As you drive down Boudreau Road, it is easy to miss Appetite Global Cuisine. This St. Albert hidden gem sits across the road from Century Casino next to the Bourbon Room, but a phalanx of towering spruce trees block the view from passersby.
Its limited visibility is part of the reason owner and Red Seal Chef Rajesh (Reggie) Srivastava has struggled to attract a loyal following since the family-style restaurant opened in 2015.
“My niche is global cuisine and homemade food. And our prices are very reasonable,” says Srivastava. “But I’m old school. I’m not good at marketing. I thought word-of-mouth was enough. But nowadays it’s important to have social media. I’ve just set up a website, Instagram and Facebook.”
Most disconcerting was how, despite a worldwide push to eat healthier foods, many local families still prefer grabbing quick meals at fast-food chains. This makes it increasingly difficult for independents to thrive.
“I was shocked. I make everything from scratch, yet people prefer commercial bought products.”
Passionate about cooking and self-driven to succeed, the Gandhi look-alike was born in Lucknow, Northern India and raised in the cosmopolitan city of New Delhi. However, he trained at the prestigious Swiss Hotel School Culinary Institute.
Taught to follow the exacting techniques of high-end French cuisine, the culinary globetrotter has worked at lavish hotel restaurants in Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, Montreal’s Queen Elizabeth Hilton Hotel (now Fairmont Queen Elizabeth) and Edmonton’s Chateau Lacombe.
The menu at Appetite is a mosaic of various foods he’s encountered on his culinary journey. A meal at the casually laid out restaurant is similar to dining on a cruise ship with its multitude of global dishes.
The flavourful dishes range from lobster bisque and Moroccan beef kabobs to spaghetti topped with bolognese sauce and Indian butter chicken on basmati rice. And much more.
While some foodies prefer dining in restaurants with one national cuisine (Italian, Greek, Thai or African, etc.), Srivastava has tapped into our Canadian hybrid of cultures. He recognizes that food is a gateway to cultures. Since we live in a globalized society, his dishes reflect the pulse of our many immigrant cultures.
Interestingly, as a teenager the Red Seal chef, like most adolescents, was more interested in popular mainstream music.
“When I was 15 years old, I obtained a fake I.D. and went into a nightclub. I saw the musicians and I wanted to do that. I also saw the food and how it was presented and I thought, ‘I could do that.' ”
“I loved cooking and I loved hotels and restaurants. In India, hotels have lots of glamour.”
Initial discussions with his parents met with opposition. Srivastava was born into a family of professionals. His father was a government psychologist, his mother a teacher.
Three sisters also opted for the university route. One became a teacher, another a psychologist and the third received a Ph.D. in science and was employed at India’s Ministry of Defence.
“My parents wanted me to become a professional engineer. But I was a mediocre student. I told my dad I wanted to be a good cook.”
He enrolled at the Swiss culinary institute in 1977, sharing a class with 20 European aspiring chefs.
At the institute, students studied theories of cooking, styles of cooking, nutrition as well as safety and sanitation.
“On weekends, I arranged to work at an abattoir (slaughterhouse), but I have never become an expert. Butchery is subsidiary to cooking, but as a chef I still have to know where all the cuts come from.”
The late '70s was a time when numerous European culinary establishments believed chefs primarily from the Middle East and Asia could mimic European cuisine but not really understand it. Some described the attitude as racism, others as a cultural belief.
“I believe people treat you the way you treat them. Not every person is racist. If you treat people with respect, you will receive respect. I was never discriminated by teachers or friends.”
While completing his apprenticeship at Hotel Swiss, he worked long hours in a basement kitchen. A house specialty that gave him a few moments pause was deer ragu.
“To thicken it, we added pork blood. That gives it a dark brown colour like gravy. I had never studied blood as a thickening agent.”
After Srivastava’s apprenticeship was complete, he opted to gain more European experience and applied to the elegant Hotel Bad Schachen, a castle-like waterfront hotel in Lindau, Germany.
“I leaned how to cook sauerkraut from scratch and then spaetzle (dumplings) and I have it on my menu,” he chuckles.
But the small German town had a different vibe from Switzerland, in large part due to language roadblocks.
“In Switzerland I spoke French. They treated me as a foreigner – as if I didn’t know a lot of things. They explained things and treated me well.”
“In Germany I didn’t speak German. I was the only Indian in a small town. The only other foreigner was a Turkish dishwasher. I found it hard to explain things. Sometimes we would go out for a drink. But I felt segregated because of the language barrier.”
After completing a one-year contract in Germany, Srivastava moved to the Brussels Hyatt Regency where he perfected shallow-fry frogs legs, roast pigeons tied with a slice of bacon, and duck a l’orange flambéed with Grand Marnier.
After an eventful year in Brussels, he debated returning to India.
“At that time, the Indian economy was booming. There were lots of computer jobs. But there was a difference, a big gap in the standard of living for someone working in a hotel restaurant.”
While living in Europe, Srivastava spent numerous leisure hours hitch-hiking throughout the continent. During one of his outdoor ventures, he met a Canadian who would change his life.
“He told me, ‘I own a lake. You can own lots of land in Canada.’ I had read about Canada and I knew it was a huge country.”
Gambling on his future, Srivastava applied to Montreal’s Queen Elizabeth Hilton. In 1981, he packed his meagre possessions and flew toward a future filled with possibilities.
The Hilton was a well-oiled mass production machine. It served main restaurants as well as catering banquets for 2,000 to 3,000 people. About 15 chefs and cooks were assigned to an event tying meats by hand and turning vegetables.
Turning vegetables is a classic French technique where veggies are shaped to an elongated uniform size, ensuring even cooking while being aesthetically pleasing.
“It takes hours and hours to do. It was difficult and time consuming. But in the ’80s, we charged $50 to $60 a plate.”
Srivastava, who spoke French, enjoyed the sophisticated Francophone city. But his wife Vineeta did not and felt slightly alienated.
Edmonton was developing a culinary presence and he applied to the Westin Hotel, Chateau Lacombe and the Four Seasons Hotel, now known as Sutton Place Hotel.
“I received three job offers. The Chateau provided the highest salary. They also paid for my airfare and moving costs.”
He landed a position as executive sous chef in 1986 and within six months was promoted to executive chef. As top dog, Srivastava spent most of the day delegating a staff of 35 cooks in between scheduling shifts, purchasing, menu planning, banquet planning and dealing with day-to-day crises.
“Everything was cooked on the premises. Even carcasses of beef were brought in and cut into pieces. It was more challenging and more creative than now.”
In 1986, Srivastava and his family returned to India to travel around the country.
“Neither my wife or I had travelled within India. We were always too busy. It was a good time to do it.”
However, upon returning, the Red Seal chef was unable to find work as an executive chef and instead was hired as a dietary chef at Royal Alexandra Hospital. As one of several dietary chefs, the team was responsible for creating 3,000 to 4,000 meals daily for patients, staff and visitors.
“I stayed for four years, but in my heart I was always a creative cook and I wanted to go back to it.”
By 1995, Edmonton’s three YMCA locations revamped their eateries. Srivastava left the hospital and opened Reggie’s Kitchen, a business that operated the YMCA locations and put a new spin on healthy eating. He created low-fat meals, freshly baked products, creamy soups without cream and introduced freshly squeezed orange juice.
But by 2005, Alberta’s oilfield was operating full-throttle and cooks were leaving for high-paying camp jobs. The shortage was critical with some independent restaurants closed their doors due to a lack of applicants.
Srivastava contacted Canada’s immigration network and applied to hire one experienced cook from India. His request was readily granted.
“I contacted other restaurants to see if this service was needed – Moxie's, Sawmill, Outback Steakhouse, Boston Pizza, A & W, East Side Mario's. They jumped on it. Moxie's alone asked me to recruit 80 cooks.”
Business was going great guns and within a period of two years, Srivastava became a full-time recruiter. He shut down Reggie’s Kitchen, focusing strictly on recruiting hundreds of chefs who might otherwise live out a precarious existence at home.
But by 2012, oil prices tanked, northern camps closed and a glut of cooks flooded the market.
Electing to return to his first passion, Srivastava shopped around for the right restaurant. And when he first set eyes on what is now Appetite, he saw opportunity.
There’s a sense of cultural pride that fills his heart every time he springs into action in the kitchen. But his pride is not limited to one nationality. It encompasses the world and urges us to explore with our palates.
Appetite Global Cuisine is hosting a special Mother’s Day brunch with 15 world-class dishes, a symphony of fruit, a selection of pastries and tea, coffee and pop. Adults $22.95, seniors $19.95, kids under 10 $13.95 and kids under 4 free. To reserve call 780-460-2294 or visit www.appetiterestaurant.ca.