“I love to eat and I love when people eat, especially the food that I create.”
These words articulate the driving force behind the career path of Gail Hall, chef, educator, food writer, business owner and U of A Arts graduate (’85 BA, Sociology).
For Hall, cooking was once a means to cope with the stress from her job with the provincial government funding immigrant aid agencies. Seeing that the stress was making her unhappy and knowing that she loved to cook and feed people, Hall’s husband suggested a career change: the food industry. She made the leap, quitting her job to research the catering business.
That research led to Gourmet Goodies. Launched in 1985, it went on to become one of the top catering companies in Canada, garnering several awards along the way. Hall says that studying culture and interpersonal relationships while working toward her BA in sociology gave her excellent perspective on how to work with staff and clients, and the discipline required to attain a university degree provided her the administrative foundation needed to run a business. “A liberal arts degree is a very good thing to have in business,” she affirms.
The company that started as a one-woman show eventually grew to 60 full- and 30 part-time staff. Hall closed Gourmet Goodies in 2003, in the wake of major shifts in the food industry and fallout from the events of 9/11.
She then took a break for a couple of years and worked at Chintz and Company in the food and tabletop department. But once you’ve been an entrepreneur it’s very hard to work for someone else, Hall observed. A downtown resident, she came up with the idea of offering cooking classes in which she and her students would shop at the 104 Street farmers’ market for fresh ingredients, and then return to her loft apartment to create a meal.
The idea gave birth to Seasoned Solutions, a new business venture in 2005. In addition to the classes, Hall (once more a company of one) also regularly consults with food services and agriculture industries. And she offers twice yearly culinary tours — 21 to date — to locations such as Cambodia and Chile, as well as local spots like farms at Kitscoty and Smoky Lake.
Food is a culture and every country has its own, says Hall. “Culinary tours are a great way to stay inspired. You really notice everything related to food and they show you that what’s on your plate is reflective of the society.”
The local food tours are also near and dear to the heart of the woman who describes herself as an enlightened epicurean and a food activist. “Food has always been so much of who I am,” she explains. “But I have become more more aware of what I eat, particularly where it’s coming from, and what has been used to grow it or produce it.” An outspoken advocate for eating local, Hall also champions the importance of cooking to maintain more control over what you eat, rather than relying on prepared, processed food.
“I have become more more aware of what I eat, particularly where it’s coming from, and what has been used to grow it or produce it.”
After so many successful years in the food industry, Hall still finds inspiration in her work and in new endeavours. She cites the cooking classes she recently began at the Bissell Centre for low-income families, single parents, expecting mothers and other clients of the centre. “I’m very inspired by what I see,” she says. “The students realize they can cook a simple meal that doesn’t have to cost a lot of money.”
Hall begins each class by asking students to introduce themselves and share their favourite food memories. She then takes some of those memories — such as bannock, macaroni and cheese and home-baked bread — and constructs menus for them to create. Hall says it is a powerful experience to observe the excitement as the students learn that cooking is not difficult, but a skill that simply requires some organization and practice. “And they learn the instant gratification of producing something enjoyable for you and others to eat,” she adds.