We love to check in with our some of Canada’s top chefs, foodies, tastemakers and other culinary experts from time to time! Today, we catch up with Spencer Thompson, Savoury Chef at District Cafe and Bakery in Edmonton, Alberta, where he works with pastry chef Erica Vliegenthart.
Chef Thompson is also the owner of Toast Fine Catering, a busy one-day-a-week concession & espresso bar based out of the Strathcona Farmers Market. He hopes to one day to grow Paradise Fields, his eight-acre organic farm in Lacombe, to supply a hefty amount of vegetables and honey towards District Cafe and Toast Fine Catering.
But today, Chef Thompson answers a few of our questions about what makes him tick as a chef, and why he loves cooking with Switzerland cheeses!
Switzerland Cheese: Tell us a little bit about yourself as well as District Café and Bakery.
Answer: I grew up in Ardrossan Alberta, 30 minutes or so east of Edmonton. Plenty of opportunities to get my hands dirty at my best friend’s farm and the local 4H program. Coincidentally, said best friend’s farm is where I did the majority of the stupid things in my life, as there weren’t too many other places around there to get into trouble.
I moved to Edmonton when I was 18 and have been cooking here since 2006. I lucked out and found an incredible mentor in Chef Sonny Sung (Sorrentino’s, Bistecca Italian Steakhouse), who I worked with for a solid five years. He passed on a solid base of techniques that I carry with me to this day.
The move to District Cafe is a recent one, and I’m really happy to be working with Nate Box and the crazy talented chefs he has running his cafes and restaurants. It’s an extremely exciting time in my career.
Q: What types of “Swiss” cheese do you like to use in recipes or prepare or serve at home/for friends and family?
A: Emmentaler, Gruyère, Raclette and Appenzeller are a few that I’m extremely fond of and have been readily available to me throughout my career. At home, I’ve found Gruyère to be a good staple that is extremely versatile, even tossed in with fresh pasta to emulsify a simple lemon butter.
Like most professional chefs, my fridge at home is not well-stocked, as most of my meals are consumed at the restaurant, but I’m almost always stocked up on good olive oil, lemons, garlic, butter and a couple of hard cheese and cured meats.
Q: What are your favourite types of Switzerland cheeses to munch on and why?
A: Nothing beats Emmental, and I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t like a bottle of Chardonnay or Gewurztraminer to go hand in hand. Some of my fondest memories of being a young cook in Edmonton were formed at The Marc Bistro; they serve this baked/crisp Emmental cookie atop a very classic caesar salad. When I was grating kilos of Emmental, the other cooks would always materialize in my station to make a quick snack of it. It’s generally irresistible!
Q: What do you find interesting about Switzerland cheeses?
A: I’d have to relate this back to Alsace, on France’s Eastern border, bordering Switzerland. The Alsatian cuisine is quite heavy, think Salted pork, choucroute, sausages, potatoes cooked very simply and with no short supply of Swiss cheeses.
The part that I find funny would be the wines they’re so well known for, Gewurztraminer being one excellent example. Total polar-opposite in flavour of their cuisine—I’ll usually liken them to that first bite of a nice crisp, juicy apple, it pairs so perfectly. It just makes me chuckle at how the food & drink mirror each other, and go hand in hand so well, like pork and mustard. [Link in this section to Cheese/Wine Pairing infographic or blog post]
Q: People often think of cheese as being unhealthy … thoughts?
A: It’s called moderation, my friends. If the ingredients and techniques are straightforward, honest and natural, I don’t care what a dietician is going to tell me about it. Where our society is going wrong, regarding our diet, is our obsession with fast food and convenience items. But I’m a chef; my job revolves around giving people pleasure through food, I’m not someone to lecture you on your diet, it’s just not in my job description.
Q: If you had to give up one or the other, chocolate or cheese, which would it be and why?
A: My closest friends are rolling their eyes whenever I talk about fondue; I’m a little bit obsessed at the moment. Just give me kirsch, melted cheese and some crusty bread please, forget about the melted chocolate and fresh fruit for dessert.
I was recently in Amsterdam and walked an hour in the pouring January rain to find one of their finest fondue joints. I don’t remember seeing or caring about any chocolate. On that trip, I also visited my sister who ran off to Belgium with my old sous chef, if she reads this I’m going to get in trouble—she’s our family’s chocolate fanatic and raves like a lunatic about a chocolate shop in Hasselt called Bon.
You can find Chef Spencer Thompson at District Cafe & Bakery, and don’t forget to try all of the delicious cheeses he mentioned from your local grocer or deli.