Waiting in a half-hour line for green onion cakes: Taste of Edmonton is one of the biggest food events in town, but for many years that was pretty much all that distinguished it—sheer volume. Tens of thousands of people attended and the participating restaurants doled out countless small plates of nibbles, but variety and innovation usually weren’t part of those food samples.
Spurred by mounting criticism of the festival, Taste of Edmonton undertook a major overhaul of its image and focus three years ago. The changes have been numerous, immediately noticeable and wholesale for the better.
“The board wanted to dispel some of the rumours that were going around that we were supporting the big chain restaurants and that we were becoming very much greasy spoon with the same old, same old, menus not changing, not very interesting; the event was getting a little tired,” Paul Lucas says. He took over the position of general manager of Events Edmonton, the organizing body that hosts Taste of Edmonton, about two-and-a-half years ago.
For most people, Taste of Edmonton is a big walkabout outdoor tasting alley in Churchill Square where vendors distribute a range of sample-sized menu items. It’s the main feature of the festival, and it is also the part that came under fire in recent years as being tired, stagnant and generally
“What we undertook to do was a stakeholder review with the provincial government assisting us, to facilitate a complete review of the event from the eyes of our public, from the restaurant owners, from the industry,” Lucas says. “Really, that put us on the journey of instituting so many changes to where it’s evolved to today.”
Those changes included the addition of constraints on menu item duplication and replication year after year, as well as the inclusion of many new vendors: 2015 will see 12 new restaurants and 54 new menu items.
But the biggest change for Taste of Edmonton was the advent of ancillary events designed to offer new experiences and increase attendees’ exposure to smaller vendors who wouldn’t (or couldn’t) participate in the main vendor portion of the festival. In 2012 the festival added a cooking competition and food trucks. In 2013 Taste of Edmonton formalized these additional events under the Sip ‘N Savour component and added pop-up tastings and cooking workshops. Last year the organizers added off-site culinary adventures that take Edmontonians away from Churchill Square to various locations in and around the city. (This year will include tours of Yellowhead Brewery, Jacek Chocolate and Gold Forest Grains Farm, for example.)
“A lot of times, the smaller restaurants tend to get a bit of a rude awakening in terms of the volume of food that can be served through an event this large,” Lucas says. He describes Sip ‘N Savour as an “incubator” event where they hope to give potential new restaurants a sample of what it would be like to participate as a full-fledged vendor for the entire 10-day run.
This year will continue the previously established Sip ‘N Savour events and will add a kids’ component, but the biggest coup d’état was the inclusion of the Canadian Food Championships (CFCs).
“We see it as putting Edmonton kind of on the culinary map of being aggressive and being out there in terms of we’re not just a bunch of rednecks,” Lucas explains. “We’ve got a very, very vibrant culinary scene here in our city, and we want to support that by trying to promote and bring the best of the best that we can from right across the country to compete.”
From July 21 to July 25, a qualifying event for the CFCs will be held in a series of 20 temporary kitchens built on Centennial Plaza (directly south of the Stanley Milner Library). Attendance is free, and people are encouraged to walk around and watch the competitors in action, some of whom are Edmonton and Alberta locals. The winners in each of the six categories will go on to represent Team Canada in the World Food Championships in Florida this November.
The CFCs signed a three-year contract and will therefore have an event in town for the next two years as well, though not necessarily at Taste of Edmonton. Events Edmonton is currently in the middle of those negotiations.
Closer to home, Taste of Edmonton is also hosting the fifth and biggest instalment to date of Edmonton Food Fight, which will see four (instead of the usual two) local chefs competing head-to-head over three mystery ingredients on July 19. Tickets to this event include a food and drinks menu featuring wild game and wild flowers.
“We heard loud and clear from some really top-notch chefs that Taste of Edmonton wasn’t for them,” Lucas notes. “We think now that we’ve gone on this journey, a lot of them have changed their mind and they see it as a celebration of coming out and showcasing who they are, what they’re about and promoting their business.”
Rebranding aside, the biggest challenge facing Taste of Edmonton—and one that has the potential to seriously curtail the momentum it has built up in the past three years—is the LRT construction that will force the festival off Churchill Square for the next two years. Lucas notes that they are still in the process of figuring out a temporary new home; they are considering Legislative Plaza and Capital Boulevard on the legislature grounds.
Taste of Edmonton could have very easily just continued to remount the festival without any changes and would probably still be doing OK: Edmontonians love their green onion cakes, after all. But it’s incredibly encouraging that the festival wasn’t willing to simply accept the status quo and that they organizers have chosen to keep pace with the city’s food scene, if not lead it.
Taste of Edmonton’s changes mean that greater numbers of people are gaining exposure to foods, restaurants and culinary experiences outside their usual comfort zones while at a familiar, safe event. In this regard, Taste of Edmonton’s greatest contribution to the city’s culinary landscape isn’t in being an outlier itself, but rather in showing the average person that they can and should engage in our city’s food evolution.
Until Jul 25
Churchill Square, various locations