May is the newest restaurant to open at the Art Gallery of Alberta, occupying the space that formerly housed Zinc, which closed permanently last fall. May's soft opening comes about five months after the AGA announced that Prairie Catering would exclusively operate its food service, events, and facility bookings.
The name of the restaurant links back to owner Jimmy Shewchuk's own family heritage. "Both of my grandparents were farmers in Vegreville," said Shewchuk. "I remember getting our hands dirty in May, and the name celebrates the start of the work instead of just the harvest."
That connection to farmers underlies executive chef Doreen Prei's approach to creating the menu at May. Specifically, she took advantage of the restaurant's proximity to the Edmonton Downtown Farmers' Market.
"We visited the market every weekend in the process of opening. We wanted to ensure things were available for us but also needed to be flexible with what they have," Prei told Taproot. "Planning a menu around farmers was super fun."
Among the local producers that make up 80% of the menu, May sources from Ocean Odyssey Inland, Lacombe Fresh, Four Whistle Farm, Reclaim Farm, Mo-Na Food, and Purple Gate Haskap Orchard. Because it is producer-driven, Prei anticipates the menu will change every three months.
Prei has created dishes that have been inspired by her surroundings and her past. For instance, images of snow falling on cows led to her decision to plate braised short rib with kohlrabi foam, a dish she calls "full-on Alberta, with farro and dark green kale."
Or, the wild mushroom dish recounts her memories of trekking through the woods. "It's made from a variety of seven wild mushrooms, served with black garlic emulsion, sunchoke chips, and a tiny touch of greens," said Prei. "I found lots of mushrooms as a child and when you walk through the forest you hear a crunch on the treeline so this is my homage to that."
Prei has the distinction of not only working at Zinc when it first opened in 2010, but also serving as the executive chef when it closed in 2020. However, Prei has no issues with returning to the AGA again, as she professes a deep connection to the space. "I was pregnant [while working] in that building, and have always considered it my third child," said Prei. "May is a totally different restaurant, and people get a different vibe."
The interior has been updated with natural elements and features art pieces on loan from the AGA's rental program. The restaurant plans to offer lunch beginning sometime in the new year, and though brunch is served in conjunction with the Downtown Business Association's Holiday Light-Up, it won't be an ongoing occurrence.
After 20 months of not cooking for diners, May feels particularly close to Prei's heart.
"I didn't cook for people for so long because of the pandemic, so I can't wait to feed people," said Prei. "It's like people are coming to my house. It's very personal for me."