Canadian Chefs in Conversation: Sterling Cummings, Calgary AB

by Krlmagi

Chef Sterling Cummings combines locally sourced ingredients with global flavour inspirations at The Mission in Calgary.

When he was a child, Chef Sterling Cummings enjoyed baking treats for himself. As a young teenager, he bussed tables at a chain restaurant and when he was 19 years old he moved to Victoria and got a job working at a large chain restaurant there. It wasn’t until that restaurant sent him to culinary school that he realized he was cut out to become a chef. He’s stayed on the culinary path since that time.

Chef Sterling Cummings
Chef Sterling Cummings

One of the chefs who strongly influenced Cummings in the past is now his current corporate chef, Kevin Hill, who he worked with at the Living Room restaurant in Calgary. Cummings says, “When I branched off from the chain restaurant where I was working, he set me on the right path."

Another influential chef for Cummings was Justin Leboe of Model Milk fame. He was the corporate chef at the Concorde Group in Calgary and Cummings opened several restaurants under the auspices of  that company. The chef adds, “He's quite a prominent chef in Canada and working under him was quite eye opening with the stuff that he was (and is currently) doing.”

Cummings also mentions Chef Roy Oh with whom he opened the new Anju restaurant in Calgary. Chef Oh helped him to learn about the nuances of Korean and Asian influenced cuisine which has served Cummings well in opening his current restaurant.

The food that Cummings is creating is takes a global approach to flavours. Drawing on his experiences at Anju, Cummings has added some Asian touches to his food. He explains, “It’s not that you’re going to see a recognizable Asian dish but there’s so many great Asian ingredients. I like to combine them with my style of cooking that’s North American in style.”

Inspiration for his cooking has also come from some of the Californian restaurants that are taking a similar approach to food. Cummings has bought their cookbooks in order to gather influences from their techniques, their flavours and the ingredients that they’re using which he hasn’t used or worked with yet.

Mushroom hot pot, forest mushroom ragout, 63º egg, fine herbs, creme fraiche, mushroom dashi
Mushroom hot pot, forest mushroom ragout, 63º egg, fine herbs, creme fraiche, mushroom dashi

Leadership is one of the main traits that Cummings feels a good chef needs. He likes to lead by example, so he says, “I’ll be the first one to jump in the dish pit or sweep or mop if it needs to be done. When people see you doing the work, it empowers them to do it too. If no one feels entitled, it puts everyone on the same page.”

Cleanliness and organization are also crucial traits for Cummings. He also believes in strong communication with his team in order to get them working off of the same page. He explains that it’s incumbent on him to teach his staff well. He says, “If they don’t do something right, whose fault is it? Is it mine that I didn’t teach them properly or is it theirs that they didn’t listen? Most of the time, it would be me for not training them in exactly what I wanted them to do. Of course, sometimes it’s the other way around."

The fact that Cummings is an established chef on the Calgary restaurant scene means that he’s got a group of suppliers that he can rely on for quality products. He works with smaller farms like Maple Hill to get his chicken and 4K Farms for his pork. He uses Canadian fish like albacore tuna and sablefish as well as working with companies like Galimax in Lethbridge and Season’s Harvest from B.C. who provide him with high quality produce raised by small, sustainable farms. He adds, “If the ingredients are amazing, it makes my job easier. I just have to find a good way to present those flavours and not mess them up.”

The creative process starts with focusing on one main ingredient for Cummings. Once he’s done that, he decides on the preparation he wants to use with that ingredient and how other flavours will complement it. Cummings thinks about all of the flavour and texture notes that he wants to incorporate. He says, “I don’t want to make one note dishes. I want there to be some peaks and valleys or moments in the meal where you pause and think about what you’ve just tasted.”

He continues, “There’s a lot of trial and error and not everything that I come up with comes to fruition. Sometimes it just doesn’t work out. That’s where you have to go back to the drawing board and rethink what you were doing and go back at it until you get it."

Albacore tuna crudo, soy orange glaze, toasted nori powder, toasted peanuts, pickled cucumber, avocado mousse, cilantro.
Albacore tuna crudo, soy orange glaze, toasted nori powder, toasted peanuts, pickled cucumber, avocado mousse, cilantro.

Cummings uses the example of his albacore tuna crudo to explain his creative approach more clearly. He decided to take the tuna and cure it in kombu1 that had been soaked overnight and scored to release its flavour. He wrapped the tuna in the kombu and let it cure overnight. After that, Cummings made a soy orange glaze to brush on the crudo before serving it and accompanied it with avocado mousse, toasted peanuts, pickled cucumber and nori powder. He adds, “I started out thinking about a tuna sushi roll, but it didn’t end up remotely like that. The dish has evolved from that original idea.”

One development in the culinary world that Cummings feels has had a positive impact is the farm to table movement. He feels that people are becoming more aware of what they’re eating and where it comes from. He says, “I think people appreciate it more when we take care and cook with products that we got from a great farmer.”

The economic slump is something that Cummings sees as a challenge for the culinary industry. He worries that it might reverse some of the gains being made by the farm to table movement. He explains, “Local products are more expensive so sometimes a cheaper option might be enticing because the margins are getting tighter and people don’t want to spend the money.”

Inspiration can be found almost anywhere for Cummings. He says, “I might find it on social media, reading a book or even taking a walk outside. I take inspiration where I can get it and try to do something with it. I think inspiration is all around us, it’s just a matter of using it.”

1. Kombu: A type of kelp used extensively in Japanese cooking. It's very high in naturally occurring glutamic acid and is responsible for producing the intensely savoury flavour often referred to as umami.

This profile is based on an interview with Sterling Cummings that was conducted via telephone and recorded on Jan. 5, 2016.

Updated: 01/07/2016, Krlmagi
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