It’s never easy serving gourmet meals to a roomful of people every night. When Chef Daniel Ducharme opened up Riverbank Bistro, he knew the challenges and was prepared to face them hands-on.
His restaurant, located on St. Albert Trail along the Sturgeon River is a bastion of European elegance decorated in dark woods, sparkling chandeliers and large windows welcoming lots of soft light.
Ducharme’s nine entrées put a creative spin on familiar dishes ranging from Braised Alberta Lamb Shank to Charbroiled Ribeye Steak or Pan Seared Salmon. It’s what he describes as Canadian regional cuisine with global influences.
The Red Seal chef has a dedication to excellence, and has made it a mission to expertly coax the dishes’ intense flavours using local ingredients whenever possible.
Although today’s economic realities dredge up many risks for entrepreneurial chefs, Ducharme has developed a simple kitchen philosophy based on personal style, experiences and influences.
“People expect good, tasty food that is presented well. They want to leave satisfied and have good value for their dollar,” Ducharme said, optimistic the restaurant will find a niche in the city’s food culture.
Picking up the bug
While some teen cooks are kitchen fanatics making waves as precocious culinary whiz kids (a.k.a. Flynn McGarry, the 19-year old Justin Bieber of the New York culinary scene), the 2003 St. Albert High graduate led a fairly normal upbringing.
Raised in a family of three boys “that ate like horses,” Ducharme, now six-feet, three-inches tall, was an all-around athlete playing football, hockey and basketball.
But his passion for cooking was fuelled at the age of 13 working as a part-time dishwasher at the St. Albert Sorrentino’s.
“It was cool to see the hustle and bustle. It gave me the bug. And I always watched the Iron Chef when I got home – the Japanese version.”
After graduation, he worked at a food distribution warehouse stacking pallets during the day while picking up evening shifts at Moxie’s as a line cook. His objective was to earn extra dollars to buy a 2005 Mitsubishi Lancer.
“It (Moxie’s) was smokin’ busy. But it taught me a lot about speed and efficiency. Everybody worked there for a common goal and it was very team oriented.”
It was wife Nicole who understood his passion for cooking and encouraged him to apply to NAIT’s two-year culinary program.
At the technical institute, Ducharme was introduced to every kitchen aspect from baking to filleting to designing fat sculptures for cold buffets.
“It was exciting. Teachers were super knowledgeable, and they were from all over. They worked in Michelin Star restaurants. You lived vicariously through them and they were never above you that you couldn’t talk to them.”
Perhaps the most valuable idea absorbed during this period was, “Everywhere you go, you pull something new from the establishment.”
In a move to further his career, Ducharme completed a practicum sharpening his skills at St. Albert’s Riverhouse Grill under the mentorship of owner-manager Willie White.
The Scottish-born chef, now the opening executive chef of DoubleTree Hilton, is credited as a key driver in the regional cuisine movement of sourcing local ingredients that spiked in the late 1990s.
It’s not a coincidence that Riverbank Bistro is located in the exact location Riverhouse was. For Ducharme, opening a restaurant on home turf is a full-circle homage to a man who was his most influential adviser.
“Willie was great. If it wasn’t for him, I don’t think I’d be in cooking. He was a mentor, a teacher and a leader. He showed me how to be a good chef and led me on this career path.”
Ducharme arrived at Riverhouse Grill for a short apprenticeship and remained for three years before broadening his scope at Westin Hotel.
“It was a culture shock, going from a small restaurant in St. Albert to preparing food for 800 people at a banquet. We did everything there – our own butchery, our own filleting, everything.”
While at Westin Hotel, Ducharme and Nicole started planning a European jaunt. After two years at the Westin, the experienced chef applied to a northern work camp to earn quick money. The salary was great, but the hours were gruelling; 21 days straight working 10 hours plus with seven days off.
“I was very surprised. The accommodations were great. But we were feeding 400 people every day. We put in food orders of $60,000 twice a week. It was very production oriented.”
In 2014, the couple took a two-month trip to Europe travelling across 13 countries with a Euro-Rail pass.
“We went to some cool restaurants and tried dishes with mystery ingredients – liver dumpling soup in Germany, black pudding in the U.K., haggis in Scotland and in Italy we tried deep-fried sardines on a skewer.”
The usually loquacious chef is hard-pressed to describe liver dumpling soup, a dish he will never order again. But others, especially black pudding and haggis, get a thumbs up.
Upon their return, Ducharme landed a job at the Royal Glenora Golf Club where “high-end families with money to burn” hosted private functions and left generous tips. With a palette-savvy clientele and bigger budget, the club brought in lavish ingredients such as caviar and Alaska king crab.
“Chef Steve Buzak was very passionate about organic food and the local food scene. For me that was important after going from St. Albert to a hotel to camps and back again. It was exactly what I needed.”
Searching for a still broader experience, Ducharme spent an additional two years at the Edmonton International Airport’s Renaissance Hotel as sous chef.
“That was a transient clientele with very high volume. If flights were cancelled, we were really busy.”
Riverbank Bistro is a way to bring all his skills into play from blending delicate, nuanced flavours in the kitchen, to developing a laid-back yet personal service while all the while supporting local producers.
Our city’s residents enjoy an entrenched food culture and love of global cuisine that is celebrated on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
“St. Albert wants a good quality restaurant. Willie created a really good thing, and clients are still looking for that good food and attention to detail. Willie’s restaurant was classic, inventive upscale food. I want to follow the same recipe.”
Bison Carpaccio with pickled mushrooms and black pepper truffle aioli
• 1 lb. sirloin
• salt and pepper to taste
• oil as needed
• 1 egg yolk
• 500 ml. canola oil
• 2 Tbsp. cider vinegar
• 2 roasted garlic cloves, minced
• 1 Tbsp. truffle oil
• 1 tsp. ground pepper
• salt to taste
• 200 grams shitake mushrooms, stem cut off and sliced
• 1 tsp. peppercorns
• 2 Tbsp. salt
• 1 Tbsp. sugar
• ¼ cup cider vinegar
• ½ cup water
• Trim excess fat or silver skin off bison and season liberally with salt and pepper. In a medium hot pan, sear all sides of the meat evenly until golden brown. Cool on rack. Wrap with plastic wrap and freeze
• Using a meat slicer, slice thin pieces and arrange on plate. If you do not own a meat slicer, take bison out of freezer. Allow it to thaw for an hour and slice as thinly as possible with a knife.
• For aioli, combine egg yolk, cider vinegar, minced garlic clove paste and pepper. On low speed, slowly drizzle canola oil in a steady stream. Once the mixture has emulsified and resembles a mayonnaise mixture, stir in truffle oil and seasonings.
• For pickled mushrooms, set sliced mushrooms aside in a heat resistant bowl just large enough to hold them. Combine remaining ingredients in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Pour hot liquid over the mushrooms and cool to room temperature.
• To plate, arrange bison on a plate and season with a light sprinkling of salt and pepper and a little drizzle of olive oil around the meat. Scatter pickled mushrooms on top and add little dollops of aioli randomly around meat.
• To finish, dress a few baby greens with olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper and place in the middle of the plate. Bon appétit!