St. Albert chef Stanley Townsend says he was raised on a diet of moose meat, turnips and porridge.
“And I knew there had to be something more!” he quipped.
Last May 26, after 45 years in the hospitality industry, Townsend was inducted into the Canadian Culinary Federation’s Honour Society – considered one of the highest honours a Canadian chef can get.
Roughly 75 people have received this award, which recognizes those who make significant contributions to the culinary arts in Canada.
And what was on the menu at the awards dinner? Moose meat, turnips and porridge, of course.
“Only we don’t call it moose meat, turnips and porridge now. We call it wild game, root vegetables and whole grains!” Townsend says laughing.
Townsend received this award for his decades of work with young chefs in Skills Canada and other competitions, says honour society chair Bruno Marti – work that has helped make Edmonton a culinary powerhouse.
“Everyone aspires to be an honour society (member),” he says, and it’s likely the top award a chef can get in Canada.
Townsend says he still feels that same fire he felt back in his youth whenever he works with young students.
“I want to inspire and fuel that dream.”
Townsend says he grew up with four brothers in Dawson Creek. They had a huge garden and plenty of wild game from his dad’s frequent hunting trips, all of which got cooked up by his mom.
“My mother’s favourite cooking implement was the wooden spoon, which she ordered by the gross,” he says, with a chuckle (they tended to break when used to smack unruly kids).
Townsend says his first “culinary epiphany” happened in 1960 on a visit to the family homestead – a big log cabin out in the country.
“There was a wood stove there, and my aunt pulled out a pan of whole wheat buns.”
Eating those buns after a lifetime of white bread was a revelation, one that would later convince him of the importance of local, organic, natural ingredients.
“It’s what makes Canadian cuisine so great and so recognized, we have fresh, local, foraged foods,” he says.
Graduating with a cooking degree from Northern Lights College around 1969, Townsend says he plied his trade cooking for mining camps and high-class restaurants in B.C. Later, he returned to Dawson Creek as head chef of the Deluxe Evolutionary Alaska CafĂ© and Dining Room – the first major restaurant at the start of the Alaska Highway and a magnet for tourists.
Townsend says he had free rein to use his big-city cooking skills, and even got to host his own radio show: Hey Chef, What’s Cooking?
“It was corny, but it was folksy,” he says, and typically involved him talking about local ingredients and recipes. He can still recite the show’s introduction word-for-word, and even sing a few lines of its theme song, Hey Good Lookin’ by Hank Williams.
Moving to the George Dawson Inn, Townsend says he struggled to find certified chefs to staff his kitchen. That prompted him to start an apprenticeship program at Northern Lights College – one that, within five years, produced a kitchen’s worth of students gunning for his job.
In 1988, Townsend headed south to start his ongoing career as a culinary arts instructor with NAIT.
Perry Michetti was one of his students, and is now associate dean of NAIT’s School of Hospitality and Culinary Arts.
“He’s salt of the earth,” Michetti says of Townsend, and understands the importance of caring for people.
“He’ll give anyone a chance to succeed.”
Townsend has been chair of NAIT’s culinary arts program for 25 years and helps hundreds of students a year with their studies, Michetti says. He also helped start and continues to organize the Skills Canada culinary arts challenge in Alberta, and wows hundreds of kids each year with his live demos at Skills tournaments on how to carve dolphins from bananas.
Paul Kane teacher Randy Kozak has worked closely with Townsend ever since Alberta had its first Skills tournament.
“Kids were Job One for him,” he says.
Kozak recalls how one time a girl burned her finger during a Skills challenge and was unable to finish her event. Instead of disqualifying her, and despite being a judge at a time, Townsend said, “Randy, let’s help this girl.” The two of them helped her finish her dish just so she’d have a good experience at Skills.
“He’s always cared about the kids, and that’s the one thing I’ve always appreciated about him and what he does.”
Townsend continues to visit schools, prisons, and First Nations to promote careers in cooking, and chairs the Edmonton High School Culinary Challenge.
Townsend says he considers the Honour Society medal now on his chest the “icing on the cake” of a 45-year career in the hospitality industry.
His greatest reward has been seeing so many former students (including Paul Kane graduates Peter Keith and Patrick Gayler) go on to international competitions.
“It’s not the mountain I’ve climbed. It’s the people I’ve helped climb the mountain.”
He’s glad to see that St. Albert also now has a flourishing culinary scene, driven in part by its own home-grown talent.
Now two weeks from retirement, Townsend says he plans to spend his later years playing the ukulele, writing, fishing and mushroom hunting.
He still plans to stay involved with St. Albert, he adds.
“I’ve travelled through 37 different countries, I’ve worked all across Canada, but I’m not going anywhere. St. Albert is home to me.”
Stanley Townsend Q&A
Family? Wife, Lynda, three kids.
Signature dish? “I make a pretty mean Thai butternut squash soup,” he says, but corn-crusted pickerel is his favorite.
Why does my dad always burn the steak? “He’s got the barbecue turned on too high and maybe he doesn’t have to put the lid down.” Try cooking it slower and lower, he says. “Every time I burn a steak, I say it’s nicely caramelized.”
The St. Albert area has produced many individuals who are leading interesting lives and accomplishing remarkable achievements, both locally and abroad. The St. Albert Gazette profiles these people on a regular basis.
If you know of an individual who you feel should be recognized in this way, please contact the editor at 780-460-5510 or firstname.lastname@example.org.