New chef and organic focus breathe fresh life into Airdrie mainstay
With gentle but powerful strokes, Chef Deepak Kalsi stirs a vat of hot red curry that’s been simmering overnight in the Fine Balance kitchen. In his smart white chef’s uniform, and a turban wrapped around his head, the young Sikh chef massages the curry with a giant wooden spoon.
It will soon become the smooth creamy sauce for the café’s No. 1 bestseller – butter chicken, served with a saffron basmati rice and oven-fresh naan bread.
“The first chef I trained with was my mother,” says 29-year-old Kalsi, a native of Punjab. The northwestern Indian state is known for its rich spicy curries and flaming hot tandoors (clay ovens). “Even now, I consult her when I want to cook something new,” he says.
Firing up the tandoor was one of Kalsi’s first moves when he joined Chef Nash Visram’s team at one of Airdrie’s favourite food spots – A Fine Balance Café and Catering, located on Main Street beside the courthouse.
“How do you know when the tandoor is hot enough?” he asks with a twinkle in his eye. “When my beard catches fire,” he answers with a laugh.
For Kalsi, a qualified yoga instructor with a lifelong passion for food, Fine Balance felt like a perfect fit.
“Yoga is all about health and good living, and food plays a major role in that,” says Kalsi, who moved to Canada after he married a Calgarian he met at yoga school.
Visram, the founder and owner of Fine Balance, has always been a strong believer that good food is all about spreading love, joy, health and good karma.
When we prepare food with love and good energy, the person who eats it will smile and feel good. That’s what good food is all about.
Bringing in the energetic young chef has allowed Visram to serve new tandoor dishes like tender chicken tikka, succulent beef kebabs and fluffy potato kulchas (stuffed naan bread), in addition to all the regular curries.
There’s also a vegan line for health-conscious customers, and frozen meals-to-go that are gluten-free, preservative-free, additive-free and low on salt and oil.
With Kalsi manning the kitchen, Visram can pursue his love affair with fine organic spices – the latest passion for the Kenyan-born chef who originally trained in Western cuisine in the U.K. some 25 years ago.
“In classical cuisine, you just need your basic spices. But in East Indian cuisine, there are dozens of spices you have to play with to make a dish good,” Visram says.
The chef already has a small line of spice blends, but now he’s all about organic.
“A lot of the spices you find in the market have fillers, pesticides and additives,” he says. So last year, Visram embarked on a weeks-long tour of India, criss-crossing spice plantations up and down the country, sourcing only the purest organic spices.
“Just a little gives you all the flavours you need, and it’s also good for your health,” Visram says.
He’s currently working on a new line of 100 per cent organic spice blends with Kalsi, sourced from India and certified organic by the USDA. The pair will soon introduce custom blends for organic garam masala, butter chicken, tandoori chicken, beef vindaloo and lamb korma.
Ancient concepts of Ayurveda, traditional health remedies, family recipes and scientific research all inform the cooking and blending of spices at the little Airdrie café.
Something as simple as butter chicken has two main ingredients – garam masala and curry powder – but those in turn are made up of 18 different spices, Visram explains. Throw in the eight other spices that are added in small quantities, and you’ve got a complex mix of 26 ingredients – each with their own flavours and health properties.
“Our job is to keep experimenting with the different blends … we want customers to get the right level of heat along with all the flavours they need,” says Visram.
Fine Balance’s new chili-lime samosa chips have been called “addictive” by customers, not unlike the cinnamon-sugar version of these light and crispy treats – another result of recent experiments by the innovative chef duo.
Keeping these mad scientists in check is Zainab, an Iraqi-Kurdish grandmother who has mastered the art of making pakoras (spicy vegetable snack balls) and samosas (stuffed pastry triangles) by the hundreds.
Prepping the next batch of butter chicken, she expertly douses a box of chicken breasts with the café’s proprietary tandoor spice blend, piles on some freshly-minced ginger and garlic, and adds a sprinkle of red chili powder.
“I don’t need to measure,” Zainab laughs. “It’s all in my head now.” A quick mix with her gloved hands, and the aromatic spice-laden chicken gets loaded into trays and popped in the charbroiler.
While that’s cooking, she climbs up a ladder in her floor-length gown to clean the giant range hoods in this small but busy commercial kitchen.
Underneath her black gown, the normally shy and retiring cook is wearing shiny silver pantaloons. It would seem that everything – and everyone – in the café is the perfect blend of sweet and spicy.