Who's Who at the Zoo: meet Sous Chef James Neilson

Nov 07, 2014

Meet the man behind the food- James Neilson is the Sous Chef for our catering team, and a finalist for the 2014 Ocean Wise Chowder Chowdown: Calgary contest. We’ve interviewed him for our “Who’s who at the Zoo” blog series, to learn more about his culinary career, and how he came to work for the zoo.

*Update- Chef James is now a finalist for the 2015 Ocean Wise Chowder Chowdown: Calgary contest, hosted on November 10, 2015. Tickets available now!

Q: What's your training that lead you to work at the Calgary Zoo?

“I went to school at Red Deer College, and received my Red Seal in the Culinary Arts in 2006. I moved to Calgary, and ran a catering company for two years, and then I moved to Vancouver Island for five years! I worked at the Westin Bear Mountain Resort & Spa in Victoria, and then in Nanaimo as the Chef for a seafood and raw bar called Acme Food Company. Then I was the Head Chef for the Nanaimo Best Western Dorchester Hotel. After that I decided that it was time to come back to Calgary, and I began working at the Calgary Zoo in early 2013.”

Q: Did you always want to work in your field?

“It was natural. I enjoyed working with food, and as I progressed over time it made sense. I was passionate about cooking before I went to school, but my culinary education really gave me drive and goals.”

Q: What gets you excited about your work?

A: I’m really excited when I get great ingredients for a dish. If there are amazing quality ingredients, produce, fish… it’s so motivating.”

Q: Who inspires you?

“Thomas Keller. He’s the owner and chef of French Laundry in California, U.S.A. His cooking style simplistic, rustic and approachable, but he combines it with modernist cuisine. Really incredible.”

Q: Where in the world would you like to visit?

“Italy, Greece and Spain. I would love to travel the Mediterranean- for food and pleasure. Food is fun!”

Q: What has been your most life changing experience or accomplishment that you’re most proud of?”

“Personally, it would be that I have a beautiful wife, Caitlin and our daughter, Jaida. Professionally, when I lived on Vancouver Island as the Head Chef for a hotel, I also participated in the local farmer’s market. I developed really personal relationships with the local produce farmers, which was unique and special. Meeting the farmers helped me find a shared passion- seeing the passion that they had for their food inspired me to want to do something amazing with it. When you get your food off of a truck or in a grocery store, it just doesn't have the same effect as from someone who grew it or raised it.”

Q: What’s your favourite food?

A: "Freshly caught seafood. When I was on Vancouver Island, I set crab traps and went fishing and oyster picking often. So delicious. I also love cooking and eating lamb and gnocchi.”

Q: What is something that you would like to accomplish?

“I would like to grow new menus and invent new recipes. Basically I just want to try new things and keep growing as a chef! Calgary’s culinary scene has really come into its own in the last few years, and it’s cool to be included in that. It's important to me to continue to challenge myself and always try to raise the bar. I would also like to educate people on the importance of eating locally and sustainably, and the affect that it has on conservation.”

Q: What is your favourite animal at the zoo?

“My favourite animal is definitely the Amur tigers. I was fond of our elderly female Kita, I’ll really miss her.”

Q: What do you love most about working at the zoo?

“I love the relationship that we have with the Horticulture team. They grow incredible produce, and then we can take that produce and turn it into something tasty. It’s a great example of two passions working together. This year we used their kale, rainbow Swiss chard, beets, heirloom carrots, herbs- to name a few. I have a wish list for next year that includes squash blossoms.”

Q: Tell us about your team?

“We have a great team! They’re passionate, hardworking, and between the group of us, we have a wide range of skill- we make a lot of different food here at the zoo. Ping Sum (Executive Chef) is great. “

Q: What message do you have for visitors about your work?

“We’re here! We’re one of the biggest catering teams in Calgary, but most people don’t expect a zoo to have that. We cater so many different events; different sizes, different menus, the weekly zoo Sunday Safari Brunch…”