Monday, October 27, 2008

Word nerds enjoy myth-breaking, merry-making

It was a week of pithy remarks and eloquently posed questions. The Banff-Calgary International Writers Festival, also called WordFest, took place at venues spanning both cities this month. Guests included three of the five shortlisted nominees for this year’s Giller Prize; Joseph Boyden, Rawi Hage, and Marina Endicott. Other best-selllers in attendance were Austin Clarke, Nino Ricci, Bill Gaston, Richard Wagamese, Sheree Fitch, Donna Morrissey, Deborah Ellis, and Ronald Wright, as well as the powerhouse behind Random House, Anne Collins.

Festival-goers uniformly shed their usual conservative business attire in favour of an upscale but casual (and even slightly nautical) look, as if taking their lead from Wordfest opener John Ralston Saul whose navy blazer, baby blue socks and double-buckle shoes sent spirited ripples of approval through his sold-out audience. However, looks can be deceiving, as authors in one panel discovered after several failed attempts at light-hearted political humour.

“Give Stephen Harper a book and he’ll use it to prop up the legs of his table,” writer Jaspreet Singh couldn’t resist joking during a panel discussion. The small audience was silent.

The Vertigo Theatre was Saul’s first stop on a national tour to promote his new book, A Fair Country: Telling Truths about Canada. The book aims to unmask the cultural assumptions underlying Canadian life, and expose a dangerously out-of-touch and elite strata of decision-makers.

Having spent a few years in Calgary, first as a young student, then later as policy advisor to Maurice Strong (founder of Petro-Canada), Saul had no hesitation weighing in on Alberta’s unique place within Canada. Of course, he had no invitation to do so, either.

“No-one has asked me about the economy yet!” he gasped, during the question and answer period following his lecture, “Well, I’ll talk about it anyway, just briefly. Canada, and Alberta, is about to be faced with the juggernaut of Europe and the United States who will see the oil sands as the enemy. This is a precarious economy, built primarily on raw goods which cannot sustain their value or quantity. And the myth that Ottawa is the enemy … is leaving this province dangerously exposed to a crises that has been brewing for some time. You have not had a sensible premiere since Peter Lougheed.”

Later in the festival, another literary heavyweight bestowed words of wisdom on politics of different kind. Anne Collins, publisher and vice president of Random House Canada, gave insight into the sometimes tumultuous relationship between editors and writers. The panel discussion included her latest protégé, Andrew Davidson. His first novel, The Gargoyle, garnered an advance of 1.2 million dollars and ignited a global bidding war for the international rights. That spectacular story had aspiring writers on the edge of their modern deco seats in the Art Gallery of Calgary, where the talk took place.

A final event under the WordFest banner takes place on October 27, when Bill Richardson will discuss his new book at the John Dutton Theatre.

Published in National Post, October 25 2008

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Foodies fork over the dough for Canada’s top chef

Calgary dinner supports child nutrition,
culinary competitor

Prior to the heart-pounding, life-altering, career-rocketing event that is the Bocuse d’Or international culinary competition in Lyon, Canada’s top chefs face a different challenge: cooking for kids. The landmark Fairmount Palliser Hotel in Calgary was the scene for this years Chefs for Canada, Chefs for Kids fundraising dinner. Tickets were $200 each and sold out well before the event. Proceeds will help fund Breakfast for Learning, a program that provides children with the essential nutrients they require to play and learn actively, and to support Canada’s Chef David Wong at the Bocuse d’Or in January.

“Don’t you think Canada has the best chef in the entire world? We deserve to win this!” declared a charming and vivacious Sharma Christie, the event’s volunteer fundraising chair, “I don’t care what the economic times are! Give generously.”

Passions (for food) were running high. Banquet tables lined the inside of Fairmount’s Crystal Ballroom, where teams from various restaurants prepared tastings. As the opening remarks finished and mingling guests finally took their seats, high profile executive chefs were placing final sprigs of parsley and drops of jus on mini plates. A jazz quartet began to play and Vincent Parkinson, Chef de Mission for Bocuse d’Or Canada, invited guests to wander from station to station, returning to their own table with sample plates to compare and critique.

Autumn flavours and competing textures were prominent in most dishes. An elegant plate of oxtail confit with braised brussel sprouts, savory roast pumpkin strudel and chanterelle foam was delivered by sous-chef Steven Lepine of the Calgary Golf and Country Club. Executive chef of The Petroleum Club, Liana Robberecht, offered a unique éclair-style dish made from puffy sweet pastry stuffed with organic duck confit, and topped with savory whipped cream. The dish was paired with club smoked duck on arugula greens. On the other side of the grand room was executive chef Hayato Okamitso of Catch restaurant, with a mouthwatering lobster maki roll in mango puree and ginger miso braised beef short rib.

Guests included fashion designers Brenda Rozdeba and Barb Gudowsky, Nick Noronha and Tom Short of Rare Method, Kevin Angus of Pegasus Gas, Kenneth Hayes of Grand Banks Energy Corp, Laurids Skaarup, president of Moxies Classic Grill, Fong Seto of the Confrérie de la Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, business pundit David Parker (formerly of Calgary Economic Development), artist Paul Van Ginkel, socialite philanthropists Sherrold and Pat Moore, executive chef of Muse restaurant Cam Dobranski, and Terry Gibson, senior vice president and portfolio manager for BMO Nesbitt Burns.

A live auction proceeded the dinner, with Paul Van Ginkel’s painting of an iconic prairie scene entitled “Chuck Wagon Cuisine”, and a seven night all inclusive stay at the Fairmount Acapulco fetching the largest bids.

Published in the National Post, October 11 2008.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

A Starry Starry Night in Calgary

With fire balls whipping around her head and torso, flames licking her red sequined bodysuit, a Cirque Phoenix performer earned rapt attention from a black-tie audience at the Calgary Hyatt Regency last Friday night. The impressive display, one of several by the acrobatic team, was a welcome respite from the distressing cause that brought 350 guests together for the Starry Starry Night Gala and Auction this past weekend: type 1 juvenile diabetes.

The sixth annual gala to support the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF) attracted guests from every corner of the country, and the corporate landscape. Tables of ten were purchased for a donation of $2100 each, with major banks, law firms, and telecommunications companies nabbing many of them.

“This is a city that really gives back,” said marketing consultant Kelly Moi. She was accompanied by Gerry Albert, partner at property and commercial law firm Masuch Albert LLP. During the live auction portion of the gala, Mr. Albert won the right to name a star in the sky for a donation of $2600; a prize donated by the Societe Betelgeuse Ltee.

Megan Davidson, the chief operating officer of JDRF, flew in from Toronto specifically for the event. She was seated with Harold P. Milavsky, chairman of Quantico Capital Co. and an individual donor of ten years, and Bryan Haynes, partner at Bennett Jones LLP, one of the major corporate sponsors of the event. Senior vice president of TD Canada Trust Prairies Region Ron McInnis and his wife Carol Lee McInnis, both originally from PEI, attended the plush affair, as well as Telus director of product marketing Rob Tasker and his wife, Lee Tasker.

Making waves were Bob and Betty Schulz, a building contractor and owner of Commitments Lingerie respectively, who bid competitively on half the items in the silent auction and won the largest item at the live auction: a return trip to Vancouver for a salmon fishing excursion and two-night stay at the Hyatt Regency.

Guests were treated to a glittering emcee in local television personality Nirmala Naidoo, a rousing country-style performance from Las Vegas singers Mollie and Jackie, a delectable three-course meal with free-flowing wine , and a dynamic performance from Cirque Phoenix (west-coast based former members of Cirque du Soleil). Between each course and performance, bids were collected on the silent auction items and stories were told by those whose lives have been touched by juvenile diabetes. On each table was a card with a number, the story of a young life struggling with the disease, and a startling fact about juvenile diabetes. So despite the wonderful hospitality, food, and entertainment, no one could forget what they had paid for – a cure.

Published in the National Post, October 4 2008