A Red Seal Legacy

Gail Hall’s incredible talent and passion for cooking will continue through a fund in her name

When youngsters gather in the kitchen at this summer’s CHANGE Adventure Camp, a little bit of Gail Hall will be there with them. The beloved Edmonton chef, food activist and culinary tour leader died at 65 of breast cancer in November 2016. But her spirit — along with her recipes, one of her signature hats, and some of her cookbooks — will be part of the program at the upcoming summer camp. In the summer of 2016, Hall had crafted the inaugural menu at the camp; it was a menu designed to teach disadvantaged children to cook and to enjoy healthy food.

Supported in part by Edmonton Community Foundation (ECF) ChefGail Fund, the camp is just one way that Hall’s husband, Jon, hopes to see his wife’s generous and infectiously positive spirit remembered. Jon was inspired to launch the fund after experiencing the public’s reaction to Gail’s death.

“This was something the community demanded,” said Jon, noting that he received 300 e-mails the day Gail’s obituary was published in the Edmonton Journal, with some people wondering where they could send donations in her name. “There was such an outpouring. People just wanted to be part of it.”

Within months of its launch, the fund had collected enough donations to fund projects in 2017. The ChefGail Fund may support not only the CHANGE Adventure Camp, but also other programs for young chefs including the culinary arts program at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology and the Bissell Centre, which offers numerous programs for low-income Edmontonians. Gail was a regular volunteer at the Bissell Centre, teaching young mothers to cook. That’s where Joan Paton, a friend who was once an employee at the centre, saw her in action.

“I will never forget it,” recalls Paton. “I went down (to the kitchen) as they were getting everything ready at the end of class to sample black bean soup that they had made. And there was a woman who was enormously pregnant with her seventh child. She said ‘I can feed my family for under $20 and I’ve never cooked in my life.’ She was in tears.”

Gail devoted most of her adult life to spreading the message of good food. She began her professional life as a civil servant, but always loved to cook. When she was in her 30s and considering a career change, Jon encouraged her to think about catering. Her first gig was baking a cake shaped like a house for a mortgage-burning party. Gail’s company, Gourmet Goodies, eventually employed 100 staff, ringing in $3 million in annual revenue.

After the economic downturn following 9/11, she wound Gourmet Goodies down and launched a cooking school called Seasoned Solutions from the downtown loft she shared with Jon, leading some 2,000 students toward greater confidence in the kitchen. Gail also taught cooking classes for some 30 years at what is now known as Metro Continuing Education. She and Jon led food tours, visiting 34 culinary hot spots including Vietnam, United States and Portugal over 20 years. The tours were jam-packed excursions that included cooking classes, wine tastings and market visits.

Gail was a do-er, says Bradley Moss, the artistic director at Theatre Network, where Gail was a board member for seven years. “Gail had a ton of energy and she personally took on our Spring Fling event and was the chair of it for those years,” recalls Moss. “She took care of all the details, including the food, and the great thing about Gail is that she made it fun for everybody. The meetings were often at her place and we’d have wine and chit-chats. She was someone who jumped in, full-on, and if she said she was going to do it, she was going to do it. And with a smile and a personal touch.”

Gail was also a local celebrity, for five years enjoying the role of food columnist for CBC radio’s morning show. As a regular guest chef for several Edmonton television broadcasts, Gail’s simple and practical approach to cooking for family and friends helped thousands of viewers appreciate that the whole point is to be together around the table.

Friends and colleagues alike felt her warmth. Fondly dubbed “the queen of 104th Street” by Mary Bailey, publisher of the food magazine The Tomato, Gail greeted everybody with a bright smile and a hug. She loved the City Market, held right outside her condominium on 104th Street in the summer, and spent time there most Saturdays, chatting up vendors and gathering supplies for the week ahead.

Gail and Jon would stop for a coffee at Credo, where she would leap up to hug all those who came her way. Gail never fully regained her hair after cancer treatments; instead, a stylish hat paired with a scarf and a splash of red lipstick became her trademark.

She was tireless and she was ambitious. It wasn’t good enough for Gail to have succeeded as a self-taught chef; she also wanted to prove the strength of her skills and so at the age of 64, she gained her Red Seal certification. Though she slowed her pace in the last year of her life, Gail continued to plan and complete food projects. She and Jon went on their last food tour to Nova Scotia just a few weeks before she died, sampling wood-fired pizza in Wolfville, and sipping wine at Domaine de Grand Pré.

Now, her memory is being honoured through the ChefGail Fund. It’s available to any charitable group that meets the criteria, which emphasize nutrition, wellness, healthy eating and the development of cooking skills for young people. The ChefGail Fund will continue in perpetuity.

“That’s what we’re excited about,” says Noel Xavier, donor advisor for Edmonton Community Foundation. “The fund will grow over time and be able to support opportunities in Edmonton as needs change and opportunities present themselves. That’s what Gail would have done. She was always helping everybody.”

Dr. Doug Klein, a family doctor and one of the founders of the CHANGE Adventure Camp, spoke, with tears choking his voice, at a memorial supper hosted by Jon and a group of Gail’s friends after she died. In a later phone interview, he said the five-day camps, held at the Devonian Botanic Gardens and downtown’s John A. McDougall School “wouldn’t have gotten off the ground if it wasn’t for Gail.”

“The amount of time and effort that she put into coming to meetings and actually being at the two pilot camps … she was instrumental in getting the CHANGE Adventure Camp off the ground.” says Klein.

He remembers Gail’s passion for working with the children, who participated in lots of outdoor activities such as hiking, fort building and relay races during the camp. Gail exuded enthusiasm, whether she was whipping up a mango smoothie, or encouraging kids to get their hands right into a batch of chocolate chip cookies.

“She had this energy that just took over, and the energy was contagious. One of the parents said that Gail had this magic wand and, when she talked about food, people got excited about food. That’s the idea we’re trying to create, the idea that food is fun, food is an adventure and learning and experimenting with food is good.”

Klein recalls getting to the day camp early in the morning. Gail would be there ahead of him, chopping and dicing. And always smiling. “What I will always remember is the big smile and the hug that we would get in the morning. Such a passionate, wonderful person.”

To donate to the ChefGail Fund click here.

To listen to an interview with Gail’s husband, Jon Hall, click here.