Gail Norton's rise from bookseller to the top of Calgary's foodie scene
'The very first cookbook we sold was the Betty Crocker Boys and Girls Cookbook, for $7.95'
If there's one person in the city responsible for the steady expansion of my cookbook collection over the years, it's Gail Norton. There are those who write cookbooks, and those who sell them. Gail does both, and teaches on the side.
The daughter of parents who grew a big garden in their back yard in Thorncliffe, Gail learned to cook from her mother, who made everything from scratch despite living in a generation enamoured of new packaged convenience foods.
"She was an excellent cook," Gail says. "She wasn't a fancy cook, but everything she made was perfect. Perfectly cooked meat. Perfectly cooked vegetables. Even to this day, she's able to pick out the very best pieces of fruit. It wasn't over the top — it was just what she did."
After graduating from high school, Gail took an interest in cooking herself. "I found — as I do now — that a dinner party is a great way to get people together," she told me one afternoon in her cooking school, where she often teaches bread making and other kitchen skills, and shares recipes from her travels with students who either have a hands-on experience or sit back and watch with a glass of wine from Metrovino.
"Friends recommended Craig Claiborne's New York Times Cookbook. Ignorance was bliss — I wasn't really a practiced cook at the time, so I would just open the book and cook. I made brioche when I was 19 years old."
No one was hiring
Later, Gail graduated from the University of Calgary with a degree in special education in a year when nobody was getting hired.
"So I went on a road trip across Canada," she said, "and saw the Cookbook Store in Toronto. I felt like there was electricity pulsing through my fingertips. So I came back and didn't get a teaching job. Again, ignorance was bliss — I got together with my mom, who has great attention to detail and the memory of 10 elephants, which helps when it comes to book titles and authors. We made up our own index card system, and off we went."
The year was 1984, and the Cookbook Company opened in a tiny 300 square foot house on 17th Avenue. "The very first cookbook we sold was the Betty Crocker Boys and Girls Cookbook, for $7.95," Gail reminisced.
Back then, it was just cookbooks. They had doubled their space by moving into the lower level of Mount Royal Village when one day Gail's friend Richard Harvey approached her having coffee at nearby Café Beano.
"He said, 'I have a really neat idea,'" she remembers, "and I said, that is neat — let's do it."
Bigger and better digs
So in 1996 they moved over to the current location of The Cookbook Company Cooks on 11th Avenue to partner with Metrovino in the back and Brûlée Patisserie downstairs, where they also added a cooking school.
"We created a sort of foodie enclave," she says. "At that point the internet was just getting going, and there were lots of magazines. If we had to survive on cookbook sales, we wouldn't have survived."
The cooking school has attracted hundreds of local and international chef instructors including Vikram Vij, Hugh Carpenter, Jeffrey Alford, Anna Olson and James Barber.
Nine years ago they opened a new, larger, sunnier space upstairs, where they host even more classes, community and corporate events and cookbook launches.
"The cookbook industry has changed completely," Gail says of the shelves of titles that change with far more frequency than they used to.
"Back when we started it was the time of Paul Prudhomme, it was right when Hugh Carpenter came out with his book, Pacific Flavours. His book sold off the shelf for eight years. But now, books sell in the first year, and then they're gone. There's no book that you still have on the shelf eight years later. It's a strange industry now, you have to get in and get out, and then no one is interested. It's very fad-ish."
'We could do this'
At the time Calgary's food scene was growing, yet there was no local publication that reported on it all. After visiting Vancouver and checking out their local free food publication, City Food, Gail came home with a copy and showed her writer friend Kathy Richardier.
"I said, we could do this," Gail recalls. "And she was like, 'yeah yeah.' And then she went to Vancouver and picked up a copy, came back and said, 'we can do this.'" And so they launched City Palate Publishing Inc.
"Kathy was the food writer at the Calgary Sun at the time. Both of our lives revolved around food — it seemed like a natural fit, and a natural progression."
Twenty-one years later City Palate continues to be one of Calgary's favourite publications — they celebrated their 20th birthday by hosting a series of 20 unique culinary events including the Really, Really Long Table Dinner, which has become an annual event for nine restaurants and 200 or so guests every September on Stephen Avenue Mall.
As if that wasn't enough, Gail takes likeminded people on culinary trips to Italy and France every year, along with chef Judy Wood of Meez Cuisine.
"In the spring we do a food and wine tour in a little village — Olonzac — followed by a food, wine and cycling trip. And in the fall we always do Tuscany. This will be our 16th year."
Gail is also a restaurateur. She was part of the group that opened Una Pizzeria on 17th Avenue (she has since been bought out), and is now part owner of Avec Bistro.
With so many delicious things going on in our city, Gail has her fingers in all the pies — and is baking them, too.
You can learn more about the Cookbook Company and the classes they offer at cookbookcooks.com, or visit them at 722 11th Ave. S.W. Follow them on twitter @CookbookCooks.