Head Chef Darren MacLean looks back at Downtownfood’s first year success


With the success of Calgary’s first and only eco-driven rooftop garden, Downtownfood owner and head chef Darren MacLean hopes the restaurant instills other Calgary restaurant owners with the drive for sustainability.

Completed in June 2012 and located on Stephen Avenue across from the Globe Cinema, the rooftop development included a three-week clean up process. MacLean says he recalls clearing the roof of broken bottles, needles and dead pigeons.

“It was tough to pull 3,000 pounds of soil up by hand on your back. We had solar powered drip irrigation installed and then that was trashed by graffiti artists, so all of a sudden we were watering the plants by ourselves.”

MacLean says that now that he knows what he and his team are capable of he hopes other restaurants follow suit with commitment to serving fresh, local ingredients produced in the downtown core.

MacLean says: “We successfully grew 40 different varieties of fruits, vegetables and herbs on a rooftop in the middle of Stephen Avenue, where it shouldn’t be able to happen.Wilson-DTFRestaurantGuests of Downtownfood will notice how the restaurant puts its commitment to Calgary front and center. The artwork hanging from the walls all show images of many of the city’s most recognizable landmarks.

Photo by Justin Wilson

“I want people to pick up and run with it. I hope that next year there’s at least five other urban gardens that outdo mine. A lot of these restaurants are multimillion dollar restaurants that really have the cash to make this happen.”

Self-sustaining the restaurant year round wasn’t the initial goal, MacLean says. With this in mind, MacLean and his staff will harvest and break down the garden for winter, obtain what produce they will need from local farmers and set sights on the upcoming spring.

In the initial stages of the garden, MacLean says there were a host of unexpected problems involving pests, which surprised him given the restaurants location.

“A pretty intense little ecosystem started to erupt,” MacLean says. “As soon as you put nature anywhere, bugs come, creatures come, birds come, because it’s something that’s alive. There was this real interaction, this real oasis. It was really humbling to see how nature takes over.”

As with any ecosystem, insects became attracted to the rooftop vegetation, something MacLean and his team dealt with by adding other organisms to combat certain infestations. A root maggot problem meant bringing in rove beetles. Aphids were dealt with by adding ladybugs. Parasitic wasps dealt with leaf miners.

“Now we know what really works,” MacLean says. “Next year we’ll dial in, but for the winter, we’re going to harvest everything, mulch everything, turn it into compost, reintegrate nutrients into the soil that has been leached from the growth of the food and let it go for the winter.”

One of Downtownfood’s longer employed servers, Meagan Van Tassell, says that ingredients grown in house make a huge difference when it comes to taste and quality.Wilson-DTFCenterPieceTables present guests with centerpieces containing a variety of plants. These mini ecosystems represent the growth and presentation of the ingredients MacLean and his team work hard to grow on the Downtownfood roof.

Photo by Justin Wilson

“We do a lot of our own herbs now,” Van Tassell says. “The difference you can taste in the same dish when we use our own herbs, it’s incredibly different. There’s been lots of great feedback from our customers on things like that.”

Van Tassell says she’s heard from customers who can’t believe the honeycomb and figs included on a Downtownfood cheese plate are literally produced right on the roof.

MacLean looks to next spring, he has begun work on a possible partnership with SAIT Polytechnic to develop a project the first of its kind in Calgary’s downtown core.

Produced by Justin Wilson

“We’re applying for an applied research grant,” MacLean says. “The big thing we want to really do is one of the first serious vertical gardens concentrated on strawberries in the downtown core. So the whole one side of our roof is going to be a vertical garden.”

The greenhouse would provide Downtownfood with the opportunity for year-round growth and production.

MacLean describes his garden as a stepping stone to get people thinking about what can be done as the need for sustainability becomes more prevalent, especially in a city like Calgary.

“It’s really important we start waking up and say ‘if we’re going to take with one hand, we better be putting back with the other.’”


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