Prime Social Kitchen: One of The Best Restaurants in YMM
When I meet Andy Parker, the owner of Prime Social Kitchen, he is charming and gracious, everything you would expect from a successful restaurant owner. Within minutes he is entertaining us all with a story about Pamela Anderson – he had just been at her book signing and charity event in B.C. He shows us the pictures on his phone, and between the story about duct-taping her wine so it won’t break in her hockey bag, or her demonstrating the correct way to exit a Lamborghini in a ladylike manner, he paints a new delightful picture of this elegant Canadian icon.
Andy the raconteur is almost as good as Andy the restaurateur. His natural bonhomie has been a big part in making Prime Social Kitchen the place with the most convivial foodie atmosphere in Fort McMurray, while his experience in the industry has helped him survive and even thrive during the downturn. Now he may just be at a tipping point that changes the way restaurants are run. Andy Parker has ambitions to open more places, and this time he’s taking his staff on the adventure ride with him.
To be fair, he isn’t too sure what kind of restaurant he will open next, and that’s fine with him. He is a firm believer in the venue being an important part of the eating out experience. “One of the key ingredients is atmosphere,” he told me. “It’s hard to enjoy sushi in a steakhouse, or fast food off white linen.”
This attention to detail is one of the reasons that Ken and Don are frequent customers. They work for a company that sends them to Fort McMurray every month, and they always stay at the Radisson. “It’s a good combination,” said Don. “The hotel is professional and suits our needs, and PSK gives the hotel an edge. We travel a lot and not having the blandness of a chain restaurant is a big plus for us.” Adds Ken, “The staff is the same every time, which is unusual in this community. They get to know your likes and dislikes, and they’ll cook anything you want. Andy has a great restaurant here.”
To hear him tell the story, Andy does nothing. He floats along dreamily on a cushion of brilliant staff who runs the whole establishment, while he chats charmingly to the patrons. He sells it like a happy version of Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, except there are no soldiers to worry about and no hearts being broken. Rick’s Café Américain has morphed into Prime Social Kitchen.
It’s not true of course. You can’t run a restaurant if you don’t know what you are doing. Plus, proper food workers are different from the rest of the world. There are two kinds of people in this business: those who see it as a temporary job until they find something else, and those who have a passion for creating an occasion. The latter, these special few who have the vocation, will work for the hardest taskmaster in town if he knows his beurre noir from his meuniere. Conversely they’ll soon drift away from the establishment that pays well but has no pride in its food.
Andy is an easy person to work for, and he looks after his staff. He understands that the best food comes from people who love what they do, so he finds them, and he keeps them. He understands them because, after more than twenty years in the business, he’s one of them.
At its peak, this industry is performance art where everyone comes together to play their part in creating a couple of hours of ‘wow’. That’s what happens at Prime Social Kitchen. It starts with Andy and ends with a menu and wine list that is special, different and comfortable. In between, creating all this, there is the staff.
Jenn Nicholson is one of the chefs. She looks like a College freshman until she gets going on her station. Watch this whirlwind of activity in the kitchen and you will quickly realize how talented she is. The juggling and prestidigitation she performs to keep everything flowing smoothly is a wonder to behold, and it is hard to reconcile the hurricane she becomes with the food she sends out. The artistry of her plated servings is pristine, mouth-watering, and tasty. Oh my, are they tasty.
Amanda Barton works in the front of the restaurant. She is calm, charming and knowledgeable to the point where, listening to her, you get the feeling she could almost prepare the food as well as serve it. This is not surprising as she studied for her Chef’s Diploma and is well versed in matters of the kitchen. For now, she is enjoying the front end, and she is typical of many of the staff at PSK, multi-talented and eager to try new things.
Ashley Carlson is the artistic artisan of the kitchen, hardworking yet devoted to whimsy. Her cupcakes as homage to Guinness beer are awe-inspiring; dark bodies filled with chocolate and capped with delicate creamy heads demanding to be smooshed into one’s mouth. Ashley had an idea to try something, was given free rein and was delighted to see the look of surprise on Andy’s face when she presented the plate. They’re not on the menu, yet.
Billy Malawi is the other chef and comes by his love of food honestly. Top-to-tail cooking, the art of using the entire animal in the kitchen, is a relatively renewed idea in world cooking. Fergus Henderson is a devotee, Anthony Bourdain warbles lyrically about it and there are dozens of European chefs who are being lauded now for what has been going on for centuries. Billy learned it at home. Growing up an immigrant, new to Canada, money was tight. He watched his Mother make good, wholesome food out of whatever was affordable and he loved it. This value of the ingredients is obvious now that he works with the best; the steak pieces appetizer made of filet mignon, the prawns that are four-bites big. Billy has translated his love of cooking into a career in the kitchen but he is more than happy to come out and talk to the customers. He’s been at PSK since the beginning. The reason? “Andy lets me try things,” he says. “I’m always learning, always reaching.”
The same can be said for all the staff. They sing fulsome praise for Andy in an unscripted manner (one of them was most indignant when I asked if he really was as nice to work for as everyone was saying. “Better,” she said). There is a camaraderie that I have rarely felt in the hustle and bustle of the food business. And there’s more. Without taking away from their professionalism, there is a playfulness that is creatively apparent. Andy shows me pictures the staff sent him while he was away in B.C. (secret hint: watch out for the exciting new wines coming from the Hatch winery, exclusive to PSK). One in particular stands out. It’s a cross between a cocktail and a dessert – I think – decorated with Lucky Charms. Breakfast cereal as bar service? It is possibly brilliant or a glorious failure and will be unlikely to grace the menu anytime soon, but it comes from a staff that seems to work and grow with a two word philosophy. “What if?”
It’s not a philosophy in a business sense: what if. It does however describe the adventurous feeling Andy engenders in his staff. What if we try for wines that are different? What if we describe the wine so that it’s listed by a nod to the taste instead of just the colour? What if we offer food that people want, but surprise them a little as well? What if we listen to the staff, and let them do what’s best for the customer? What if we’re allowed to care first, and worry about the bottom line later?
In early January a lonely hotel guest was miserable, missing his family and heritage during the Ukrainian Christmas. The staff found out what was traditionally served, rounded up the ingredients and surprised the delighted guest with pyrohy, holubtchi, borscht and other treats that made his lonely trip up north warm and friendly.
‘What if’ doesn’t work without the food. PSK is attached to the Radisson hotel in Gregoire, a hotel chain with an upmarket clientele. With that link comes responsibility. The restaurant is open for all three meals a day, and it needs to cater to travelers wanting comfort food as well as those who stay in the hotel for the culinary delights. In among the standard fare, burgers and fries and bacon and eggs, there are hot spots of gastronomic delectation. Crunchy spring rolls filled with the best beef tenderloin; butternut squash salad that is a medley of exciting tastes; lamb shank so noble and ambrosial even the bone looks succulent; steak that I cut with my fork and eat with my eyes closed to savour the richness; and catfish, a plate that needs a better name so the world can rejoice in this most delicious delight. It’s served with bacon, cheese and a maple glaze, slightly blackened and delicately spiced, and it is more addictive than morphine.
As an experiment, the catfish came with a potato croquette the size of two smartphones. Filled with oozy unctuousness, it must, I repeat must, go on the menu. Likewise Billy’s take on chicken fingers for a picky fellow guest; tender breast washed in a beer marinade, crusted with a delicately piquant batter and settled into a honey glaze sauce. It was melt in your mouth soft, slightly tangy and satisfyingly scrumptious.
I suspect everything they serve is a treat. PSK makes a point however of consulting with customers. If it’s not on the menu and they have the ingredients, they’ll make it for you. Which leads no doubt to more ineffable ‘what ifs’.
Andy believes in training everyone to be good and then working at keeping them. His latest idea, and one that may yet shake the foundations of the food industry locally, is to share the business. He is working on a plan to make the staff shareholders of PSK. It’s a radical idea, one that, as I said at the beginning, may change the way restaurants are run in this community.
Typically, Andy doesn’t see it that way. “It’s an investment,” he told me, “an investment in the staff of Prime Social Kitchen. It gives them, the people who make the restaurant great, one more reason to carry on with what they’re doing.”
It’s more than just that, although that alone would be enough. It’s breaking the ‘what if’ idea out of the box at PSK and taking it to the rest of YMM. What if we invest in our people? What if we turn that into more investment into the town? What if we stay and build?
Stay tuned. This story has yet to run its course.
-Photos by Greg Halinda