Popular Edmonton chef and culinary entrepreneur dies of cancer

Gail Hall was a chef, cooking instructor, and culinary entrepreneur who advocated for Alberta-grown food long before the words "local" and "sustainable" became a standard part of conversations about food. She died on Wednesday of cancer. She was 65.

Gail Hall turned her passion for cooking into a business that helped shape Edmonton's food scene

Gail Hall was at the centre of Edmonton's culinary scene as a caterer, cooking instructor, and food tour operator. (Facebook)

In a radio studio, few gifts are as welcomed by a morning show crew as food.

When Gail Hall came to the CBC studios around 7 a.m. every week as Edmonton AM's food columnist, she always brought along homemade dishes — and more.

"It was a very happy marriage of great programming and great taste. But at the same time, there was this enormous amount of education that Gail was bringing to our audience," said Ron Wilson, who hosted the show until 2012.

"She could speak with such passion and such knowledge about what (local producers) were doing. She was, perhaps unknowingly at the time, a real advocate of shopping local."

Hall — an Edmonton chef, instructor, caterer, entrepreneur, and local food booster — died on Wednesday of cancer. She was 65.

Her career in the food industry spanned several decades and niches: from the catering company she built despite being unable to secure a bank loan (it grew to employ 100 people); to the cooking classes she ran out of her own 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.

Passion for locally grown food

And 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.

Wilson recalled that she forced listeners, and himself, to ask why they remained in the "supermarket mindset."

"She asked, could we continually bring food in from all over the world and not recognize that in Alberta there is an enormous number of producers, growers, ranchers who could provide us with incredible quality? And they're our neighbours," he said.

"Gail brought in an entirely different perspective, and a passion and advocacy that benefited the program and helped educate me as a host, and I think many of our listeners, about what was available."

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 her husband Jon Hall, formerly of the Edmonton Real Estate Board, bought a loft that overlooked the outdoor downtown farmer's 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 the Theatre Network and the Chamber of Commerce. But her passion, as it had been since she was a child, was food.

'She knew what happiness food could bring'

"(Gail) had a long-time passion for cooking. She cooked for her family. She was always a generous host," said Liane Faulder, a food writer with the Edmonton Journal and a friend of Hall.

"I think she always knew what happiness food could bring to people and she was always very loving and it was her way of sharing that love with people and the community."

Faulder credited Hall with being one of the people who elevated the food scene in Edmonton to where it is today.

Hall was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008. It metastasized in 2011.

In a written tribute, Hall's husband described her as a "warrior" who "never 'battled' cancer but discussed it in the same way you would if you lost a limb or contracted any other disease — this is today's reality and I deal with it day-to-day."

"To know Gail Hall was to love her," said Wilson. "She was an incredibly warm, considerate, and thoughtful person whose passion for food, and travelling the world, and learning about food was very much an extension of her personality."