“I LOVE WHEN CUSTOMERS FEEL AT HOME. Sometimes they’ll walk in the back door of the kitchen. I like that. It makes me feel like I’m doing my job right when they’re that comfortable,” says executive chef and owner of Characters Shonn Oborowsky. With a menu that announces “the only thing in the world not for sale is character,” and a dessert explained simply,“You will see if you order it”, it is evident that Characters does not play by the rules – infusing humour and verve into the downtown restaurant.
Oborowsky studied culinary arts at NAIT, where the first time student quickly bonded with first time teacher Stanley Townsend, dubbed Mr. T. After graduating, Oborowsky worked at The Centre Club in Edmonton under culinary Olympics champ Chef Yoshi Chubachi, before travelling to Hawaii, Switzerland and Singapore eventually settling back in Edmonton where he opened Characters in 2001. The restaurant quickly amassed a legion of devoted regulars. Part mad scientist, part creative genius, Oborowsky painstakingly tests dishes until reaching the perfect result. “I get my ideas one of two ways, right when I’m falling asleep or I see things. Don’t worry, I don’t see dead people. It’s like association,” explains the chef. One such ‘association’ became the restaurant’s most popular dessert. While at a camping store, Oborowsky noticed that cast iron pots were displayed next to wood and marshmallows. The result, featured on the menu is tableside s’mores which comes to the table with a cast iron pot filled with flaming wood chips, accompanied by marshmallows and graham crackers. The interactive and nostalgic albeit risky dessert has given the restaurant many laughs. “The first day we put the s’mores on the menu, a lady caught the tablecloth on fire. We had regular customers come in that were doctors. They didn’t take the kids camping. So they were burning them on fire. I eventually had to show them how to do it,” chuckles the chef, quickly adding, “It’s been really good since then.”
From using watermelon vodka for a salmon gravlax dish (many other flavours were tested), to serving fries and chips instead of bread at the table to presenting a venison stew in a tagine, Oborowsky’s creativity extends to every detail. This conscientious approach to cooking is well-documented in black tomes that Oborowsky has amassed since he began cooking. They are replete with sketches, notes and ideas for dishes each described in though provoking detail – a tangible illustration of Oborowsky’s evolution as a chef. My meal exhibits the chef’s range of influences. The lobster chili recalls Oborowsky’s time in Singapore with silky pieces of lobster, tossed with scallions, peppers, lime and cilantro served atop warm brioche. It is one of the most luscious uses of the crustacean I have tasted in recent years. I also polish off the lemon trio, a refreshing, and zesty progression of citrus. A word we’ve heard several times from the chef, ‘fun’ is exactly how we have ended the evening.
With many of the newest renovations at the restaurant completed by the chef himself, every inch of space, every dish, is a testament to Oborowsky’s unique character, lending a natural warmth and charm to the restaurant. Next time, we’ll be sure to enter through the back door. ”
Read More in the Fall 2011 issue of City Style and Living Magazine here.