Alum Neil Royale removes the dietary barriers to a universal favourite
Almost everyone loves a slice of hot, cheesy pizza.
For people with dietary restrictions, however, that pizza presents a challenge. Lactose and gluten allergies, for example, rule out the near-universal favourite. So does a vegan diet, which excludes animal products of any kind.
That’s something siblings Neil Royale (Culinary Arts ’08) and Karuna Goodall set out to fix with Die Pie.
The new eatery, opened in downtown Edmonton this September, has found ways to bring pies to die for (hence the name) to an often-excluded clientele. The menu is unique among Edmonton pizza parlours in that, not only is it vegan and allergen-friendly, it’s designed to appeal to the masses.
“I wanted a place where people with allergies could come, especially people who couldn’t eat cheese or didn’t want to eat cheese,” says Royale of his first restaurant venture. “And also make it good, so people who would typically eat a cheese pizza would still want to eat it.”
"You can't just appeal to vegans"
Raised vegetarian, the siblings recognized the need for delicious plant-based alternatives early on. After graduating from NAIT, Royale was a cook at Vancouver’s Shangri-La Hotel; in the kitchen’s off hours, he would experiment with different vegan pizza recipes and get feedback from coworkers.
When he moved back to Edmonton, family and friends became his testers as he made plans to open his own place. Goodall began helping to hone the recipes and, eventually, they decided to go in on the venture together.
While Royale is proud of their dough – both their traditional and gluten free recipes – the true technical marvel of Die Pie is its cheese, made in-house.
Unsatisfied with vegan varieties already on the market, Royale spent 2 years perfecting his own. Today, the restaurant features cashew-based smoked cheddar, raw gorgonzola, truffle brie, mozzarella, sunflower parmesan and – the most unique of the batch – nut-free hemp havarti.
Instructor Maynard Kolskog (Cooking ’82) says that for alternative foods to succeed, they have to be exceptional. Die Pie can’t get by on concept alone.
“They have to be very confident that their product is as good or superior to regular product because you can't just appeal to vegans and expect to stay in business,” says Kolskog, whose work as a research chef has produced vegan ice cream and gluten-free pasta.
“You'd want to get your food just so good that people don’t care of it’s vegan or not.”
Getting that right is a painstaking process, says Kolskog, but an important one – and not just to the success of a single restaurant. Done well, it represents the addition of something new and exciting to the industry. It’s innovation.
Appetite for change
The time may be right for that innovation. Globally, the market for meat alternatives is worth more than half a billion dollars. In Canada, about a third of the population is vegetarian or eating less meat. And while some people have no choice but to go gluten-free, the diet has trended in recent years.
Then there’s the growing appetite for experimentation in Edmonton’s food community, which Royale compares to what he saw during his time in Vancouver.
His sister agrees: “Everyone has their own perspective so you have an amazing selection of local restaurants and coffee shops.”
But the real proof there’s a niche for Die Pie to fill may be found in a visit, which I did mid-week. The 40 seats remained consistently full (a couple weeks earlier, the restaurant moved more than 120 pies on opening night, says Royale) of couples and small groups clustered around brightly lit, homemade wooden tables and a bar.
There’s no shortage of quality pizzerias in Edmonton – several within walking distance of Die Pie – but options for my dining partner and I are limited by food allergies. Perhaps like others in similar situations, we’re used to depressing, gluten-free crusts and rubbery faux cheese.
What we’re not used to is being delighted by the choices on offer for those with dietary restrictions. Not only could we eat anything we wanted from Die Pie’s menu, we actually enjoyed it.