March 13, 2018
Category: DT Advantage Spring 2018
A New Way to Dine
Since opening last spring the Alder Room - Edmonton’s only tasting menu restaurant - and its wunderkind chef Ben Staley have been the talk of the town. Critics’ reviews have been mixed. Some label it as pricey and pretentious. Others say it’s an ambitious, inspired, take on modern dining. enRoute travel magazine even listed it as one of Canada`s top ten new restaurants. Katherine Hoy dropped by The Alder Room to check things out.
It’s two o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon, and Ben Staley is four hours into his typical 16-hour work day at the Alder Room. The 25 year old, self-taught chef is busy working behind the bar prepping for tonight`s diners who will pay between $85 to $160 to experience the 17 items on his tasting menu. Before he joins me for a chat, he stops to pull three golden brown ducks from the oven and lets them rest.
Staley may be young. But he’s focussed and serious when he talks about food. He describes his food philosophy as “always changing. Right now it’s ingredient focussed. Simple, but not simple,” he says. “There’s lot more on the back end than you would think.”
This less-is-more philosophy is reflected in the room itself. It`s long and spare with one window facing Jasper Avenue. The décor is minimal – Scandinavia meets Japan. The sofas and chairs in the front lounge are black and sleek. The only real adornment on the walls is the dozens of jars of colourful handmade preserves behind the bar.
Most of the food is sourced locally when possible. And just about everything is homemade. “There are some outside products that make their way on the menu” Staley says, “but most of the yogurt, pickles, and flavoured oils are made in the restaurant.”
Staley’s been working in restaurants since age 11. His first job was a busser at Red Lobster where he was quickly promoted to expediter (the person who coordinates the bills and the servers). “They didn’t like taking orders from a squeaky voiced 11 year old,“ he chuckles.
He has no formal training. Cooking isn`t in his DNA. He grew up in Millwoods in what he calls “a normal, low-income family with four kids, eating a lot of Hamburger Helper and fish sticks.” Staley credits his father for his strong work ethic.
So when did he decide he wanted to be a chef? He says the moment came while working at Joey’s, when he entered its
competition for top apprentices. “I was the youngest person in the competition by 10 years”, he says, “and the only person without the Red Seal (chef certification). I managed to place 4th in the entire company. That was when I thought, I can do this. I just went for it.”
After Red Lobster and Joey’s, Staley worked at several popular eateries including the Blue Pear, and North 53 where he developed a reputation as an imaginative chef. The Alder Room dining experience is unlike most other restaurants. There are no private tables. Diners are seated communally at the bar. Dinners are ticketed, meaning you buy in advance. Staley says that gets the money out of the way.
“The money is the worst part of any meal,” he says. “You can just focus on what you’re here for.” Tips are included. And he adds that 100% of any additional gratuities go to their chosen charity.
You can have dinner at 7:30 which includes 17-20 selections, or take in the shorter, less expensive Matinee at 5pm. Prices range from $85 to $160 per person. It sounds pricey. But Staley insists it’s not, considering the number of servings and the quality of the ingredients.
Items on the menu can change daily or weekly. Every selection is a thoughtful combination of flavours. Each dish is beautifully plated, and surprisingly filling. You won’t go hungry here.
My first dish - Roasted Beets with Pickled Blueberries and Hay Cream - is the perfect mix of sweet, tangy, and creaminess. Next up is Raw Scallop with Green Strawberry and Homemade Yogurt. Raw fish is not my thing. But the rich, velvety yogurt is to die for!
My final dish is Butternut Squash Three Ways - served as a chip, custard, and ice cream. There’s nothing to say except “wow!” The ice cream is luscious, smooth, and creamy, with a deep caramel flavour. I tell Staley it might be the best ice cream I’ve had. “I like ice cream,” he says. “It might be my destiny to open an ice cream shop.”
Staley’s growing reputation got an even bigger boost last spring, when enRoute, Air Canada’s in-flight magazine listed the Alder Room among the nation’s best new restaurants. “That was very gratifying. A huge surprise. We weren’t even open two weeks when they came here. We want them to know,” he says with a laugh “that we are a far better restaurant now than we were then.”
This kind of dining isn’t for everyone. Despite mostly positive reviews a few critics have yet to be won over. But this restaurant has struck a chord with adventurous diners, and with monied millennials willing to pay for unique experiences.
It’s so popular Staley says weekends are sold out for the next month, which he admits is a bit of a surprise.
“I literally wrote in our business plan that our first year would be slow because we’re the first restaurant in Edmonton to offer a tasting menu, which to me is kind of crazy because it’s 2018. But there’s a group of people who want it, and they’ve been incredibly supportive.”