Edmonton's 'first foodie' Gail Hall remembered in new culinary memoir

Food was Gail Hall’s calling. Hospitality was her passion. She led a remarkable life.

'It's a story of an incredible, inspiring life,' Jon Hall says

Gail Hall was an Edmonton chef, instructor, caterer, entrepreneur and local food booster. (Jon Hall)

Food was Gail Hall's calling. Hospitality was her passion. She led a remarkable life.

Maps, Markets and Matzo Ball Soup: The inspiring life of Chef Gail Hall is an in-depth look at the late chef's life, career and contributions to Edmonton's food scene.

Written by CBC Edmonton restaurant reviewer Twyla Campbell, the culinary memoir was published by Hall's husband, Jon Hall.

Hall commissioned the work shortly after his wife died on Nov. 16, 2016. She had lived with cancer for eight years.

'A lot of sweat and tears'

"We both said the writing in the book was lubricated by tears," Jon Hall said in an interview Tuesday with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.

"It was a very emotional journey.

"I expected that it was going to be very tough but you power through. It's something you sort of have to do."

Researching his wife's life was emotionally wrenching, Hall said, but he wanted to give his partner of 34 years a fitting tribute, and to "capture her legacy."

"I think it will be an inspiration for anyone who has a kitchen, a business or a disease," he said. "It's a story of an incredible, inspiring life."

It was intimidating to write a book about her friend of 13 years, said Campbell.

"It was more daunting than I realized. This is a monumental task," she said.  "It was a lot of sweat and tears." 

Hall accomplished much in her 65 years. A Red Seal chef, she was an award-winning caterer, entrepreneur, broadcaster, food writer, educator and international culinary tour guide.

Her career spanned several decades, from cooking classes she ran out of her loft kitchen to the culinary tours she organized that took travellers to places such as Vietnam or Portugal, where they saw how food is grown, prepared and appreciated. 

On the forefront

Long-before the words "local" and "sustainable" were synonymous with "desirable" and "healthy," Hall was talking to people about the importance and possibilities of Alberta-grown food.

She changed the way Edmontonians thought about what they eat.

"She was Edmonton's first foodie," Jon Hall said.  "She was right there on the forefront as society changed and as we started to embrace local and organic and talk about producers.

"She was travelling all around the world, bringing recipes and food concepts back to Edmonton.

"No Italian restaurant had arancini on their menu before Gail went to Italy."

A self-taught chef, Hall's passion for cooking started in her family kitchen, helping her mother cook for their family of five.

While she loved serving her family, it would be years before she made her first foray into a professional kitchen. 

I hope the book is an inspiration for people who want to become an entrepreneur.- Jon Hall

She and Jon were married in October 1982. After moving from Toronto, they bought a house in Pleasantview, their home for the next 19 years.

After a 10-year career with the provincial government, Hall took a leave of absence, finished her university degree and decided on a new career.

With an investment of $3,000, she built her catering company from the ground up. Unable to get a bank loan, she built the company on cash flow.

From a small, home-based business it would go on to have 100 staff and $3 million in annual revenue.

"I hope the book is an inspiration for people who want to become an entrepreneur," Jon Hall said.

"Here is this girl who came into Edmonton from Toronto, who doesn't know anything and over 30 years, builds two incredible companies and really changes the community."

As much as Hall was known in the city's food scene, she was also a fixture on 104th Street as it came to define Edmonton's downtown renaissance. She and Jon bought a loft that overlooked the outdoor downtown farmers market and heartily supported its opening.

Hall reached out in other ways too, being named a YWCA Woman of Distinction, serving on the board of Theatre Network and the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce.

She also appeared regularly on CBC Radio as a morning show columnist and became known among the crew for her warm demeanour and generous offerings of homemade food.

'She was a teacher' 

Most often though, Hall could be found in the kitchen, collaborating with her students.

When she died, Hall decided to honour his wife with a memorial fund which aids in the education of young chefs. 

"That, I think, is her legacy," he said. "She was a teacher. She was an educator and she just put it out there all the time.

"She mentored so many."