WinSport chef on her growing love for food
Chef Liana Robberecht very involved in the larger food community in Calgary
Chef Liana Robberecht is instantly recognizable in a room full of hungry people.
When she's working, she's almost always in her trademark pink chef jacket with her wavy blond hair separated into ponytails, pink lipstick and glitter — all of which reflect her effervescent personality.
Growing up in Smithers, B.C., Liana's environment was very much focused on home-grown food.
"One of my best friends growing up, her family really inspired me to cook," she told me. "They lived on a farm and raised their own cattle and chickens, and they had a huge garden. I basically grew up over at her house, where her mom made preserves and meads, jams and breads. I always loved cooking — my mom tells me I'd push a chair up to the kitchen counter and insist on making things — but that kind of reinforced it."
After discovering she wasn't happy pursuing a career in marketing, Liana's dad suggested she try Culinary Arts at NAIT in Edmonton.
"I was really offended at first," she said. "I thought he was only saying that because I was a girl. I grew up seeing my mom, grandma and aunts cook. I had no idea."
She enrolled at NAIT and was one of three women in the class. It was a perfect fit.
"It felt like home. My first day of school I was in heaven. Everything felt right in the world. I've never thought about doing anything else."
After NAIT, Liana's first job was at the Centre Club — a private club that has since closed down — apprenticing under chef Yoshi Chubach.
She then cooked at the Red Ox Inn in Edmonton, and at the Jasper Park Lodge in the Edith Cavell dining room.
"All the apprentices hated going to the garden, but I was a keener," she said. "I thought it was the best thing ever. They had fresh herbs and edible flowers, so every day before my shift I would go in and snip and pick things.
Sourcing from the garden
"At the time, there weren't many restaurants sourcing from local farms and producers, besides River Cafe. It wasn't a trendy thing, but I was so heavily influenced, having grown up in Smithers, it always seemed like the natural thing to do."
Liana then moved on to spent almost 20 years in the kitchen at the Calgary Petroleum Club, the last 13 of them as executive chef.
"Being the first female executive chef at the Petroleum Club was a big achievement for me," she said. "But even more so that I maintained that position for so many years."
She recently left to take on the position of executive chef at WinSport: the Winter Sport Institute at Canada Olympic Park.
"It's a steep learning curve, they do a huge amount of functions. But it's not that different from the club," she told me over coffee in the Garden Cafe at WinSport. "We had a lot of cocktail parties, a lot of banquets. The only difference is volume. I was here for a week and a half and they did a luncheon for 1,900 people. Last month we had a breakfast and lunch for 2,300 people. It's bananas."
Love of volunteering
Liana is also very much involved in the larger food community by volunteering, organizing, mentoring and cooking at events, and spending any free time she has traveling to conferences, learning and lending her skill to international events and organizations.
Her new position lets her expand her creativity and take on new projects.
"There are so many talented people here I get to work with," she said. "And everyone is so supportive. What I was most excited about, besides the fact that it's so encouraging and supportive, is I get to work on building all the food programs. That means bringing in new food suppliers, and we have plans to build a garden, which will be connected to kids' camps. So we're not thinking about next month or next year, but long term — what's our five- and 10-year plan?"
It's also inspiring, she says, to be working so closely with so many young Olympic hopefuls and being a part of their journey by providing their fuel.
The educational aspect of food is not new to her. This weekend she's one of the chefs involved in Beakerhead. She is cooking with cricket flour in a hands-on class on Saturday, and was experimenting with the science of modernist cuisine at the Gorgeous Molecule — a food-meets-art experience in the historic Barron Building last Thursday.
WCR education sessions
Also, the Women Chefs and Restaurateurs (WCR) education sessions take place in Canada for the first time at the Hotel Arts in Calgary on Oct. 2.
As a longtime member, Liana always dreamed of bringing it home.
"I've always had the dream and determination that one day a WCR event would happen in Canada ... and Calgary," she said. "This one-day conference is the first of its kind for WCR, and will serve as a template for other cities. The hope is that the national conference will come to Calgary in 2017."
Local, national, and international presenters and speakers are expected to attend — including Food Network chef Lynn Crawford, Sal Howell of River Café and Boxwood, Connie DeSousa of CharCut and CharBar and Patti Koyich of SAIT (formerly of Il Sogno).
"I've always been very industry involved," she said. "That's how you make a difference. You can't make change unless you put something into it."