Q&A with Chef Ben Staley

We chat with Edmonton's "progressive" chef 


Child prodigy is not a term to use liberally, but how else can you describe a chef who ran a catering company and had his first recipe published while in Grade 11? 

At 22, Ben Staley has already worked in restaurants for a decade. Now the self-taught chef behind Edmonton’s North 53 is pushing culinary boundaries with what he calls “progressive Canadian” food.

Few ingredients in Staley’s kitchen have travelled further than from Vancouver. “We wanted to be 100-per cent Canadian,” he says. By using only what’s closely available and employing some high-tech tools such as a centrifuge (a rapid spinner that separates liquids from solids) and an Urban Cultivator (a mini greenhouse, essentially), North 53 maintains a mutable, fresh menu. That’s no easy task in Canada’s northernmost major city. We caught up with the wunderkind chef to find out how he does it.

What makes North 53 “progressive” Canadian?

When I asked people, “What is Canadian cuisine?” they’d say poutine, back bacon and smoked meat sandwiches. We’re progressive Canadian in the way we’re trying to push Canadian cuisine forward. In my vocabulary, “weird” is a good word. I like to make things different.

How weird does it get?

We actually cut down a blue spruce tree for our Smoke and Oak Old Fashioned [cocktail]. We put the leftover needles in the oven and made an ash, but it was really gross and bitter. So we blended it with a vegetable oil and it was still really gross. I’d forgotten about it and left it on a shelf for three days, then I tasted it and it was delicious. All the bitterness and harshness went away—it was just subtle. We purified it in the centrifuge and now we have a blue spruce ash oil, which works well with beef and fresh cheese.

How do you use gadgets like the centrifuge without being gimmicky?

Modesty is key. We don’t really say much about it. It’s all about the desired results from these pieces of equipment that you can’t get any other way.

Your menu is vague about execution and only lists ingredients. Why?

I like it when food comes to the table as a surprise.

Given that everything but your back-of-bar is sourced from Alberta or B.C., what’s off limits?

Basics like olive oils, citrus, vanilla, chocolate. We don’t use any black pepper. I can go on. There’s a lot more off-limits than on. Our spice cabinet consists of six spices, though we grow our own thyme and other herbs. Those aren’t a problem.

Does that make it hard to bring out some desired flavours?

I wanted to get better as a cook, and getting better is all about challenging yourself. This is the biggest challenge we can impose on ourselves.

How do you prepare for winter?

This summer and fall, we’re going crazy on preserving, pickling and stocking up. But, because we opened in January, last winter was very hard on us. We didn’t have the summer and fall to prepare and we just didn’t have the product.

What can we expect next winter?

I don’t even know what I’m doing next week. I’m just flying by the seat of my pants.