An Anatomy of YYC Burger Week

YYC Burger Week, the little event that could. Founded by Sabahat Naureen (First Founder), myself as @calgarydreamer (co-founder) and Chris Karaplis, the mysterious promo shy man in the shadows, we were all former Montrealers who had found our home, and our hearts here in Calgary. But as much as we did, it didn’t seem to be enough to simply just be here. We had to help, but just didn’t know how.

The YYC Burger Week Logo

The YYC Burger Week Logo

In 2012, while on a routine visit to Montreal, Sabahat had visited Montreal, and partaken in their own Burger event. It was an in-house event, dedicated to simply self-promotion of the restaurants with a competition aspect. However, as I understand it, there was no charity aspect. With that, a light bulb went off in her head, and she came back wondering about how to make this event come into fruition in Calgary. Finding that no one else was even thinking of a similar idea, she started to put out little feelers here and there to assemble a team to organize the event. Seeing a kindred spirit, and a burger lover myself, I was the first volunteer right away.

I’ve known Sabahat and Chris for almost a year by then. Sabahat and I were members of the Yelp Elite, assembled by our friend and current world traveler Wendy Peters, and Chris had attended as Sab’s date often.  I had no idea who the heck was the people I would meet at the first meeting, and was shocked to find out that it was them. That January 2013, the work began. We managed to assemble 16 restaurants and parlay what strengths we had into a city wide festival. Sabahat was always stronger in terms of openness and self-promotion, but I was the one who had the restaurant connections, and usually preferred to be the overall support as well. More importantly, I had a good working relationship with the chefs which we all ran with. Chris, ever hiding in the background and preferring anonymity, designed the back end with the initial website and voting system.

The Competitors

The Competitors

We hemmed and hawed, Sabahat ever being the most ambitious one (I believed we needed months to prepare… we actually managed to get 95% of the work done in WEEKS). We all agreed, there was no way on earth we were going to promote a chain like McDonald’s and the like, and wanted to highlight the local talent and the best that Alberta agriculture had to offer. We designed a system of 16 restaurants being voted in by the public and hoped that by making the voting a little annoying (needing a unique email per vote) that it would reduce the cheating. We contacted 8 local charities (it would have been 9 as we almost signed up 18 restaurants, but we just couldn’t wait any longer for their legals).

The 2013 Nainalicious Winning Burger

The 2013 Nainalicious Winning Burger

Despite that, we were still pretty new at this sort of game. Understandably, some restaurants had considered us to be questionable as it was the inaugural year. Some were just too busy, although even now we would LOVE to see them enter and we would gladly invite them again and again. But then there were the one or two who were actually pretty insulting. I’ve heard some rumors that a few thought they weren’t invited because I disliked them personally. Nope, if anything, there were simply too many restaurants that we sent invites in 2 waves, with a 3rd had it been necessary. Once the initial 16 spots were full, it was done. But then again, that’s the name of the game really.

The competition started, and it wasn’t without a few hiccups, but with such fantastic people as Anju’s Roy Oh (missing you this year), downtownfood’s Darren Maclean, Notable’s Michael Noble and more, it came across as a triumph. Still there were a few more problems, but it was a great week.

In the end? We raised over $6300 in a week of burger frenzy. We were a bit too ambitious in terms of charitable givings as we had tried to promote EIGHT charities at once. To try to spread the funds evenly, we partnered them with 2 restaurants each, one that we considered a heavyweight to every newbie, but it didn’t work entirely the way we wanted. Still, everyone got a lot of promo, and we had cemented ourselves as part of Calgary history, even if just for a brief blip in time. More importantly, a great story came about as little Naina’s Kitchen, the smallest and the least known of all 16 places, came out the 2013 Champion. Looking at owner Erin’s face was worth it all, and we couldn’t have been more pleased.

This year, it was much easier, but far more ambitious. We asked over 50 restaurants to join, but put in a caveat that it was a first come first serve basis. Originally we were shooting for 20, with only 2 categories in the $10 and $15, but as the names came in, we soon found that would be impossible. We ended up selecting 30 competitors, and learned from the previous year to ensure a great selection for our participants by adding the $20 category. Again, we also dared the chefs to come up with something unique, something special. It had bothered us a little that in Year One, many of the restaurants simply put up an existing burger on their menu up for the challenge. But this year? They REALLY stepped up, with so many imaginative takes on burgers made of elk, bannock, cranberries, sprouts, hemp, lobster, pork, beef of all sorts and cuts, foie gras, ramen, bao, mac n’ cheese, pepper steak, ahi tuna and more. It always surprises me by the creative energy of our chefs, and how wonderful it is to be a part of that scene in our small way. And to help promote such creativity, we created the Burger Ambassadors, comprised of some of the best food writer, personalities and bloggers in Calgary. They’ve done a great job, and their comments have help the diners choose their preferences.

Blowfish Sushi Lounge's Ramen Burger

Blowfish Sushi Lounge’s Ramen Burger

We also started looking for funding again, since we thought that it might not be as hard as last year, but was surprised that it was actually even harder as our contacts for many organizations had changed, and had to re-justify ourselves. More so, while YYC Burger Week came about, so did literally dozens of other new food festivals, and we ended up having to compete ourselves in a much bigger forum.

But as a wise man once said… the universe will listen. Things will work out somehow.

It did. We still worked on everything, and refused to compromise on our principals to promote Alberta restaurants, talent and produce. I wager that if we were willing to do so, funding would probably would have been a lot easier, but then, what would have been the point? We are CALGARY STRONG. It’s our home, and we wanted dearly to be at the heart of it all. More importantly, we found ourselves ever more in love with our city, and found inspiration in the people that united for those shining moments after the Floods. There would be NO compromise.

The team also expanded this year, with great new members joining in. Wanda Baker, noted food blogger of Baker’s Beans, came in with her knowledge and experience, and insight on how to approach matters while ensuring that the t’s were crossed and the i’s were dotted. Trevor Gibbons, our surprise Unofficial Judge in the Bacon Suit in 2013, also leaped in, and brought in a new energy and great ideas to promote our festival. More members with unique strengths still joined in, and now we number 11 strong. It’s a great team, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

With those skills, connections and energy, and the excited inclusion of ATB Agriculture, we found our little festival now stood toe to toe with some of the best festivals in the city. To date as I write this, there has been literally THOUSANDS of tweets, and who knows how many people out there roaming the city, discovering new and old restaurants for the first time, and personally challenging themselves to try all THIRTY burgers (for those who are doing so, I recommend our next festival YYC Soup and Salad Week…). We’ve been in tv, radio, print, and online all over the city. The restaurants are being lauded, tried out and challenged creatively in a fun and unusual way. And at the heart of it all, the 3 charities chosen this year will greatly benefit from the exposure and the funds.

So that’s really that for now. YYC Burger Week is almost at it’s 1/2 way point, and we’re seeing such an incredible energy through the city as people run into the restaurants with their passports. We love it. I love it.

To Calgary, from the 3 founders and the 8 new committee members, this is our labour of love, and our gift to the city. And we can’t wait until 2015.

Bon Appetit. And don’t forget to stamp your passport and VOTE by RATING your favorite burgers!

My (Left) Flank Steak, as inspired by Alberta politics

I’m a political junkie, and I’m proud of it.  I’m a small c conservative who loves the banter, the arguments, the manipulations and the games played in the seats of power.  I always followed the Canadian and the American political scene intensely with glee and utter fascination.

But admittedly, I never did follow Alberta politics until the last election when Ralph Klein left, making one of the most interesting contests ever in recent memory.  Just like every other Albertan, I was engrossed with the personalities involved, such as PC Leader (now Premier) Alison Redford, the energetic if political neophyte Danielle Smith, the ever determined Raj Sherman of the Liberals, and the one who piqued my interest despite a losing cause, Brian Mason of the NDP.

When considering that the NDP probably will be elected in Alberta maybe sometime in my great grandchildren’s lifetime (when oil has turned to god knows what), I have to admit that Brian Mason, has been doing an especially good job campaigning and fighting in the opposition for someone who is representing a party that is perpetually perceived as an underdog.

When he spoke, he came across as knowledgeable, feisty, a little hot tempered, and forceful to me, all good qualities for a leader.  I do applaud his work and, last year, before the election vote, I was inspired to make a dish based on what I saw in him for my Kingsland Farmer’s Market blog in 2012.

I asked among my friends for their take on him.  Fortunately for me, quite a few of those friends are as equally passionate about food as they are about politics.  With that in mind, I took a small poll.  First and foremost, I needed some sort of protein to represent Mr. Mason.  I automatically disqualified chicken, turkey and lamb.  Chicken and turkey definitely didn’t suit Mr. Mason’s style and was too much a bad joke as well.  Pork?  Nope, Mr. Mason was not piggish whatsoever.  And then, my left-leaning foodie friend Tracey metaphysically slapped me across the head with a spiritual trout, and reminded me that only Canadian, particularly Alberta BEEF will do (hey take a look at their site for some awesome ideas!

Ok, that was that, but then what?  Was there a particular cut that would be right?  He just didn’t strike me as a Prime Rib kinda guy.  Ribs was a possibility, because as the leader of the 4th place party, I’m sure he had to have taken some political punches to the chest.  But   then it struck me, only FLANK steak will do.  Tough on the outside (before cooked of course), yet when treated well, becomes tender as well.  And in strategic terms, I like the notion that a leader, who debates from the left, maybe even the left FLANK (?), would be well represented.

Ok, now the cut was chosen.  How to pick the rest…. and with memories of the hot, passionate debates of the late NDP leader Jack Layton and the party colours, I decided that the orange Habanero pepper would be perfect.  But, I can’t have it TOO hot, or else I would roast those who would dare this recipe alive.  And with that, and also to complement the orange Habanero with the something sweet that would proudly show the NDP colours, roasted Orange bell peppers.  Perfect… and without further ado… may I introduce to you all, and to Mr. Brian Mason, honorable leader of the Alberta NDP, my homage dish to him.  The Brian Mason Hot Left-Flank Steak with a Grilled Orange Pepper Mix and White Rice.  To all of you Lefties, Righties, and hopefully the fun people at the will get a chance to enjoy it!

What you would need:

Serves about 3-4, takes about 12 min or so to prep, but at least 9 hours to prepare.

  • 3 cloves garlic
  • ¼  red onion, chopped
  • 1 lime, juice
  • 1 SMALL habanero chili pepper and dice it as best you can
  • 1 tbls fresh thyme leaves
  • ½ cup diced cilantro leaves
  • 1 tbls honey
  • ½ olive oil (I prefer extra-virgin)
  • 1 ¼ pounds flank steak (Hoven Meats have a wonderful flank steak btw, hint hint)
  • Salt and pepper to taste

The night before, grab the Flank steak, and with a hammer or heavy flat object (I use my heavy iron frying pan, “Mr. Softee” personally because the larger surface can get all of the meat evenly) and pound it a few times on both sides.  Don’t do it TOO many times, because you just want to tenderize the meat, not break it apart, not unlike a coalition government.

Add the garlic, onion, lime juice, jalapeno, thyme, cilantro, oil, and honey and blend it in a bowl or a blender until everything is well mixed together, just like the left wing of the opposition.

Marinate the flank steak with 1/2 of the puree in a resealable plastic bag at least 9-10 in the refrigerator. Reserve the rest of the puree to use later as a sauce.  This MUST be done.  Not only will the meat absorb the flavor, but most importantly, the marinate will tenderize the steak even more.  Here’s some great tips on how to grill a marinated steak from Canadian Beef!

When ready to cook, take the steak out onto a plate, and let it rest an hour before serving.

Preheat a grill to a medium fire and cut the orange bell peppers into slices.

Just before you’re about to toss the steak into the fire, add some sea salt, and normally cook the flank to medium-rare.  I find that cooking this cut to well-done will pretty much turn the flank steak into a well marinated piece of leather.   A rule of thumb?  4 minutes per side is about right.  Add the bell peppers as well on the side (or wherever on your grill that you have enough space)

Let the meat rest for a few min just to let the juices flow.  Grill the peppers until it starts to char a little.  This will release the natural sugars in the peppers, and make them sweeter than just plain ol’ peppers.

Once all the blood has stopped, start to slice the steak against the grain into 1/8 to 1/4 inch slices, and brush or pour the remaining marinade over the meat.