Story by Adrian Brijbassi
Vacay.ca Managing Editor
BANFF, ALBERTA — You would be challenged to find a dozen quality restaurants in some small cities. The Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel accomplishes that feat within one property.
If you want sushi, the hotel has it. Feel like Indian? You’ll find it on the Mezzanine level in an operation run by one of Vikram Vij’s acolytes. Housemade charcuterie with a variety of cheeses, pickled accompaniments and jams made on the premises? Yes. Southern barbecue? Check. And, of course, decadent cuts of Alberta steak, bison, venison, and elk are the showcase of the flagship restaurant, 1888.
Executive chef jW Foster oversees 160 chefs who source, butcher, prep and cook some of the best food available in any mountain destination in Canada. In all, the 765-room hotel turns out between 6,000-8,000 meals for guests each day, as well as an additional 4,000 meals for staff members. When the hotel brings in a whole cow, it can be consumed in three hours — after an extensive dry-aging process. Depending on the time of year, there are between 12 and 14 restaurants operating on the premises.
They’re constantly evolving, too. Under Foster, the hotel has aggressively pursued a local-food mindset, focusing on products from Alberta and British Columbia, with multiple seafood deliveries arriving from Vancouver each week and an increasing number of nearby farms supplying Banff Springs with exceptionally fresh food.
“It’s a chef-driven change. Not all hotels are doing it but the good ones are. It’s about going back to the basics of the way we should be cooking,” Foster says. “There’s also a demand from customers to know where food is coming from.”
But Fairmont Banff Springs is far more than a culinary gem for diners. It’s home to one of Canada’s leading apprenticeship programs. Under Foster’s guidance, the program during the past three years has tripled in the number of apprentices it employs. The 30 aspiring chefs tend to the hotel’s expansive greenhouse as well as learn all aspects of the kitchen operations.
“The idea is to turn it into a teaching program,” Foster says of his ambitions for the apprenticeship program. “Once they graduate they are seriously set up for their career. Coming through here gives them a ticket to where they want to go. I recently had three of them go to the Savoy in London.”
Danielle Sullivan, who is in her second year of the three-year apprenticeship program, credits Banff Springs for rejuvenating her passion for cooking.
“I fell in love with it again,” Sullivan, who is from Ontario, says of her chosen career. “I’ve been doing soups and stocks for the whole hotel. We’re learning to butcher a cow today. As an apprentice, where else can you go to get the whole experience that you find here?”
Craig Parkinson, an alumni of the program who is now the executive chef at Stanley’s Smokehouse, the restaurant at the property’s famous golf course, says the apprentices are learning the full gamut of food production, which ultimately leads to better food on the plates of the hotel’s guests.
“The apprenticeship program has changed a lot since I went through it. For instance, we have a greenhouse now and it’s the apprentices who take care of it. They plant the seeds and tend to it. It gives them an appreciation of how food is grown and where it comes from,” Parkinson says.
With seasoned staff mixing with energetic youth and having the benefit of a $45 million budget for food and beverage services, Foster and his crew are able to provide the diverse and stellar flavours Banff Springs’ guests enjoy.
Here are some of the dining highlights offered by the hotel:
Samurai: A sushi restaurant in the mountains? In a hotel? And it’s good? Yes — and it’s actually great. The 28-seat eatery is operated by executive chef Kaorho Ohsada and sous chef Masa Endo, who stick to the traditions of Japanese culture — in no small part because of the hundreds of Japanese visitors who descend on Banff each year. Samurai is nearly 30 years old, making it the longest-standing restaurant in the hotel. Most of the fish comes in from Japan, while crab is flown in from the east coast, and salmon arrives twice a week from Tofino on Vancouver Island. On the night I dined, mackerel (or saba) arrived from Norway and was served wrapped in pickled radish with ginger and scallion. Menu Price Range: Sushi and sashimi dinners range from $48-$110; two-person hot pot (or shabu shabu) meals range from $69-$72; six-piece sushi rolls range from $6-$18.
Grapes Wine Bar: Delicious charcuterie, an incredible variety of farmhouse cheeses, eclectic pates (including wild boar and cranberry terrine, $13), tasty accompaniments and lots of bread options are what make this cozy corner bar so popular. Not to mention the excellent wine list, as well. Menu Price Range: Cheeses range from $8-$12 for 50-gram servings; meats range from $5-$15 (try the elk salami, $8); pates and rilles range from $11-$14.
1888 Chop House: Executive chef Richard McMillan says, “1888 is about celebrating Alberta.” To that end, Fairmont Banff Springs owns farms where 1888 sources its chickens and milk, and has other suppliers who have deep connections with Foster. “He can demand something and we will get it in,” McMillan points out. What 1888 receives are some of the finest beef, elk and bison meat available in the province. Menu Price Range: Steaks and chops range from $45-$138 (for a 40-ounce tomahawk for two). Be sure to try the Elk Ribeye ($60), a tender and richly flavourful 10-ounce cut that is hard to find in other parts of North America.
Indian Summer: Gaurav Gaba’s talents helped land Vikram Vij’s My Shanti — a restaurant in Surrey, British Columbia — on the 2015 Vacay.ca Top Restaurants in Canada Rankings. After assisting in the opening of that restaurant in the Vancouver suburbs, Gaba arrived at Fairmont Banff Springs, where Vij used to work back in the 1980s. “I was encouraged by Vikram to come to Banff Springs because he said I would learn a lot and have a good opportunity,” Gaba says. As the executive chef of Indian Summer, Gaba is overseeing a menu with a variety of Indian favourites, including Butter Chicken ($28) and Gosht Biryani ($27), a saffron rice dish made with lamb and yogurt. Menu Price Range: $22-$28 for main dishes.
Stanley’s Smokehouse: In the mood for ribs, brisket, pulled pork or barbecue chicken? Then head for the golf course clubhouse to satiate your appetite for southern American cuisine, complete with wrap-around views of the Rocky Mountains and a decadent dessert menu that includes an apple pie with hazelnut crumble and vanilla ice cream ($13) and a warm chocolate brownie with hot fudge sauce and sponge toffee ($12). Menu Price Range: $30-$32 for smokehouse plates. Other main dishes range from $18-$48.
Waldhaus Restaurant & Downstairs Pub: This alpine-inspired restaurant is a five-minute walk from the hotel’s main building and sits romantically in the middle of the woods, below the towering mountain peaks. Despite the dramatic setting, the Waldhaus is a jolly place, where you’ll find tables enjoying fondue and conversation upstairs, and beer and laughter downstairs in the pub. Menu Price Range: The Waldhaus Experience ($90 per person, minimum of two per table) includes a green salad, and one course each of cheese fondue, beef fondue, and toblerone chocolate fondue. Other entrees range from $28-$46 and include striploin ($46), pan-fried rainbow trout ($45) and seared scallops ($45). Veal schnitzels are available in three options, ranging from $38-$39.
Rundle Lounge: This casual, family-friendly spot has high-quality pub fare and reasonable prices. More importantly, it has a lovely atmosphere for relaxing, with a wide, open-concept space featuring live music, comfortable couches, a pleasant bar and fireplaces. As with all restaurants in the hotel, it’s a good spot to visit even if you’re not a guest at the hotel. And if you are, a drink or two at the Rundle Lounge is the perfect choice to complete your night. Menu Price Range: Share plates range from $9-$48 (the priciest item is the Rundle Range, a platter for two that has more than a half-dozen items on it); sandwiches cost between $19-$25.
MORE ABOUT THE FAIRMONT BANFF SPRINGS HOTEL
Address: 405 Spray Avenue, Banff, AB (see map below)
Room Rates: The hotel is in high demand in the summer. Expect room rates to be above $600 per night.
Reservations: Telephone 1-866-540-4406 (toll free) or search online at the hotel’s website.