“I never could understand why people didn’t want to go home for lunch or for dinner because we had great times at the dinner table eating (mother’s) simple but great food, and sitting around telling stories,” says Gail Norton, co-owner of Calgary’s The Cookbook Company.
“And then I’d go to dinners at my friends and go, what? You can buy scallop potatoes in a box? Which I honestly thought were very exotic,” she laughs.
Norton grew up in Calgary. She studied Special Education, and when both she and her husband graduated in 1984, teaching jobs were sparse so they took a road trip across Canada.
“We went to Toronto, and we stopped at a store on Yonge Street called The Cookbook Store,” she says. ”It was like a beam from the heavens, because I cooked a lot as a kid. And so in 1984, my mom and I got together, and we opened up a teeny weeny store on 17th Avenue called The Cookbook Company. Our first sale, in November 1984, was Betty Crocker’s Boys and Girls Cookbook for $7.95.”
In 1996, after a couple of moves, Richard Harvey (Metrovino) proposed sharing premises – and 722 11th Avenue SW was born. Norton has stayed at the heart of Calgary’s food scene since, and The Cookbook Co. has stayed busy. In 1986 they started a cooking school, and later added kitchenware and catering, as well a culinary cooking camp in France, and then in Italy too. “Cooking classes, and private events, corporate events, and private bookings are a large part of what we do,” she says. ”And every year I get to go to France in spring and Italy in the fall, and take clients on tours.”
But new ways to get information were taking away from people buying cookbooks, and they needed to branch out further. They opened a specialty store, as Norton would be teaching and someone would always ask ‘where did you get that?’
“There aren’t any products on our shelves that we don’t buy ourselves, and that has become our niche,” she says. “We have it on the shelf, but we also know what to do with it. We don’t have anything in the store that plugs in. There are all sorts of gadgets, but there’s also a really good knife and a cutting board.”
In 1993, Norton founded City Palate magazine, and while she hasn’t been involved with it for a few years now, she published “Calgary Cooks” book in 2014 and this year, “Calgary Eats” with signature recipes from the city’s restaurants and bars. “Everything’s just happened because of a need, and it has grown organically from there. It isn’t like I had a business plan for the next 35 years,” she smiles.
So which bottle is Norton saving for a special occasion?
“I have a big wine cupboard that was built for me, and I was looking for the bottle that was the dustiest; it’s got to be pretty special if it’s been in there long enough to get dusty,” laughs Norton.
She has a bottle of Frias Family Vineyard 2006 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.
“They’re a third generation family from California who were originally from Mexico. We did a one-off culinary tour to California, and Fernando was our host that day. It was super cool because he was serving us this absolutely delicious, very expensive California wine – and he made us Mexican food on picnic tables, showing us this side of the wine industry. It was the bottle that I could afford and then put away in a cellar.”
“I think it’s probably coming up for the 10th anniversary of that culinary tour we were on, and that would be a good reason to open it.”