Calgary Zoo's culinary chops highlight sustainability and conservation

How the Calgary Zoo's cuisine has evolved from the days of movie theatre-style concessions to zoo-grown herb aioli and house-baked foccacia.

"We have to walk the talk. We can't greenwash,' says executive chef James Neilson

These pan-cooked filets of Kuterra salmon, which were sustainably land-raised by the 'Namgis First Nation of Alert Bay, B.C., are part of the menu at the Calgary Zoo. (Julie Van Rosendaal)

When most of us imagine grabbing a bite at the zoo, we conjure images of popcorn and candy floss, and tall soft serve cones that themselves are worth the visit. 

But on a recent sunny summer day, executive chef James Neilson and executive sous chef Krish Nair set up a table in the grass behind the conservatory at the Calgary Zoo to finish fresh fish with herbs and flowers plucked right on the grounds, demonstrating how far their cuisine has evolved from the days of movie theatre-style concessions.

From left: chefs James Neilson and Krish Nair head up the Calgary Zoo's seasonal offerings and develop menus for special zoo events. (Julie Van Rosendaal)

The Calgary Zoo's vision to be a leader in wildlife conservation and inspire action to sustain wildlife and wild places is reflected in their culinary program.

Nair, who was born and raised in southern India and studied cooking in Mumbai — his grandfather was a chef and restaurateur in Sri Lanka — quickly pan-cooks filets of Kuterra salmon, which were sustainably land-raised by the 'Namgis First Nation of Alert Bay, B.C.

(This spring, Krish took home the $10,000 prize by preparing salmon, among other mystery ingredient-inspired dishes, on Chopped Canada.)

The Calgary Zoo was one of the first catering teams to adopt the Ocean Wise sustainable seafood program.

"We're a conservation organization," said Neilson. "We have to walk the talk. We can't greenwash."

The 'Garden of Eatin' has three sites located throughout the Calgary Zoo grounds. (Julie Van Rosendaal)

Showcasing indigenous ingredients 

This year they've expanded their culinary garden — which exists in spaces scattered throughout the zoo — with a focus on indigenous edible ingredients, you may come across apple and Evans cherry trees, gooseberries, saskatoons, strawberry patches and edible flowers.

Their herb "tree," a tall arrangement of tiered planter boxes, allows them to stand and snip fresh sage, mint, basil and thyme alongside raised boxes full of fresh greens they harvest regularly to supplement the many eateries on the grounds.

Nair harvests fresh herbs daily from the tall arrangement of tiered planter boxes located in the Zoo's culinary garden. (Julie Van Rosendaal)

Those include Grazers, their licensed (yes, you can get zoo-inspired cocktails) seasonal restaurant, which over the summer offers an impressive menu you may not expect at the zoo.

Think interesting local salads, Ocean Wise fish tacos and Bowden farm chicken club sandwiches, piled with organic tomatoes, arugula, zoo-grown herb aioli, and house-baked focaccia.

Growing fruits and veg on site

The zoo also hosts hundreds of events a year including weddings, corporate events and barbecues in a wide range of sizes, which offer Neilson and Nair's team the opportunity to play with more intricate dishes and even dabble in a little molecular gastronomy.

They also come up with food pairings for special zoo events, like the Illuminasia Lantern & Garden Festival, where Chinese lanterns will light up the zoo this fall.

'We're a conservation organization,' says Neilson, left. 'We have to walk the talk. We can't greenwash.' (Julie Van Rosendaal)

With access to gardening experts like Corinne Hannah, head horticulturalist at the Calgary Zoo, they're growing more tomatoes, spinach and cukes, and dabbling with exotic edibles like olives, avocados, pomegranates and even pineapple in the warm, humid conservatory.

Beyond collaborating with their own horticulturalists, zoo chefs source Alberta ingredients like Mountainview cold pressed canola oil, Bowden farm chicken and even Burrowing Owl wines from Oliver, B.C., which has its own conservation society.

Education and conservation

For those looking to learn more about gardening in Alberta, the zoo offers free daily botanical programs and even a Master Gardener Course, if you want to go beyond the basics, with a wide range of speakers from Calgary's urban agricultural community.

Education is a big part of the Calgary Zoo's mandate, and the culinary side offers plenty of food for thought.

Besides leafy greens, the Zoo also grows its own tomatoes, spinach, cucumbers, and more exotic avocados, pomegranates and even pineapple. (Julie Van Rosendaal)

"We're in a unique position many restaurants aren't," Neilson said.

"We try to educate the public as well as supporting wildlife conservation."

Although there are plenty of picnicking areas around the zoo grounds, when you stop in for lunch, the proceeds go toward the organization's broader vision: saving the world with every sandwich.

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.