By Sara Burnside Menuck
Chef Liana Robberecht is firmly planted in Canada’s food scene. Trained in both culinary and visual arts, she led Calgary’s Petroleum Club for over 18 years before joining WinSport as executive chef in 2015. She’s won numerous industry awards, including being named 2011’s Chef of the Year by the Alberta Foodservice Expo and Canadian Restaurant & Foodservice News. Former vice-president of Women Chefs & Restaurateurs, she’s served as a mentor and an advocate for women in professional kitchens. She even had a hand – in fact, probably two – in launching Canada’s largest holiday cookie exchange last December, gathering 57 chefs together to raise almost $20,000 for charity, in partnership with Global News.
These days, in addition to overseeing operations at WinSport’s Canada Olympic Park, Robberecht curates a plant-based dining series called Planted, which kicks off its third year at the end of March; participating chefs and businesses spend the next month continuing the plant-based conversation with their own dinners, brunches, cocktails, and other menu offerings, with a portion of the proceeds going to the Starlight Children’s foundation. They gather back together at the end of April for what Robberecht describes as a celebration, a “mini-festival” of vegetables. “I’ve had a long-time love affair with vegetables,” she says. “I’m not a vegan or a vegetarian; I just love vegetables.”
The inspiration for the series came at a collaboration event Robberecht participated in a few years ago, when she was struck by an idea: what if there was a similar event, but just focused on vegetables? She was immediately challenged by her fellow chefs to make it a reality. Before long, Chef James Nielson, food and beverage operations manager for the Calgary Zoo and a friend of Robberecht’s, came on board as a partner – “and that’s how Planted was born.”
This year, the question kicking off the series: Would you like red or white with your… spinach? On March 27, Planted launches a new event called Plants, Pinots and Potions, where attendees can sample pinot varieties and cocktails that pair specifically well with vegetables. “It’s a little festival to launch the series,” Robberecht says. “It’s very exciting: People have always been pairing their wine and their spirits with their chicken or their fish … now they’re pairing it with their carrots and their spinach.” She notes that people are sometimes intimidated by plant-based menus, particularly when it comes to things like beverage pairings, because it’s so unfamiliar. “This is opening up their world a little bit.”
Also new to Planted this year is Calgary’s first plant-based culinary competition, and Robberecht can barely contain her excitement: “We have a cash prize – $1,500 and a trophy up for grabs – and we’re bringing [celebrity vegan chef] Nina Curtis for part of the judging panel.” The competition aspect also opened up new opportunities for sponsorships, and the excitement – from Robberecht herself, and from the series’ new sponsors and partners – is palpable. “We’re building a community, and they want to be involved in that.”
Interestingly, the plant-based concept is one that is particularly appealing to sponsors, which speaks to the continuing shift in mainstream attitudes toward food. For years, the assumption often was that for something to be plant-based, it necessarily meant anti-meat. But, as Robberecht emphasizes, “that’s not what it’s about. It’s really about the creativity around vegetables. It’s about something exciting in our city.”
Although the upcoming month of vegetable-centric celebrations are sure to keep Robberecht’s hands full, she’s always thinking about the future: ” I want to develop this into like a festival, like a conference. So you go to Galway for oysters, you go to PEI for shellfish – you come to Calgary for vegetables.”
Planted3 launches March 27, 2020, with the event Plants, Pinots and Potions at the Canada Olympic Park in Calgary, and concludes on April 30 with The Planted Kingdom, a spectacular tasting experience at the Calgary Zoo’s tropical ENMAX Conservatory. Visit www.winsport.ca/planted for more information and tickets to these upcoming events.