There’s so much more than meets the eye on the menu at the Park Café in Assiniboine Park.
For those in the know, this place has always been a breakfast, brunch and lunch gem, packing in crowds throughout service (particularly on weekends) with an airy ambiance that includes striking views of the Riley Family Duck Pond and the surrounding trees of the park.
The dining room is pretty sweet too, situated in the Qualico Family Centre that was designed by local firm Number 10 “to create a sustainable, evocative and emotionally inspiring building that is rooted to its site.” There’s so much natural light, something to look at through every window, plus who doesn’t love the huge fiddle-leaf fig plant in the middle of the dining room, along with the tree that goes through the roof in the covered walkway outside the building? It’s a gorgeous setting to look out of during any season.
To complement such a room, the Park Café’s menu continues to get better and better. This summer through autumn, the eatery took advantage of the new Kitchen Garden at the Gardens at The Leaf (just a short walk from the Qualico Centre) to create so many enhancing elements. Simple-sounding dishes would pop via smoked tomato paste for soups, Vietnamese coriander salt for curries and shiso sugar for strawberry jams and baked goods. There are salsas that aren't just 100-mile sourced, they are 100-metre sourced. There are plenty of ferments, a plethora of pickled goods that will continue to showcase the gardens this winter, while stuffed chicken dishes at upcoming banquets at The Pavilion will sing with sage salt.
A lot of this is the result of Park Café Head Chef Mike DeGroot working with his staff to make the most of what the gardens' horticulturists have been producing, all while running one of the busiest restaurants and venues in the city.
To get the full details on this continuing garden-to-table program, along with what makes Assiniboine Park’s many culinary assets so great, we sat down with Chef DeGroot for the interview below, which has been edited for length and clarity.
What’s your culinary history?
I started working in restaurants when I was in university and found myself skipping classes to pick up shifts at work. And I think that’s when it dawned on me that I was probably doing the wrong thing. So I worked for a year [at Earl’s] and then did culinary school at Red River.
I worked at Mise on Corydon for a while and then The Gates on Roblin was my first long stint—I was there for almost five years. I did everything there from the banquets, to the in-home catering, to working the line. Heiko Duehrsen who was the chef at The Gates at the time came over to be executive chef here and gave me call and asked if I first wanted to help out here [at the Park Café] in the mornings.
I did both for a bit, but I really like it here and it sort of fit how I liked to cook and I saw the potential. I’ve been here at The Park for almost 10 years, worked up as a cook to the sous chef, where I made most of the menus that got us started.
Note: While working at The Park, DeGroot was also often picking up night shifts at Sydney’s at The Forks then later sometimes Sous Sol under former chef Mike Robins, who DeGroot says, “Is a pretty inspiring character… he’ll still call me for projects and before I hear [the question] the answer is always yes.”
How has the Park Café evolved during your time here?
It has been a slow progression from where we started. Being in the Qualico Family Centre, being accessible is something we definitely always kept in mind. So, we present everything and try to keep everything as affordable as possible.
Every new menu we’ve taken a step to ensure almost everything is made in house. Just stronger cooking fundamentals. And I think it has shown that we are busier year-over-year here and now that we have had access to this garden for this first season here, we will definitely base how our summer menu is going to look based on the availability of this stuff.
What has it been like working with this brand-new garden?
Admittedly, it caught us off guard a little bit with how much we got, so we weren’t totally ready for it, even horticulture [department] wasn’t totally ready for what they got. And this is first planting and this was a bad growing year—we had that drought all summer—and that’s all in new soil so nothing has had a chance to take root.
We started seeing our first loads in late-June, early July. The spring chives and spring lettuces and a lot of herbs—all those fresh leafy greens. But soon we were seeing full yields—a full Mitsubishi [minicab] truck load—from mid-July to two weeks ago.
It’s been really fun to have that challenge. There are obvious things you can do with it: it can go in soups, it can go in salads, but that will only get you so far before you have a spoilage issue. So we’ve had to find ways to preserve this, so we started making oils and lots of ferments.
For instance, tomatoes were something we got a lot of. Some are perfectly ripe and have a perfect shape so we were running those on tomato salads, but a lot were underripe or misshapen. So we’d put those in the smoker for about three hours with hickory and mesquite until they were pretty tanned with smoke. We’d then dehydrate them in the oven and blitz them into a powder, so we’d end up with this smoky tomato seasoning.
We’d then ferment the underripe ones, then mix that with smoked tomato seasoning and strain that off to make our own fermented tomato paste. We’d then add a big tablespoon of that to each order of soup to give it a big flavour hit. We’d also make tomato aioli with it too.
It’s been a really fun project to take all this great produce and getting to decide what to do with it.
Note: some of the ingredients that have been harvested from the Gardens at The Leaf’s Kitchen Garden that you can catch on the Park Café plates into the winter include pickled cauliflower, beets, beans, onions, salsas and so many salts, sugars and powders that have been created using the herbs that were picked throughout the summer. Most of the garden-forward dishes run as specials, while every pumpkin pie right now is straight from the garden.
We’re doing this interview at 2 p.m. on a Wednesday and the dining room is still 80 per cent full. Are you at all surprised by how busy this place is?
I think it’s remarkable and a testament to the hard work we’ve done on our menus and developing the food we serve here how people [are willing to] wait an hour plus for a table on the weekend. They could choose some place where they’d wait less, but they stick with us and we take that responsibility seriously.
Assiniboine Park Conservancy’s (APC) culinary offerings at a glance:
- The Park Treats window (outside the building by the pond) is open all the hours that Park Café is open (9 a.m. to 4 p.m.) with food items, hot apple cider that’s made in-house, along with hot chocolate and coffees.
- The Park Café can do 300 covers on the weekend, with a dining room that seats 80.
- The new restaurant at The Leaf will have 90 seats, plus a 40-seat patio (opening is tentative for late 2022).
- APC’s other culinary offerings include the Tundra Grill and other small concessions, along with The Pavilion for catered events. The Pavilion is already booking five to six banquets a week right now.
- Executive chef of the whole operation is Heiko Duehrsen.