Calgary·Food and the City

Breaking bread with Chris Picek of the Grain Exchange

Calgary Eyeopener food guide Julie Van Rosendaal talks to chef Chris Picek who helped launch Alberta’s first worker-owned, co-operative bakery called the Grain Exchange.
Chef Chris Picek and a couple of like-minded friends started the Grain Exchange, Alberta’s first worker-owned, co-operative bakery. (Julie Van Rosendaal)
After spending years cooking in some of the best kitchens in Calgary, chef Chris Picek needed a break.

Most recently the executive chef at Borgo, he was previously the executive chef at Il Sogno, and even spent three years at Capo back when it opened.

Chris Picek wants to bring back to Calgarians "the craft traditions of small-batch, handmade pastries and naturally leavened breads, as well as sourdough ingredient-forward pizza." (Julie Van Rosendaal)

Born and raised in Inuvik, in the Northwest Territories, Picek came to Calgary to go to university but it didn't take.

"There was a lot of culture shock involved, moving from a small arctic town to a big city," he said.

Having worked in restaurant kitchens, Picek was soon lured by the culinary arts program at SAIT, connected by a chef friend back home in the N.W.T. who warned him not to screw it up.

"It turned out I was good at it, and I liked it," he said. "And that was it."

Picek says his upbringing in the N.W.T. hasn't affected his cooking style.

"Where I grew up, when I grew up — in the '80s — there was very little in the way of fresh anything," he said. "The vegetables were usually half rotten by the time it got there, and a lot of the stuff was canned or preserved or dried."

There was plenty of fishing and foraging, but although cooking was more vital to his parents' generation. Picek says he wasn't much of a cook until after he left home.

Alberta's 1st co-operative bakery

After leaving Borgo before it closed its doors, Picek needed time to decompress and decided with a couple of like-minded friends to open the Grain Exchange — Alberta's first worker-owned, co-operative bakery.

Currently testing the waters at various temporary locations around the cit this summer, such as the Inglewood Night Market, their goods are on offer biweekly through CSA bake shares with YYC Growers. (A share is $13 and includes one loaf of artisan bread and two to three smaller baked goods.)

"Co-operatives are something I've always been something I've been interested in, and in particular worker co-operatives."

He and co-founder Peter Driftmier used to volunteer at a co-operative public affairs radio station in Vancouver.

With similar ideologies and experience working together, they decided to launch their own co-op along with their third partner, Greg O'Neill, who worked as a professional co-op developer.

An old idea made new again

"It's nothing new. It's a very old idea, but it had fallen out of favour," Picek said of the model. "We knew they were making a resurgence in California, New York, Spain and other places, and that specifically there were a number of successful co-operative bakeries in and around San Francisco. So we kind of took a page out of that book as inspiration and a template and thought, maybe we could do this here."

Inspired by the Arizmendi Worker Co-operative bakeries in California, the Grain Exchange started by replicating the Cheese Board Collective in Berkeley.

"A co-operative in the general sense is an organization that is formed for its members," Picek said. "The members own it collectively and equally. The primary goal is to provide work for the members — stable and well-paying work, and the add-on to that is that we know that working in the food industry can be precarious and low paying. This is kind of a response to that."

Having already developed a small following for their artisanal baked goods (of note: their baby chocolate babka is made like everything else using locally grown organic wheat), the trio is working toward transitioning from a small pop-up operation to full retail location, preferably inner-city in a space people can walk to.

"There's been talk of turning it into a community space as well,...  maybe with concerts, meeting spaces. Just a place for people in the community to come hang out."

"Our goal is threefold," Picek said. "It's to bring back to Calgarians the craft traditions of small-batch, handmade pastries and naturally leavened breads as well as sourdough ingredient-forward pizza, to create rewarding, living-wage-or-better jobs for its members, and to pool resources toward developing more co-operative bakeries in Calgary." 

The response so far has been great, and so they've launched a crowdfunding campaign to help them through some initial hurdles. (The AB BoostR campaign runs until the end of July. You'll find more information on their website.)

"It's not like we're reinventing the wheel," Picek said. "We're just bringing a very old idea into a place where it hasn't really found its footing. And we hope it catches on."

About the Author

Julie Van Rosendaal

Calgary Eyeopener's food guide

Julie Van Rosendaal talks about food trends, recipes and cooking tips on the Calgary Eyeopener every Tuesday at 8:20 a.m. MT. The best-selling cookbook author is a contributing food editor for the Globe and Mail, and writes for other publications across Canada.

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