By GRAHAM HICKS
If one thing is predictable about chef/businessman Brad Lazarenko, in the 30-plus years he has been active in Edmonton’s dining and food circles, it’s his unpredictability.
He delights in left turns without signaling. Once Lazarenko has launched and executed an interesting food concept, usually under his Culina kitchen brand, he’s thinking of his next move.
Culina Mill Creek, Bibo Wine Bar, Passa Tempo in Osoyoos’ Spirit Ridge Resort, a wine bar in Nelson, B.C. a return to Edmonton to open Culina Muttart, the Culina Cantina in the downtown police station, helping his sister open Culina Highlands, catering, running the food outlets at the City of Edmonton golf courses, and now, his latest venture, the take-out-only Culina To Go in Ivan Beljan’s newly renovated Oliver Exchange Building, one block north of Jasper Avenue on 121 Street. (Lazarenko still owns Culina Muttart in the Muttart Conservatory. That operation is on hold until the city-owned greenhouse pavilions reopen in 2021.)
For Lazarenko, it’s as much about quality of life as business.
“I love this place (the Oliver Exchange Building),” he says, grabbing a coffee in Culina To Go’s small sitting area, as a steady stream of customers come by to – it would appear – pick up the fixings for their suppers. “I’m very particular about atmosphere. I’d never open in a strip mall. Here, this is about neighbourhood. I live six blocks away, can walk or bike to work. Around me in this building is a bakery, a brewery, coffee and gift shops. It’s a dream!”
That said, he admits to a compulsive restlessness. “This is the first time since 2005 that I’ve only have one place. I love it when an opportunity pops up. I like to shoot from the hip. I get bored easily. I enjoy the chase, enjoy new projects.”
Lazarenko doesn’t talk much about money. Businesses for him seem to happen with an intuitive sense of what his large and loyal clientele want in the way of lunch or dinner. He wasn’t happy about losing the city golf courses’ contract to a catering giant, but he has no regrets. “One door closes, another opens. But I was disappointed to lose the Victoria Golf Club’s Sunday brunch. It was really starting to come together.”
His is a mind that moves around quickly, one thought leading to another.
On moving to take-out and catering at Culina To Go: “I was done (for the time being) with fine dining and sit down. Really, people don’t know how to live anymore. They sit and take selfies and text and write online reviews. You get the accolades, but it can be so phony. Plus I don’t have to deal with alcohol and there’s less labour.”
Brad has not lost his love of cooking or for teaching others. He’s happy to be the day-to-day captain of the Culina To Go kitchen. “I was self-taught. I learned a great deal from working with Peter Johner at Packrat Louie. On my days off, I worked at Normand’s. Either I was a workaholic, or I just appreciated being paid while I was being schooled!
“It still took me to about the age of 40 to have full confidence in my culinary skills. At 45, the light came on. I was gaining a deep understanding of food, of flavours. At this point, I don’t even look at recipes.”
It’s refreshing to witness a successful businessperson who happily operates on intuition compared to spreadsheets, who’s unwilling to compromise quality of life for monetary gain.
He’s happy where he is – surrounded by like-minded neighbourhoods, with the Culina brand well enough known as to be a culinary destination within the Oliver Exchange.
But if an opportunity comes up … “I’m talking to the city again. We’ve kissed and made up. There’s other river valley locations I’d love to explore.