Christmas in November at Jasper Park Lodge

There is hardly a more postcard-perfect Christmas setting than that of the Fairmont’s Jasper Park Lodge (JPL) framed by a winterscape of snowy mountains and a shimmering lake, and there’s no better way to get in to the Christmas spirit than to attend the JPL’s Christmas in November.

Ext JPL_Fotor

The festive pre-amble started 27 years ago when Edmonton food writer, Judy Schultz, sat down with the general manager of the lodge and suggested they ‘do something Christmassy’ (or words to that effect). Well, that suggestion has blossomed into one of the premier Christmas events in the country where more than 1,000 guests and celebrated food industry people gather to eat, drink and be merry in the mountains over three weekends in November.

This year, the Christmas in November (CIN) was co-hosted by Savoir Faire’s Nik Manojlovich and Flair Bartender, Micah Dew. The presenter list—just like every year—read like a who’s who of Canadian Food Fame:  Food Network celebrities Roger Mooking, Massimo Capra, Anna & Michael Olson, and Christine Cushing; local chefs and food personalities, Connie DeSousa and John Jackson of Charcut and Charbar; Dale Mackay and Nathan Guggenheimer of Saskatoon’s Ayden Kitchen and Bar; Edward Gutierrez of Rostizado, Giselle Courteau of the legendary Duchess Bakeshop; Calgary Chefs and authors, Julie Van Rosendaal and Pierre Lamielle; recent Order of Canada recipient, author and editor, Elizabeth Baird and her Canadian Living co-hort, cooking instructor, Emily Richards, who delighted us with history, humour and food lessons in Canadian cookery.

Elizabeth Baird and Emily Richards
Elizabeth Baird and Emily Richards divulging the secrets of tarts.
Chefs Dale Mackay and Nathan Guggenheimer fo Ayden Kitchen & Bar (Saskatoon)
Chefs Dale Mackay (R) and Nathan Guggenheimer (L) of Ayden Kitchen & Bar (Saskatoon) giving us the lowdown on trout.

It’s not all about the food, though. Lessons on entertaining, decorating and how to set the perfect table for the holidays were given by all-star presenters,  Nik Manojlovich, Cory Christoper, Karl Lohnes, Chris Standring, and Marna Praill and Sue Dunn of the JPL.

The perfect holiday favour by Cory Christopher
The perfect holiday favour by Cory Christopher

While many things remained the same (fun, and fantastic food and drink), I noticed something different since my first CIN in 2010. It used to be all about the girls: the party-hardies from Edmonton or Calgary ready to do ‘er up in the mountains; the mom-and-daughter ‘quality time getaway’; the cousins celebrating birthdays, or gal pals from various corners of the country reuniting and dipping (a bit too freely) into the mulled wine. The other guys—as in, the male species—were few and far between, and judging by the faces of those who did attend, were coerced, threatened, or blackmailed by their wives. You’re coming, or the remote gets it. 

This year was different. This year, I noticed a marked increase in the male population.  I asked a few of them straight up, “Why are you here?” Their answers were all the same: “She made me.” I was hoping for something more, so I said, “But, are you having fun?” I was sure that deep inside, these men were dying for a scotch session or a session on “How to Survive the Holidays if You’re Not Into Baking or Decking the Halls with Boughs of Holly”.

Their comments surprised me.

Meat was the draw for the first man I cornered and was interrogating like a modern-day Colombo (fortified by ceviche and prosecco). He confessed he was drawn in by the pork, and not by the dynamic duo, Anna and Michael Olson. He had no idea what he was in for, because if you’ve ever watched the Olsons in action, you would understand why people of both sexes go gaga over these gastro geeks. In mere seconds, the Olsons can turn the most stalwart of christmas grinches, or the most blasé of the eating populace, into cheering, adoring fans. This man, a new Olson fan, admitted that he couldn’t wait to get his cookbook autographed by Anna and Michael. In fact, he actually giggled.

Anna and Michael Olson's session featuring Alberta pork
Anna and Michael Olson’s session featuring Alberta pork

Another fellow effused that a Christmas Miracle was performed by Roger Mooking. He said that Mooking’s rapid-fire, no-holds-barred, honest approach to cooking (and life in general) was refreshing. After five minutes, the man said he thanked his wife for “dragging him here.”  They were already planning to return for CIN 2016.

I even talked to a hip young man, with piercings galore, who accompanied his grandmother to CIN. His grandmother. You heard me. And, he was having a blast.

If you’ve been to this event once, you’ll understand why people return year after year.

Peace. Tranquility. Canadiana. Christmas in November.
Peace. Tranquility. Canadiana. Christmas in November.

Christmas in November is  an all-out food and drink extravaganza held over three days in a luxury mountain resort on 700 acres. The lodge faces Beauvert Lake and photo opportunities are endless. Even if you get “dragged along”, you can spend your day relaxing in front of the huge stone fireplace, or swimming in the heated outdoor pool, or walking the grounds looking for elk or deer to take pictures of (they’re a’plenty), or shopping in the stores on site, or reading a book in the big comfy chairs in the lounge. But you won’t do that because the presenters who come to CIN are there to have fun as well, and, just like those men who got hooked in their first session, you too will be finding a way to make it back again.

The cool thing—at least for attendees—is that the celebrities can’t escape which means that if you’re a fan, there is a 100% chance that you will have the opportunity to get up close for a photo op, or hear them tell stories of, say, when they mistakenly left the nut-adorned yule log outside on the doorstep only to find squirrels devouring it half an hour before it was to  be featured on a local TV show. I’m talking about the hilarious Julie Van Rosendaal from Calgary. The picture of Julie (below) was taken on Sunday morning after the blow-out gala, or as CIN veterans call it, “My-eyes-are-bleeding-morning.”

Julie Van Rosendaal with Micah Dew and Sue Duncan
Julie Van Rosendaal with Micah Dew and Sue Duncan

CIN packages start at $950 and vary depending on which one you choose, but all include three nights accommodation, entry to the Silly Christmas Sweater reception with cocktails and canapés, breakfast, lunch and dinner, and all the seminars you can handle. Extra goodies always manage to appear somewhere and you’ll come home with a swag bag full of gifts. Transportation (for a fee) is provided from Edmonton and Calgary, and if you want to go even bigger, you can opt to pay more for the VIP package which contains bonus items and extra events like a private kitchen party hosted (this year) by Anna and Michael Olson. The bubbly flowed, flames roared, lamb chops were grilled and cocktails were poured. It was jam-packed and raucous—in other words, the perfect kitchen party.

Micah kitchen

Anna & Michael Olson's Grilled Lambchops
Anna & Michael Olson’s Grilled Lambchops

The JPL pulls out all the stops for the gala, held on the last night of the event. The room glowed in gold and white, guests dressed up in their holiday finery and enjoyed a meal prepared by the lodge’s executive chef, Christopher Chafe, and staff. There was more wine, more silliness, more camaraderie…and the band played on into the night.

gala
Gala meal

Christmas in November is fun. It involves food, friendship, cocktails, champagne, laughter, and (quite often) too much wine—oh! and, education, too! Aside from all the merriment, we do learn.

I can see why people keep coming back, year after year.

photobooth
Christmas in November Photo Booth

Keep your eyes peeled for information on Christmas in November 2016, and take my advice: book early because the JPL just revealed that next year, culinary master and Dragon Den alumnus, Vikram Vij, will be one of the presenters. You won’t want to miss that—only 339 days and counting!