CALGARY, ALBERTA-When COVID-19 lockdowns began last March 2020, Chef Connie DeSousa and her co-Chef and business partner John Jackson knew they had to suddenly make some big changes to their business model, even as Connie kept on eye on shifts in schooling that could impact her on the home-front as a mom of three.
Chef Connie owns six restaurants in the Calgary area, with her flagship being Charcut. At the time, no one in the restaurant industry could have predicted how long the pandemic would last, and how it would up-end an entire industry. Before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Canada’s foodservice sector was a $95 billion industry, directly employing 1.2 million people. The industry has since lost hundreds of thousands of jobs and billions in sales due to the impacts of COVID-19. Few could also have predicted the up and down impacts upon schools that have left moms like Connie adjusting on short notice.
The Pandemic Pivots
In pre-pandemic times, Chef Connie employs around 200 people in the height of the summer and tourist season. When lockdowns hit, she had to lay off all but 9, all management level. Those 9 employees had to quickly adapt and learn some new skills. Some general managers learned on the fly how to flip burgers and work the line. As shutdown commenced, Connie and John created take home meal kits from the restaurants inventory for the rest of the employees. They wanted to find a way to support their staff through these uncertain times, while also being mindful of food waste.
Chef Connie and Chef John suddenly also had to suspend their plans to open a new restaurant, a New York-inspired Italian joint. They pivoted their plans and decided to sell pizza from an all-new Connie and John’s Pizza, finding that their always loyal customers were craving comfort food during lockdown.
Operating out of their event kitchen space at Charbar, they started selling New York style, 16-inch pizzas and Detroit style square pizzas. They began as pickup only, but business ramped up they quickly moved to the local delivery apps.
Chef Connie continued to make changes in order to sustain her existing restaurants. At Charcut, for years customers have requested take–home charcuterie, but pre-COVID-19 in-house dining demand precluded this. With restaurant dining rooms closed, Chef Connie moved to online butchery and charcuterie. Suddenly, Charcut was able to provide take-home charcuterie for customers. As the popularity grew, Connie began curating “Campfire Boxes.” Albertans are known for hitting the trails in the mountains on the weekends, so Chef Connie curated boxes of charcuterie and meat cuts designed to be taken on hikes and camping trips.
Feeding the family
While charcuterie, pizzas, and burgers are keeping Chef Connie busy at work, at home she is equally busy. A mother of three young daughters, she is happy that they are under the Grade 7 cut-off where school class instruction has periodically moved online-in. Having three kids in daytime classes, and six restaurants plus many work partnerships is more than enough to keep anyone busy. Talking to Chef Connie, one gets the impression she seems to handle it all while remaining positive.
At home, Connie is not the only cook in the kitchen, as her partner loves to cook and the kids are happy to help. Cooking dinners is usually a family endeavour, which takes food preparation away from her day-job duties, and places it firmly in family fun time category.
Taste of Summer
As Canada heads into summer, Albertans are hopeful that restrictions will ease. Currently under a strict lockdown, restaurants have once again resorted to take-out and delivery only. With more vaccine shipments coming, Canadians are hopeful that they will see somewhat of a return to normalcy and that includes dinning in at restaurants, or at least on patios. Chef Connie is thankful for their restaurant’s abundant patio space. They have 150 seats on the ground level and 150 seats on their rooftop bar at Connie and Johns.
As she looks forward to warmer temperatures filling up those patio seats, Connie shares a taste of what she cooks at home, seasoning that great Albertan beef with a flavourful chimichirri sauce.
Grassfed Beef Butcher Steak Chimmichirri
Charred Gemstone Beef butcher steak with chimmichirri, arugula and kitchen pickles
“By chef’s John Jackson and Connie DeSousa of CHARCUT Roast House”
– 6 portions –
6ea Cleaned Butcher steaks approximate 5 to 7oz each (petite tender, skirt steak etc.)
1oz. Olive Oil
Black Pepper Ground
Clean steaks removing all silver skin and connective tissue. Pour olive oil in bowl and mix with steaks to coat. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and set on high grill. Cook 4 to 6 minutes per size depending on thickness. Remove and let rest 5 to 10 minutes before slicing.
¼ cup Red Wine Vinegar
¼ cup Water
4 Garlic Cloves each
1 tbsp Kocher Salt
1 tsp Red Chili Flakes
1 tsp Black Pepper Ground
1 cup Olive Oil
½ Flat Leaf Parsley Bunch each
1 tsp Oregano Leaves
3 Rosemary Sprigs each (6inch per sprig)
Add all ingredients except olive oil to blender and pulse. Slowly add olive oil pouring in a stream little at a time until mixture is thick and smooth. About 5 minutes preparation.
Slice steak and lay fanned on platter or plate. Spoon on a generous amount of Chimmichirri and garnish with chopped kitchen pickles and wild arugula.
*Editor’s note: at the time of writing this story, Alberta had not announced the new lockdown measures including closing of all schools and a return to take-out and delivery only.
Farmwork to Feed Canada (F2FC) is a national volunteer not-for-profit initiative by Canadian communication professionals, students, and recent graduates in communications. F2FC collaborates with farmers, and agri-businesses amid COVID-19 pandemic-related challenges to Canada’s food supply and food security, to engage Canadians, pro bono, with compelling stories about their food system and build support for Canada’s farmers, food producers, and their essential skilled workers.