By Vanessa Gillard
As we head into our busy season at The Silk Road we are seeing lots of familiar faces returning to the shop. After all, this isn’t just our busy season: everyone is shopping, making plans with family and friends and anticipating all the beautiful food to be enjoyed in the next month. One of those familiar faces is Nicole Fewell, owner and head chef of the Cheezy Bizness food truck, as well as the proprietor of Porter’s Tonic, a tonic syrup company.
Along with being the owner of two successful businesses, Nicole is also a wife, mother and all around palate temptress. Don’t be surprised to see her orange truck popping up at the city’s best street festivals in the summer or her famous grilled cheese sandwiches being served at events of all sorts. Rain or shine, summer or winter, people come in to our shop specifically to find her unique tonic syrup that “adds a grin to your gin.” We asked Nicole to have a chat with us about herself and her philosophy on all things tasty.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself? Are you from Calgary? How did you begin your culinary career?
My first industry memory was working at an inn on Mayne Island, BC. In grade 6, I went with a friend to her Aunt’s place and we worked in the dining room. I loved it.
I moved to Calgary in September of 1999. I had been working on the line in a pub in Invermere and had one friend here in Calgary. She helped me get a job at Concorde. I started as a server and then did some bartending and front of house management. After Concorde closed I worked at the Barley Mill and then became a Flight Attendant with West Jet. When I had my son, who is now 8, I was luckily able to stay home with him for until he was in Grade 1. That’s when I started to make a plan to open Cheezy.
Another great job I had in the industry was with Shelley Adams up at White Water Ski Hill in Nelson, BC. I got to work behind the scenes there. Sometimes I was the first person in the building besides the Cat operators, making cinnamon buns and watching the sun rise on the mountain.
Both of your businesses are based on taking something classic and putting a new spin on it. What inspired this approach and why do you think Calgarians have embraced it so enthusiastically?
Classics are classics for a reason: they are beloved, cherished and timeless. I chose a grilled cheese truck because everyone finds a grilled cheese comforting, and the creative possibilities are endless. I can keep coming up with new sandwiches and flavour profiles to entice people to come back while also craving our classics, like the Hot Mess.
What ingredient did you have the most fun pairing with your cheezy sandwiches this summer?
My favourite ingredient this summer was the in-truck made Goat Ricotta paired with our Olive Fig Tapenade. I love to play with layers of flavour and texture, and this sandwich had all that.
Your businesses take you all over Calgary and you take part in culinary events quite consistently as well. How would you describe your personal sense of community?
From the day I first moved here I couldn’t believe how friendly and open this city is. When I walked down the street and strangers actually looked up and said hello when passing by, I was shocked. The culinary community is very much this way as well. So collaborative, welcoming and supportive, not to mention inspiring. When you’re passionate about what you do and meet others who are the same way, it’s natural to become friends, whether you’re a writer, chef, food truck owner or wholesaler of fine food. I’ve welcomed a lot of new industry friends into my life in the last couple years which has been amazing. When starting my business, I also relied on old industry friends like Brendan Bankowski of Taste Restaurant, who was so supportive. As one of the original Perogy Boyz owners, he and Chef Shawn Greenwood were so generous with their knowledge.
You appear to support and collaborate with lots of local producers, farmers, chefs and entrepreneurs. Why is this important to you?
Shopping local has always been a priority in our family, so it was very natural for to me to incorporate that into my business. I feed my guests as though they were in my kitchen at home with quality local, fresh ingredients.
Do you recall what your first cocktail was and what is your favourite these days?
I think my first cocktail was probably a Long Island Ice Tea, being that I graduated in 1987 (LOL). My favourite these days is Spirit Bear Gin with Porter’s Tonic Original (of course). I’m also a fan of the Bourbon Manhattan and the Moscow Mule.
When and how did you discover The Silk Road Spice Merchant and what are some of your go-to spices and/or blends from the shop?
I discovered Silk Road through reading an article in Avenue. I buy almost all my spices from Silk Road, for home and the truck. Two of my favourites are sumac and nigella seeds. I love to use them in salads to take it up a notch. I use nigella instead of chives a lot. I also started making mustard from your seeds this year, which is surprisingly easy and fun to play around with. My current favourite is a Cabernet Mustard inspired by Model Milk’s Pinot Noir Mustard that they used on their Rabbit Mortadella.