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Chef's Table: Sarah’s Kitchen

Sarah Radloff was one of the first, if not NAIT’s first, female Red Seal chef to work in a Dubai hotel kitchen. In a male dominated culture, it was the equivalent of sporting green skin or a third eye.

Hard working, passionate and in love with the hectic life of working in a kitchen, she nevertheless faced the challenges with inborn determination and enthusiasm.

However, Dubai was not the peak of Radloff’s career. It was just one step in a 20-year career working in professional kitchens that brought her to St. Albert.

For two years, the owner of Sarah’s Kitchen has operated the New York style deli, a sleek, efficient operation that prepares all its food in-house from scratch. The cool, glass cases display ready-to-go soups, sandwiches, salads, meats, pastries, main dishes and sides.

“I wanted a one-stop shopping place for busy families where you could pick up a meal, salad, appetizers or raw meat you can cook with vegetables and potatoes. I want to accommodate people,” said Radloff.

As a mother to a three-year-old, she is in a similar situation to most families and has tailored Sarah’s Kitchen to take the pressure off parents’ lives.

“I think many people want to cook. I don’t think they have the time. Imagine working all day and then picking up kids at school or daycare. You get home, everyone’s hungry and now you have to cook. Someone has soccer, someone has dance. What do you do?”

While many chefs enjoy parading their skills simmering rich sauces or cooking complicated dishes, Radloff takes the opposite approach.

“I’m a no-fuss person. I like good wholesome food. I like a good product to make a dish. I don’t like itty-bitty things. That’s not food. I want things you can take home and say ‘this is homemade.”

The Kamloops-born chef originally moved to Edmonton to obtain her Red Seal chef certification at NAIT. Her first job in the City of Champions was as a dishwasher. But once the prestigious certification of apprenticeship was firmly in hand, she was invited to work at the Fairmont Hotel Macdonald.

Impressed with her work ethic, the eager young chef was promoted from a bottom-tier line cook in Confederation Lounge to first cook at the Harvest Room.

But after two years, Radloff was itching to travel, and through the company transferred to Fairmont Château Whistler. Unfortunately, once the snow melted, the kitchen downsized its staff.

Luckily, an opening at Fairmont South Hampton, in the topical paradise of Bermuda, came down the pipe. During the next two years Radloff spent the spring-summer tourist season cheffing on the Caribbean Island and the winter months at Whistler.

“Bermuda used to be a British colony. I drove a scooter on the wrong side of the road. All the buildings have vibrant colours. What can I say? Everything is island time. There is pink sand and blue water everywhere, and if we had a shift in the afternoon, we’d go to the beach and tan in the morning.”

I crack a joke about the tough life of a Bermudian chef. Radloff replies it was hard – the long hours and picking up new skills cooking plates of scallops, shrimp, lobsters, rockfish and crabs instead of Canada’s favoured beef, chicken and pork.

“I even butchered a baby shark once. It was the size of a table. The meat was tough and it wasn’t that good,” she grimaces. And it took all day to complete the job.

One of the benefits was meeting now deceased celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain. At the time, Radloff cooked for the hotel’s Newport Room, an upscale French dining room resembling a yacht with mahogany panelling, brass accents and white-clothed tables.

Every year the hotel invited a celebrity chef to join the employees in cooking a dinner and Bourdain was it.

“We were supposed to do his recipes and serve him. He was supposed to work with us. But he’s a celebrity and I guess he was too busy. But, at night after work was done, we’d escape the heat in the kitchen and go in the cooler for a beer. That night he joined us and stayed and talked for about an hour.”

He even signed Radloff’s copy of Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly. It was Bourdain’s first memoir, a best-seller that elevated him to celebrity status and a thriving career on TV.

The dark and funny memoir exposed the true kitchen culture where drugs, drinking and long brutal hours on the line were viewed as both a badge of honour and a curse.

“I loved the book. It was the epitome of our lives – the rush, the heat, the pressure, the thrill. The book nailed it for me.”

Setting Bourdain’s swagger aside, Radloff viewed him as down to earth individual.

“He always kept it real. It wasn’t about fancy food. It was about real ingredients and what you could do with what you had.”

Bermuda was an incredible experience, but by 2005, the Canadian chef was searching for more adventurous destinations. Dubai’s dining scene had gone through a major shakeup and it was buzzing with activity. Located within the United Arab Emirates (UAE), it was the new international culinary hotspot. Radloff applied to the Fairmont Dubai.

“Dubai rocked my world. It changed everything I thought about anything. Men came from a culture where women could not work outside the house. They were amazed I could and they were surprised I left my family.

“And people were really concerned about your religion. They didn’t really care what it was. They just wanted to know so they could peg you.”

As a visitor she visited the souks (markets) and toured the malls including the Mall of Emirates. It is one of the largest in the world containing an indoor ski area about 22,500 square metres in size.

She skied down runs that drop 85 metres (279 feet). While it was a pleasant once-in-a-lifetime experience, it paled next to Whistler’s Rocky Mountains.

“In the kitchen they’d bring in specialty chefs from India. We’d train with them and learn how to make curry dishes and pastries.”

The Emirati are also fond of khuzi or ghuzi, a national dish made from whole-roasted lamb or mutton served with vegetables and nuts on a bed of rice.

“It was delicious.”

In addition to kitchen duties Radloff was also requested to serve. The hotel was host to numerous prestigious events and weddings attended by UAE princes, the wealthy and influential.

At weddings, men and women partied in separate areas with members of their own sex.

“I was the only woman working in the kitchen and I took in the food and served the women. It was a really good opportunity to see their traditions.”

However, after one year of service, Radloff left. A male French chef was extremely critical of her work and it created difficulties. Realizing it was time to leave, she moved to the newly constructed resort, the Ritz-Carlton at Doha, Qatar.

Built along a coastline, the luxurious Ritz-Carlton boasted every modern amenity couched in traditional elements and exclusivity.

In the kitchen hierarchy, Radloff was chef de partie. She was in charge of a particular area of production with several cooks and assistants working under her.

“I was the only woman working in the kitchen and I stood out like a sore thumb. But it didn’t bother me. The men treated me well. I was management and once I put them in their place, they understood I did know what I was doing.”

At the time, Qatar was attempting to emulate Dubai’s success.

“They had the money and tourism, but they were still old school. Dubai was more free or easygoing.”

Radloff stayed a year but by 2007, the urge to return to Edmonton surfaced and in Januyary of that year she flew back to be met with -45 C weather.

“There was a cold snap and I came from plus 50 degrees. My mom had to bring me a winter jacket at the airport.”

Upon her return, Radloff went into partnership with another chef operating a deli. She ran the St. Albert location for 11 years before becoming sole proprietor. Two years ago, she rebranded it Sarah’s Kitchen.

“Because of my experience learning from the core, I cook the real thing. I soak my beans. I mix my own spices. I do my own butchery. From start to finish, this is homemade food.”

In addition to the deli’s regular offerings, Sarah’s Kitchen offers a special for Thanksgiving that includes turkey, roasted root vegetables, stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potato mash and pumpkin pie.

“If there are only two or three in the family, you may not want to do a big turkey.”

The cost is $25 per person. Deadline for orders is Thursday, Oct. 10. Pickup is Saturday, Oct. 12. Call 780-569-1190.