, immediately. They seem like owners, like they’re part of something … bigger. And the food! It’s a sort of ethnic comfort food, twists on dishes you already love, with African and Indian and European flavours, which makes all kinds of sense in a diverse place like Edmonton, a place of perogies and Canada’s first mosque, a place of open minds.
Culina IS Edmonton, on a plate, in a glass, in the people who create a kind of magic every day and night for food lovers in this town. To understand our city, we think you need to spend some time with us.