FOOD AND THE CITY

The Guild bringing a renaissance of taste to Calgary

A bull head hanging on the wall gazes over staff buzzing around the shiny new restaurant on the main floor of the Hudson’s Bay building downtown, sorting glasses and hanging fixtures, adding finishing touches before The Guild opens for real.

Former Hudson's Bay building re-imagined as an eatery

Chef Ryan O'Flynn works in the kitchen at The Guild, opening soon in the former Hudson's Bay building downtown. (Julie van Rosendaal)

A bull head hanging on the wall gazes over staff buzzing around the shiny new restaurant on the main floor of the Hudson's Bay building downtown, sorting glasses and hanging fixtures, adding finishing touches before The Guild opens for real.

The bull, who died of natural causes, was once a grand prize bull at the Calgary Stampede.

The Guild will be open this Stampede, sort of — right now they're partially open, sort of a soft opening for those in the know, with a limited Stampede-driven menu (think brisket, pizzas and other casual eats), and expect to be fully open by July 21.

The space occupies what was once the hosiery department on the main floor, and a never overly successful food court in the basement, transforming an iconic corner of downtown Calgary into what owners Peter Oliver and Michael Bonacini of Oliver & Bonacini, a restaurant group with a dozen locations in its portfolio (and a few more opening in coming months) hope will be a popular gathering place.

The name is a nod to the guildhalls of the past, which served as meeting places for artists and merchants, and to those who worked with local ingredients and traditional cooking techniques, utilizing wood and coal, in generations past.

The Guild is set to open during Stampede in the former Hudson's Bay building downtown. (Julie van Rosendaal)

"It's about not overthinking it," says president Andrew Oliver.

"From the metalwork to the millwork to the wood burning ovens, it considers the artisans of the day. When all you have to do is work with the best cuts, it's easy to make good food — we're working with off-cuts, showing people what's unique — an experience."

After years cooking in kitchens across the province and a stint overseas in 2000, Alberta-born chef Ryan O'Flynn is at the helm in the kitchen. 

He has been Chef de Partie at Gordon Ramsay's Petrus, a two Michelin-starred modern French restaurant in London. At 26, he was appointed Head Chef of Le Galloise, Wales' top restaurant.

At 29, he was named Executive Chef of The Milestone Hotel in London, which was voted Best Hotel in the World by Condé Nast Traveler during his tenure. Shortly after returning to Alberta in 2013, Ryan became executive chef of the Westin Edmonton, and last year, he took home top honours from the Canadian Culinary Championships.

But beyond all the honours and accolades, Ryan has a unique interest in, and knowledge of, indigenous Canadian ingredients and cooking techniques and his attention to detail is reflected in every corner of the kitchen. Bannock-inspired pizza dough proofs on a stovetop, nubbly with spent grains left over from Big Rock. Baking soda takes the place of yeast as a leavening agent. They're also working with farmers to use the spent grain from their beer, gin and vodka as feed for their pigs.

The Guild will be serving house-butchered selections of meat. (Julie van Rosendaal)

"It might turn out to be a terrible idea," Andrew says, "but you never know if you don't try. Down the road we might wind up with tip to tail menus — pigs fed with the grains from our gin, which is then used in the barbecue sauce for the ribs."

They've partnered with Eau Claire Distillery in Turner Valley to produce their own gin and vodka.

"We went and tried seven or eight distillations they made especially for us," Andrew says," and chose ones we felt best reflected the flavour of the restaurant."

There are dry aging chambers for their house-butchered grass fed beef, one equipped with a well-worn vintage chopping block from Brittany. Leftover whey from making their own ricotta is used to soak their chicken. Only birch and pine are burned under the grill and in the wood-burning oven — true to what Indigenous peoples used when cooking over an open fire.

"Pine burns quickly, it acts as a starter," says corporate executive chef Anthony Walsh.

"Birch is the engine — it adds a subtle flavour. It's what was used by the first nations."

On the menu: elk, bison, chicken, pork and beef, and local, seasonal produce.

The Guild has partnered with Eau Claire Distillery in Turner Valley to produce their own gin and vodka. (Julie van Rosendaal)

As Anthony talks, he and master butcher Christine, who is here from Toronto for a few weeks to help get things off the ground, plate a half an intact pig's head that has been brined in maple and birch syrup, sea salt and spices and slow-roasted in the wood-burning oven — it will be one of their signature items, served with cabbage and kielbasa inspired by the strong Ukrainian presence on the prairies.

"The very best cut is the jowl," says Anthony, patting his cheek to demonstrate. "It's juicy, it has character. It's so tender — like the ultimate pork rib. And the brine knocks down that pigginess."

Adds Andrew, "It's about knowing the farmers, the ranchers, the growers, the chefs, it's about respect for what all that they do. We have amazing things here in Alberta. Why would I want to ship it in from further away?"

The room is large and modern but classic, with leather and brass, vaguely familiar, as if it has already settled in. Soon, people will start to talk of a secret space for select patrons and members, and it's as cool as they will make it out to be. There's a large, fancy washroom that will be one of the first genderless public washrooms in the city.

Outside, one of the largest covered patios in Canada will seat nearly 200 people in 20 sections. Later in the summer, they plan to open a British-inspired pub next door, on the corner, where they can serve up pints through a sort of take-out window open to the patio, to take advantage of Calgary's often sporadically good winter weather. They're also taking over the entire 6th floor — about 50,000 square feet — of the Bay to use as conference and event space.

"People thought we were crazy, taking on this a project of this scope considering the economy," Andrew says. "But instead of cutting the project in half, we doubled it. People in Calgary are so fun. Calgarians show up."

And they surely will.

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.