04/09/2013 05:04 EDT | Updated 06/09/2013 05:12 EDT

Terroir Symposium 2013: 'Top Chef Canada' Finalist Connie DeSousa Wins Highest Award


TORONTO - Not only can Connie DeSousa peel the skin from a pig's head in 49 seconds flat, but the Calgary restaurateur was the winner in the outstanding chef category at a Toronto food conference this week.

The co-owner of Charcut Roast House and a finalist in season 1 of "Top Chef Canada" earned the honour at the Terroir Symposium.

Jeremy Bonia, owner and sommelier of Raymonds in St. John's, N.L., won in the beverage category and Stephen Beckta, proprietor of the three Ottawa restaurants Gezellig, Beckta and Play Food & Wine, won in the service professional category.

The seventh annual conference brought together chefs, food writers, wine and food experts and culinary activists who explored this year's theme, "For the Love of Food: Stories, Memories and Culture."

DeSousa dazzled with her knife-wielding skills as she removed the skin from a pig's head as part of a demonstration on making mortadella sausage. Ground shoulder and back fat mixed with pistachios and other ingredients were then stuffed back into the head, which DeSousa sewed up with butcher's twine. At the Calgary restaurant, it is cooked for nine hours at a low temperature and then sliced and served very simply with a homemade grainy mustard.

DeSousa said she and her mentor, co-chef John Jackson, are "very back to basics" with their philosophy of cuisine. They spent four years cooking in San Francisco before returning to Calgary to open Charcut in February 2010. The restaurant has a custom-built rotisserie and charbroiler and features hand-crafted charcuterie, such as the mortadella.

"We fell in love with the style of cuisine in San Francisco," DeSousa said in an interview. "Everyone knows where their food comes from; people know the first names of their farmers, their butchers. We wanted to bring a piece of that philosophy back to Calgary."

The duo is supplied with produce from local farms they've toured. Butchering is done in-house, along with pickling, canning and preserving local produce into about 3,000 jars over the summer months to sustain them through the winter. Bread is baked daily.

When they were getting started back in Calgary, the team invited local chefs to a potluck in the backyard of DeSousa's parents to reintroduce themselves.

"Calgary was very closed-minded when it came to collaboration before that and coming from San Francisco where the chefs community is so tight ... it felt like a completely different mentality. We were successful in helping to start the collaborative efforts in Calgary.

"We want to showcase our city and we're really proud of it and we're proud of our culinary scene and the only way that we're going to be able to do that and showcase Calgary and make it into a food destination city is by doing things together," said DeSousa, 32, who was born and raised in the city.

Charcut uses Facebook and Twitter to publicize special events. One such promotion, Alley Burger, started out as $5 burgers sold from Charcut's back door.

The first time, 20 people enjoyed the burgers. Then the initiative mushroomed and became too big to handle. The last time they did it, 350 people lined up around the perimeter of the restaurant.

Now Alley Burger is a food truck and part of an 18-month pilot project.

Also at the Terroir Symposium, there were presentations on food culture, taste, memory and gastronomy by a wide range of participants, including Kate Krader of Food and Wine Magazine in New York, chef JP McMahon of the Michelin-rated Aniar restaurant in Galway, Ireland, chef and cookbook author Trine Hahnemann of Copenhagen and Paul Rogalski of Rouge Restaurant in Calgary.

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