Cam’s first taste of the industry was cooking at his uncle’s café. That experience led him to culinary school and then Edmonton’s seminal Hardware Grill, his first cooking gig after graduating. After learning what it really meant to ‘get your ass handed to you’, he moved to Switzerland to immerse himself in classical European cuisine. Today, Cam is chef/owner at Winebar, Brasserie and the new Container Bar all in Calgary’s Kensington neighborhood. He employs a modern approach to delivering fine dining quality in a casual environment. Whether butchering whole animals or grinding it out on the line, Cam prides himself on creating rustic dishes grounded in classical techniques with an indulgent, underground edge. As co-founder/owner of Medium Rare, he’s taking his edgy approach to food and applying it to chef gear.
So, you’ve built how many restaurants now?
I’ve been involved with four, including Muse, and going onto a fifth project now. I didn’t build Muse, but I built Winebar, AKA Winebar and Brasserie.
You closed AKA, which was across town, and Brasserie is just upstairs from Winebar. That’s pretty sweet. I wonder how chefs with multiple locations manage it.
Even a five-minute drive to another restaurant, that’s ridiculous. I don’t envy anyone who does it. I respect it, but fuck! I’m so happy that Winebar and Brasserie are right on top of each other.
What about guys like Mario Batali or Gordon Ramsey or Jamie Oliver, guys that have restaurants in 10 different countries?
I have no idea, do you? Obviously, you have to have a lot of backers and stuff like that, but I don’t want to be a corporation. I just want to be a little neighborhood kind of joint.
How many seats at Winebar, how many at Brasserie?
60 at Brasserie and 40-something at Winebar.
Are they two separate kitchens?
Two different kitchens, with two different philosophies and vibes. But we share people.
Do you really have to flip mindsets from one restaurant to the other?
A little bit because you’re really talking two different atmospheres and the food creates the atmosphere. One is a more rustic; one is a little bit more refined. The refined one I don’t want expensive. The clientele is different. You have to take that all into account. It’s nice to have two super contrasts. You’re attracting more people. Sometimes, one group is done at one (restaurant) then they move to other to check out what’s going on, have a nightcap. It captures a little extra cash that might have gone down the street.
You started out with Winebar. How did the space upstairs become available?
Winebar was originally a creperie; they got kicked out. And the space upstairs was kind of a failing interior design store. Just a big, open room. I don’t know if it was a good idea or a bad idea but we ended opening up Brasserie and three years later it’s a success. But I went through some battles, that’s for sure.
Did you work with designers on both spaces?
I did. But I had a lot of input. And that’s tough, trying to design a restaurant… to get the atmosphere right. You never know. The food and the kitchen, that’s the easy part. It’s creating the atmosphere, creating the buzz. My whole philosophy is I’m not fine dining anymore… I’m fine dining technique… but without the prices. I’d rather charge less money per plate and have my places busier.
There’s definitely a trend in this city to get away from white tablecloths. Is the more casual thing being customer-driven or chef-driven?
It’s customers for sure, but there’s also a bunch of chefs pushing it. I did the fine dining thing for 20 years and it doesn’t pay the bills. We’re just trying to be creative. Every guy is watching what the next guy is doing, but we were one of the first to try more casual stuff… inexpensive… and everybody saw how busy we were. I can’t say for sure we started the trend here, but we’re definitely a part of it.
Aside from wanting to make some money, what else made you want to ditch the tablecloths?
It’s a maturity thing for me now. I don’t need to rule the world. I just want to be happy. You finally wind up in your own little world, but it’s way more enjoyable to have people in your restaurant all the time, rather than just being a destination for birthdays and anniversaries… which is what fine dining is about a lot of times. For me it’s lost its glamour. I like going in every day, having a pint, and thinking about the food.
Do the two restaurants attract different clientele?
Chicks seem to dig us and we have a big female clientele. Winebar attacts a lot of women. I tell the guys it’s a hidden gem for single dudes. It’s 90% women. We cater to that. We make sure there’s lighter foods, you can have a snack, that’s what Winebar is all about. Brasserie I thought would be really male-driven, but we have large parties of women following us there, too. Guys as well, but I’m surprised how women have actually embraced it. It’s awesome.
Random segue here, what about the great ‘fois gras scandal’ you guys kicked off? Turns out some people have a real issue with fois gras.
In the end it ended being a ‘by chance’ marketing ploy that really worked out. We put fois gras on the menu and I started getting calls and emails, letters sent to me, handwritten. Nobody would ever leave a phone number.
If somebody bitches at me, I’m going to confront them, whether it’s on ‘yelp’ or whatever. I got fed up with it, so I posted it all on twitter. The person’s name and everything. And it went kind of viral. Local media. National.
It pisses me off when people tell you can’t run your business the way you want to. I try to accommodate, but… it’s like religion. You preach your religion to me… I don’t give a shit. I’ll tell you to fuck off. I cook my food. Same thing. You want to share your philosophy and your insight, then I’ll share mine. But don’t tell me what to do. I said if you want to come down and put hate signs on my windows, fine. I’ll call the media. It’s a great story. They love that kind of thing. It probably got us $50,000 worth of free advertising.
You still have fois on the menu?
Oh yea. And we sell lots. I mean I love vegetarians and I’ll accommodate them as best I can. But… coming to a brasserie that has duck fat in the fryer? If it’s slow I’ll do what I can, but on a busy Friday night and we’re in the weeds? I might say ‘fuck off’.
Do you think you’re seeing more of the special needs stuff… “oh, I’m gluten-sensitive,” or whatever?
I’m seeing more food allergies now than ever before. It’s like very day. Ten years ago? Nothing. I’m embracing the whole food allergy thing though, because the more you do accommodate, the better the publicity. I have no problem with celiacs, whatever. It’s our job. Most of our menu is gluten-free.
Anyway, I’m fine with it if brings people in the door. I’m not that dick anymore. I try to teach my cooks that. If somebody wants something, do it. It’s going to make the restaurant more money, they’ll make more tips and those customers will be back tomorrow. And they’ll tell 10 other gluten-free friends about it.
We’re in a service business. If people want something and I can do it, sure.
Except for taking fois gras off the menu?
Follow Cam on twitter @ChefCamD and @mediumrarechef. Come and have a drink at Calgary’s first and only “fully recycled alley patio, Container Bar, now open.