As much as she enjoys being in the kitchen, award-winning chef Connie DeSousa also loves connecting with the people enjoying her food. She makes a habit of spending time at their tables, hearing their stories and sharing stories of her own — including how she earned her nickname "ballerina butcher."

DeSousa grew up in Calgary, helping her Portuguese dad and Irish-Canadian mom cook "amazing meals" while dreaming about being a professional ballerina. But, in high school, she realized her "love of eating sausages and all things meat" would prevent it.

So she hung up her ballet slippers and enrolled in SAIT's Professional Cooking program. After graduating with honours, she worked at Calgary's Owl's Nest restaurant under the mentorship of Chef John Jackson (PCK '98).

Jackson encouraged her to enter culinary competitions. In 2004, DeSousa earned a spot on Culinary Team Alberta and won silver at the World Culinary Olympics in Germany. Then she decided to stay there.

"I moved to Germany at the ripe age of 21, right out of my parents' house," DeSousa says. "I didn't speak the language and it was terrifying, but after winning second in the world, I went to work in a restaurant in Cologne."

In 2005, Jackson had another idea that would shape DeSousa's career. He requested her help in opening a restaurant in the St. Regis hotel in San Francisco, so she packed her knives and headed to California.

In 2009, now co-chefs Jackson and DeSousa returned to Calgary to open their own restaurant, CHARCUT Roast House. It was an instant hit, and DeSousa's reputation for her undying love of butchering and charcuterie led to her sobriquet.

DeSousa and Jackson also worked hard outside their kitchen, collaborating with other local chefs to build the city's reputation for great food.

"Back in 2010 when people thought of food cities, nobody looked at Calgary. Chefs and restaurateurs in the city were fighting to put ourselves on the map. We all worked really hard to promote our city and I am proud to say we have now created a culinary destination."

DeSousa continues to enter local, national and international culinary competitions including Top Chef Canada. She made the finals in 2011 and the all-star competition in 2017.

"I often tell young culinarians that the best thing you can do is to travel," she says. "Get out of your city, become a sponge and learn as much as you can abroad, but then bring back what you've learned — the different cuisines and cultures. Work abroad but then come back home."

Today DeSousa still gets her dance fix — from her four-year old. "My daughter is in ballet and hip hop dance now and I love going to her recitals and watching her at dance class," she says. "I live a little vicariously through her."

Text by Jennifer Allford
Photos by Jager + Kokemor
Video by Grant Nolin