On a near nightly basis, Paul De Jonge watches large trucks arrive at his farm to pick up produce — especially his coveted vine-ripened tomatoes — for delivery 180 kilometres (120 miles) north to some of the best restaurants in Calgary.
Until recently, De Jonge didn’t have similar interest from restaurateurs in his home, Lethbridge. Alberta’s third-most populous city supplies fruits, vegetables, grains, and meats to lots of the province and the country, too. Yet Southern Alberta’s agricultural star hasn’t cultivated a food tourism culture despite its abundance of potential. That’s changing. De Jonge’s Broxburn Vegetables has begun to find a local market and soon Lethbridge will have an agricultural hub that stamps its presence as a leading food provider. What is anticipated to follow is a series of culinary tourism programs, if not a scene.
“It will grow in Lethbridge as the population grows and as dining out becomes more sophisticated,” De Jonge predicts, pointing out that the area’s chefs have the opportunity to establish themselves individually and collectively in a way that is similar to what’s happened in Calgary.
The largest city in the province has seen its culinary tastes transform this century thanks to a brigade of talented and industrious chefs who have sought out high-quality products and have the clientele who can afford them. De Jonge points to chefs like Darren Maclean, of Nupo and Shokunin and who received notoriety on the Netflix reality series, “Final Table”. Maclean was among the early supporters of Broxburn and helped the farm garner business from fine-dining restaurants and luxury hotels in Banff and Canmore.
The “Broxburn” tomatoes are viewed as premium local produce in Alberta but they’re also expensive and Lethbridge restaurants have been reluctant to pay the cost.
“Lethbridge is an agricultural community and I think some people are not willing to spend for a high-end restaurant because they have that food at their home, and it doesn’t cost them anything or hardly anything to enjoy it. So they feel bad when they go out and they find they have to pay $50 or $100 for a meal,” De Jonge explains about the hesitancy to adopt fine dining. “But it’s about chefs showing them what they can do with those products. For me, you want to see how someone takes what comes from your farm and integrates that into a dish. It’s what the chef is passionate about and that’s why I enjoy going out — to see what the people who I am supplying are doing.”
His drive no longer has to be two hours. He can venture to Italian Table, an outstanding restaurant with a casual-dining atmosphere and a culinary philosophy focused on simplicity and quality. The Broxburn tomatoes are featured in the Caprese salad while the rest of the menu is replete with dishes made with locally sourced ingredients.
“In the Southern Alberta area, there’s so much available to us that’s world class,” general manager Jason Austin says. “What’s produced within 90 minutes is incredible. We’re not shy about celebrating that. We’ve done videos with our purveyors and feature them where we can. I think it feels good for our customers to know about those connections and know where their money is spent. When they have that knowledge I think many of them are happy to pay a little bit extra for local products.”
At nearby Mocha Cabana, everything on the menu comes from within 100 miles of Lethbridge — including De Jonge’s tomatoes and peppers. Owner April Harper is a food advocate who is among the community members driving more culinary programming and helping to plan the agricultural hub.
“There’s a community sense of growing up to farm and we want to tie that in to what choices we have when we eat,” Harper says.
The area also benefits from newcomers, whether it be immigrants or transplants from Calgary. At Jonny Bean Coffee, former Calgarians embraced their new home and added a gourmet option in the city’s east end across the street from a Tim Hortons.
“When we moved to Lethbridge we had no idea at all that the area had this kind of produce. We were blown away when we learned it,” Kali Harris points out, adding that her customers in the sleek, Scandinavian-style shop also get excited and feel connected when they discover the regional ingredients.
Harris and her husband, Jon, are self-professed coffee geeks who moved to Lethbridge in 2009. They launched Jonny Bean in 2017 and have hired a pastry chef who trained and worked in New York. The pastries are delicious. I was amazed by a peach danish with a flaky crust and balanced sweetness of the fruit that originated at an organic farm in the area. Savoury dishes include a breakfast sandwich with a zhug sauce — a spicy staple of North African cuisine.
“The landscape 12 years ago when we moved was so different than it is now,” Kali Harris says. “There are more ethnic restaurants, more music, and more theatre now. As we grew to love living here we wanted to give back to the community and to provide things we missed from back home, which is how the coffee shop came about.”
The exotic flavours can also be found in an unexpected place — the top of the tallest building in Lethbridge, a water tower that has been converted into a lounge and restaurant where you would rightly expect touristy fare. While you can find burgers and fries on the menu at the Water Tower Grill, you’ll also want to order vegetable pakoras and Afghan chicken kebabs, favourite foods of owner Ram Khanal, a Nepalese immigrant.
In downtown, Miro boasts a deep wine list and French-inspired bistronomic cuisine. The one dish you have to try? The boccacini salad featuring warm Buffalo mozzarella, mint, and those tomatoes from the Broxburn farm.
“A Broxburn tomato is vine-ripened so it is more tender and has a flavour profile you don’t get if your tomato has been sitting in a shipping container for days. We choose what we grow based on flavour not the yield we can get and we don’t spray with any chemicals,” De Jonge notes, explaining why he believes his tomatoes stand apart.
Visitors can taste them around Alberta but stepping into the cafe at the Broxburn farm provides the chance to sample from the source. In a destination where farm-to-table is a way of life, rooting out such an experience is nourishing, if not essential for the culinary-focused traveller.
MORE ABOUT VISITING LETHBRIDGE
Where to Dine
Italian Table — Casual food, exceptionally crafted. The dedication to local producers pays off in flavour and pride. Every city needs a go-to restaurant that can meet foodie expectations and less adventurous palates. Italian Table excels at old-country favourites with enough culinary panache to satisfy the sophisticated diner.
Miro Bistro — European flavours prepared by a chef with Czech roots and a professional pedigree from Calgary restaurants.
Mocha Cabana — Highlights include duck wings that have been braised and glazed with honey, and a twist on the Caprese salad with naan bread beneath Broxburn tomatoes and Buffalo mozzarella.
Jonny Bean Coffee — Incredible pastries made in-house and with great attention for local flavour. The coffee is just as good. Though it’s not in a convenient part of town, it’s absolutely worth the drive.
Bread, Milk, Honey — Another Scandinavian-inspired coffee shop, this one is located downtown and also turns into a nighttime spot for drinks and bites. Try the grilled breakfast wrap ($11.50), featuring egg, bacon, melted cheese, and avocado.
Water Tower Grill — Stare out over the prairies and west toward the foothills of the Rocky Mountains while you enjoy food from the eclectic menu.
Broxburn Vegetables and Cafe — The farm’s eatery is spare, with a menu that has a few soups, sandwiches, and salads. The Red Pepper Soup is the favourite. Try one of their “quenchers” — iced tea or lemonade infused with fruits and herbs (think watermelon and mint).