New Calgary Eyeopener restaurant reviewer ready to dig into eating experiences

Sabrina del Ben has taken up the job as the Calgary Eyeopener's restaurant reviewer, after 38-year-veteran reviewer John Gilchrist retired in June.

Sabrina del Ben is a Red Seal chef, teacher and lover of dinners — but don't feed her liver

Chef and teacher Sabrina del Ben is the Calgary Eyeopener's new restaurant reviewer, replacing John Gilchrist, who retired earlier this year. (Julie Van Rosendaal)

CBC listeners now have a new guide to Calgary's many restaurants.

Sabrina del Ben has taken on the job as the Calgary Eyeopener's restaurant reviewer, after 38-year-veteran reviewer John Gilchrist retired in June.

Del Ben gives her first radio review this Friday around 7:45 a.m. MT. On Tuesday, she joined the team on-air to introduce herself to listeners.

Del Ben is ready for the busy gig — her predecessor critiqued nearly 2,000 eateries over his career — and has years of experience to help her. As a Red Seal chef, she spent a decade in the Alberta restaurant industry before making her way into teaching and public education, including instructing culinary students at SAIT.

Now she's a culinary teacher with the Calgary Board of Education. She's also known among friends as the one to ask for dinner recommendations, which she proffers with honesty and humour.

Del Ben spoke with Calgary Eyeopener host David Gray about her plans as the show's new restaurant reviewer. Here's part of their conversation.

Q: Why did you want this gig?

A: I've been sitting and thinking about that. I think probably two reasons. One is, I'm always critiquing a restaurant when I'm eating it, as a chef. The other one really was purely selfish. This might get me out a little more and get me to see the restaurant scene a little more.

The No. 1 question I get from friends and people that I meet is where do you eat? So I thought, "Well, this might legitimatize it a little bit."

Q: Tell me a little bit about yourself. You're a professionally trained chef.

A: I am. I went to SAIT. I worked in the industry in Calgary for about 10 years and then I got a teaching degree and I teach culinary arts. I've taught at SAIT, I've taught for the school board.

Q: When you hear or read restaurant reviews, what do you like?

A: I like getting a little heads up on what I might expect. I'm always cognizant that I might not always agree with that review.

So I try to be a little bit open minded when I go to a restaurant but I always have that in the back of my head. But then I put it in a box and I try and experience it for myself.

Q: Most of us just go to restaurants. We're not dissecting the food. As a chef, do you dissect the food?

A: A lot of times I do, I do. I have expectations of particular restaurants, and there are some places I go, "well, this is a new restaurant" or "they're maybe not as formally trained as some chefs."

I try to put it in context and really just try and enjoy the meal. The fact is, somebody else is cooking for me.

Q: There's all kinds of restaurants in this town. There's the high-end places, there's the new places always opening up, there's the holes in the wall on every corner of this city. Which are you most interested in?

A: I like the high-end and the new, just for sometimes the novelty of what they bring to it, but for me when I'm going out, I kind of like the little hole in the wall.

I want that simple homestyle cooking from maybe a different culture. Not a lot of pressure on the whole dining experience. I just want to go and eat.

Q: People wonder what biases do you have. Do you have a particular favourite food or are you open to most experiences?

A: I am actually totally open to new experiences. I sometimes feel like I learn, especially when I go to a new place or to a new culture.

Last couple years I've been obsessed with Korean food, so I've tried to learn it through restaurants so that I can cook it at home sometimes. So it's kind of educational for me a lot of the time.

Q: Is there any food you simply won't eat? 

A: Liver. Well-made liver is OK, but that's off my list.

Q: What's the most memorable meal you've had?

A: I've truly been blessed to go around this world and have some great food. One of the best meals I ever had was at Catch Restaurant, which I know is no longer. Neil McCue was the chef there. Just exquisite.

Going out to Banff for a couple meals have been memorable, but I've had so many, I would be hard pressed to pick just one.

Q: I'm curious for you, what you'd like to see this position become for you? What do you want to do in this job?

A: I think some of it's just still percolating in my head. I'm hoping to help people have a good experience when they go out, maybe some pointers or maybe a different way of looking at a restaurant.

Sometimes people have a certain expectation and they might not have thought about, is it a new restaurant, is it understaffed that night, how much work does it take to put out the food, which is an incredible amount of work. To do it well and do it so you don't even notice it is an art.

Q: You're not beholden to anyone in this? There's not someone saying, "Well, that's a friend of hers so obviously giving her a great review?"

A: I've had friends who've owned restaurants and they'll ask me my opinion after I'm done eating and I'm honest. I think I can be kind with my critique.

As an owner myself, if I were, I would want to know if things weren't measuring up to my expectations of my employees, so you know there's a nice way to say things. This might not have worked, or yeah, keep it up.

Q: What are you going to review on Friday?

A: I went down south to a new restaurant. I was trying to find somewhere where John hadn't been so I could have a clean slate today.

I went to Han Maru, which is a new Korean restaurant in Midnapore. It's only been open a month and a bit, and he's cracking busy, so I'm hoping to enlighten people on what he's serving, and it was a good experience.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Hear more from Sabrina del Ben about her interest in food: 

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener.