John Jackson & Connie DeSousa are well-known pioneers in Calgary’s culinary scene. The two met in 1999 when Connie was apprenticing under John at the now defunct Owl’s Nest lounge in Calgary. After that, John and Connie found themselves cooking around the world, from opening the St. Regis Hotel in San Francisco to working in Jean-Georges Vongirichten’s Michelin-starred restaurants. During that time, they began to conceptualize opening their own restaurant together, and in 2010, CHARCUT became a reality.
In just under three years, the restaurant and the chefs have received many accolades, including #6 in Enroute magazine’s Best New Restaurants of 2010, Calgary Best New Restaurant of 2010 in Where magazine, #3 in Avenue magazine’s Best Restaurants 2012, a top 3 finish for Connie in the inaugural season of Top Chef Canada and being named in the Top 40 Foodies Under 40 in Western Living magazine and Top 40 Under 40 in Avenue magazine.
Of course, John and Connie’s reach extends beyond the restaurant – aside from being asked to cook for visiting celebrities and moonlight at special events, Alley Burger grew from $5 burgers served at random times in the back alley of their restaurant to a full-fledged food truck. Last year’s CharPOP was a great success, introducing many Calgarians to beef heart steak and crispy pig ears. John and Connie were in the midst of organizing their latest event, CharPOPluck when they took a few minutes to answer some of our questions.
Calgary is Awesome: The two of you have worked together around the world. What made you decide to start CHARCUT in Calgary?
Connie DeSousa: When we were concepting CHARCUT we concepted it in San Francisco before moving back to Calgary and we were thinking of a whole bunch of different places to open our restaurant, like New York, San Francisco, Vancouver… The destination for our restaurant would always change because we couldn’t really decide on where we wanted to open it; of course with chef’s egos, we always wanted to do it in a big city.
John Jackson: But we always knew we wanted to do it together.
CD: Right. We had the concept, we had all of our roles in the company, and we were at a breaking point because we didn’t know where to open. [...] Somehow Calgary came into that mix because I’m born-and-raised Calgarian and John and Carrie [Jackson, John's wife, who takes care of operations at CHARCUT] had worked here for 10 years prior to working abroad. My husband [Jean-François Beeroo, who is Service Director at CHARCUT] had never worked here but had been here many times to visit. At the time, it was during the recession and we knew we could probably negotiate really well in Calgary, and we kind of knew the demographic because we lived here for so many years but had been gone for five years, and we had a lot of family and friend support in Calgary. Calgary was sort of getting up there with the San Francisco and New York, but we still couldn’t agree on where to do it. We had this meeting, we each wrote the name of the city we wanted on a piece of paper and put it into a hat, and John started drawing out the names. The first one he pulled out was “Calgary”, and he’s like, “Well, this is mine; it doesn’t really count.” The second one he pulled out was “Calgary”, and the third and the fourth, so it was funny because we all really wanted Calgary, but all didn’t want to say. So that’s how we decided to open up the restaurant here.
C.I.A.: CHARCUT is very much a family affair – in addition to your spouses being part-owners of CHARCUT, I’ve seen Connie’s parents work the Alley Burger truck, etc. What’s that dynamic like compared to restaurants you’ve worked in in the past?
JJ: We look at it like Connie and I are like brother and sister. I think that when we first started looking at opening up a restaurant, it was just a natural instinct for us both to say that we would do it together, and that we would be equals and co-chefs.
CD: Because John was my [superior] for so many years, that was a big transition for us.
JJ: But it wasn’t that big, it was a big title transition, but it was pretty seamless and I think that was something that we knew was going to work. If we’re going to be able to execute the vision of CHARCUT that we had, [...] not just opening a restaurant but also helping be a part of growing culture in a city that we loved, that was full of our family and friends, and being somebody with something to contribute. We needed more. We needed more of us to be able to collaborate, to be able to share ideas. We saw it as a natural fit. For this formula there needs to be two of us, because one person can’t execute it the way that we want to execute it.
C.I.A.: Many people know CHARCUT and Connie through her appearance on Top Chef. What was that experience like for the two of you?
CD: It was hard. I went to do the show in the first six months, so it was hard on everyone. It was hard on the restaurant and on John, Carrie and Jean-François to have one of our key members being gone. But it was also a huge relief for me to be able to do something like that knowing that my partners were back at our restaurant every day, living and breathing it, making sure that it survives in that first six months, because that’s such a crucial period in the restaurant world.
Going to do the show was terrifying; not only are you in a competition, but you’re putting yourself out there for all of Canada to see, and you have no idea what’s going to happen. We’re kept sequestered from the rest of the world and every day we woke up we had no idea what we were doing, we’re bussed to these random locations every morning and they would tell us only minutes before what we were going to be doing, so your body was constantly running on adrenaline and I was exhausted by the end of it.
People always say CHARCUT is big because of our TV presence but that really has nothing to do with it; by the time the show actually aired, CHARCUT had been open for over a year and we were fortunate to have already gained so many accolades during that time.
JJ: It was like it just continued pushing the momentum, and I contribute it to doing it like our lives depended on it, and it does. We’re passionate about it, but we also want what we’re passionate about to be successful. That translates into the food that we make and into the environment that we create. We are excited about the energy of the space and we get very excited when we see all the guests that are in the dining room, and they all have smiles on their faces, sharing food, breaking bread – I think that also contributes to the energy of the space.
C.I.A.: We’ve definitely seen a lot of “extensions” of the CHARCUT brand, like Alley Burger and last year’s CHARPOP…
JJ: That’s another extension of what I was saying before, being able to contribute to a different tier of food culture that never existed before, and that’s accessibility of quality and something a little bit more spontaneous, last-minute. It grew into that – at first we thought about doing something that had to be affordable. Restaurants have a lot of costs associated with it – you have to be able to pay for the tables and chairs, the power, the rent, and you obviously see that transferred into the cost. We’re very value-driven at CHARCUT, so we thought, how can we do this to promote a different tier? That’s why we came up with the $5 Alley Burgers, and it was really to promote a different level of culture in our city and something interesting that we thought we could also contribute to. [...] It grew from five people to 10 people to 350 people and at that point we thought, “OK, we gotta close this down because this is too much,” but we didn’t want to lose that momentum; we didn’t want to lose that original intent. So Connie and I decided to start taking a day off, and on that third Sunday off, we must’ve got bored or something because we sat down together and thought, “What could we do with Alley Burger?” It seemed like a natural progression for something that had random times and limited quantities, we’d just add random locations – and that’s how the food truck idea came into the mix.
There was no food truck culture at the time; I mean, Pimento’s was there – he’s the original food truck – but he only did events. So I DM’ed the mayor, and it was really good timing because there were some other interested individuals at the same time, like the guys at Taste/Perogy Boyz, Los Compadres…
CD: And Fries and Dolls.
JJ: And this was all happening at the exact same time, and we’re all secretly approaching the mayor and trying to find how permits work, and finally they saw something that had potential. This was a small business sector that never even existed before. Now, there are 30, 40 trucks and add how many jobs, maybe 3-5 per truck, that are really contributing to the economy. [...] Again, it just started with that idea of adding and contributing, and others have it too, and together we can do something special. It’s not about one entity, it’s not about CHARCUT, it’s about grouping together chefs. How can we create a story that’s interesting enough to get recognized as a destination; how do we do things together to be able to have a voice for people to be able to say, “They’re doing something exciting; let’s check it out.”
C.I.A.: Tell me about the upcoming CharPOPluck.
JJ: We’ve been very fortunate that [CHARCUT]‘s been non-stop busy, it’s always full, and we wanted to regroup this year and say, “We’ve done the community things where we’re involved with other chefs and all these things; how can we give back a little bit more?” So we thought, let’s tie in a cause that’s important to us and Calgary Food Bank seemed to be the perfect partner for that, and it also seemed like the right time of the year. So all profits [for CharPOPluck] are going to the Calgary Food Bank and thanks to a lot of our partners, we have all these people who have partnered with us to help in ensuring that we do have some profit at the end of it and that we’re able to contribute something to the Calgary Food Bank.
This is more of a “next level” collaboration – we wanted to do something even bigger, something even more recognized, something even grander than some of the collaborations we’ve done before, so we’ve invited everyone. We may have missed a few, so we’ve opened it up – even on our mailout and our website, it’s open for anyone else that wants to be a part of it, and we’ll add to the list, we’ll grow this, for sure. We see this as something that we want to continue to do, annually, even, but again, CHARCUT is not necessarily about putting CHARCUT on the map, but putting our city and our culinary scene on the map as a Canadian destination.
C.I.A.: We already talked a lot about the Calgary food scene and chef community and contributing to that, but overall, what do you think makes Calgary awesome?
JJ: That’s a great question. I think this is what makes Calgary awesome – it’s the collaboration. You don’t find this everywhere. When we go to Toronto or Vancouver, and they’re like, “You guys do a lot of stuff together, eh? You’re really collaborative.” You can sense this, like, I would say jealousy is too strong of a word but… you know what word I’m looking for, right?
[Someone else in the room suggests "envy"]
JJ: Yeah, but not too strong, like a slight envy of how close we are as a community and really, for me, our close culinary community is what makes us awesome. For locals and people visiting, we play an important role. We’re feeding them. We’re creating exciting atmospheres. We’re showcasing ingredients and what our city has to offer. I think our culinary scene is something that’s really important for our city and it’s pretty cool that it is the way it is, and you look at all these great restaurants that are opening up that are really local, chef-driven. [...] These are people who are passionate about food and passionate about growing our community and that’s something that’s unique to our city. It’s not everywhere.
CD: What’s so awesome about what John is speaking to is that we’ve been able to do it so quickly; Calgary is so young, and I think it’s just been the past five or six years that we’ve catapulted ourselves.
JJ: There are always those fantastic restaurants that existed that really were the pioneers. Rouge, River Café, they were the real pioneers [in popularizing local food in Calgary]. It was all about growing that; there were so few, now there are so many. Now we have strength. Now we have influence. Now we have the ability to do a lot of amazing things because there is such a great group of people.
CharPOPluck is happening Saturday, January 26 at the Calgary Farmers’ Market from 7-9 PM, with an after-party at Panorama Ranch from 10 PM-1 AM. Only 100 tickets available for $135 (and expected to sell out in the next day or so). For more information or to buy tickets, visit www.charpop.com.