Real, legit sourdough starters — those living jars of kitchen-foraged wild yeast bubbling away as they nosh on flour and water — are often referred to as "mothers".

The name could more aptly describe those who nurture and feed them, keeping them alive as they produce crisp-crusted, chewy-crumbed offspring.

Bakers who breed and keep their own sourdough starters — such as Jamie Harling, executive chef at Rouge for the past three years — tend to be overly devoted to them, timing their feedings and coddling them at just the right temperature.

Comparing bakers' notes

sourdough Jamie Harling

Jamie Harling's sourdough is one contribution to the ever evolving menu at Rouge, rated one of Calgary's best restaurants. (Julie Van Rosendaal)

Harling has spent his past year or so at Rouge, since visiting Tartine Bakery in San Francisco, on a quest for the perfect sourdough loaf.

"Iʼve always been interested in bread, but we never baked our own in any other kitchens I worked in," Harling said.

A chef friend gave him some tips, and the two began comparing notes — and photos of their starters in various stages — long distance. 

"Iʼd send him a text at two in the morning, and heʼd respond at four," Harling said.

The two sorted out issues of overfeeding and tweaked bakersʼ ratios until he began producing a consistent loaf, with feeding and storing worked into their near-daily baking schedule. 

All in the family

Jamie Harling cutting

Jamie Harling rose quickly in the ranks at Rouge; he climbed from kitchen staff to executive chef in six months. (Julie Van Rosendaal)

Growing up in Toronto, Harlingʼs grandparents were enthusiastic cooks, hosting big family meals at their house.

"My grandmother is the one who taught me etiquette and manners and all that stuff," Harling said.

"My grandfather did everything. He made sausage, he was a hunter, he kept bees. 

"They had a sailboat and weʼd spend most of our summers out on Georgian Bay, picking wild blueberries and fishing, so that had a huge influence on me. The more I cook, especially here, the more I see how much he has influenced me."

Every few months Harling would make sausage from scratch with his dad and grandfather. That recipe, tweaked slightly, is now on the menu at Rouge

Cooking became Harlingʼs part-time job while he earned a degree in sociology at the University of Guelph and attended George Brown College — for a year, anyway.

Coming to Calgary

Jamie Harling

Harling's love for food is inspired by his grandfather and the many summers they spent together picking wild fruit and fishing at Georgian Bay. (Julie van Rosendaal)

He left to move to Calgary four years ago, again following his older sister, chef Andrea Harling (previously of Brava Bistro, sheʼs now vice president and executive chef at Made Foods, a new concept offering healthy, local, seasonal prepared meals to go from three locations that opened this past fall).

"My plan was to come out here for a bit and make some money before going traveling and doing some stages (stage is a French term for a sort of internship, where a chef or cook works for free in another chefʼs kitchen in order to gain experience and learn new techniques and cuisines)," he said of his move.

He was the opening sous chef at Craft Beer Market, then traveled around Europe for six months before heading back to Toronto.

"I moved home for a weekend, but it didnʼt last," Harling said. "I was there for three days before I bought a plane ticket and came back to Calgary."

After working in a handful of Calgary kitchens, Harling was offered a job at Rouge three Decembers ago. By the following January he was sous chef, and took over as executive chef by June.

"It just kind of happened," he laughed. "It worked out well. Very well."

Sourdough is always in season

Harling has been a great fit for one of the cityʼs most iconic and well-respected restaurants, allowing chef and co-owner Paul Rogalski, whom most associate with the Cross House, to get Bistro Rouge, their more casual location, settled in Signal Hill. 

Harlingʼs sourdough is just one new contribution to the menu, which changes frequently.

"In Alberta, ingredients come in and out of season so quickly. You think something is going to be around for a few months, and itʼs there for two weeks, so we need to showcase it the best we can," Harling said.

"When asparagus is in season, we use it in everything, and then itʼs gone."

As for the sourdough, itʼs always in season - and now consistent enough to be part of the daily menu.

"Itʼs fun," Harling said.

"In the three years Iʼve been here itʼs probably the thing Iʼm most proud of. When we get it right, itʼs pretty fantastic."