EDMONTON – After almost a decade of chocolate-covered strawberries, spanakopita, butter chicken and spring rolls, Giuseppe Albi is leaving the world of food to focus on art.
Albi, 65, will retire at the end of August as general manager of Events Edmonton, which produces A Taste of Edmonton as well as the new Metropolis International Winter Festival.
But he won’t stop working. He plans to devote himself full-time to his long career as an abstract painter, which he has been practising early in the morning before going to his manager’s job.
“Most artists, it’s very difficult to make a living as an artist, so you have to find something else. Fortunately for me, I was drawn into the events planning business. I had a knack for it.”
Albi has been putting on Taste since 2004, but was first hired as a contractor in 1976 by the Edmonton Exhibition Association (now Northlands) to stage an arts, crafts and culinary fair.
He eventually began working for the Edmonton Klondike Days Association, renamed Events Edmonton in 2006, running shows related to the summer fair outside the exhibition grounds such as the Sunday Promenade.
Taste started in 1985 as a two-day event on a plaza overlooking the river valley where the Shaw Conference Centre’s Hall D now stands. It moved to Churchill Square and was extended to five days in 1993.
It now lasts 10 days around Capital Ex. This year there are booths from 40 restaurants and up to five food trucks in what Albi compares to a giant outdoor food court.
“We want to showcase the variety of food that’s found in the city … You can go outside, have music, and it’s a place to group and socialize.”
The idea of eating al fresco is fairly new in a city that’s cold for much of the year — he says the first restaurant patio opened in Edmonton less than 35 years ago.
Albi estimates producing Taste costs $500,000 to $1 million annually, including $90,000 for music alone.
Last Sunday was the busiest he has ever seen it, although Events Edmonton doesn’t keep attendance figures.
The non-profit group doesn’t even count the thousands of tickets handed over for meals, instead weighing what each booth operator collects after ensuring the paper isn’t wet and there isn’t any garbage in the submission.
One of Albi’s biggest challenges was shifting Taste to a park at Jasper Avenue and 102nd Street while Churchill Square was being reconstructed in 2004.
“We had to cut the (number of) restaurants in half, we had a small green space, but we made it work.”
The winter festival started its inaugural run last New Year’s Eve in four heated pavilions, each designed by a local architect using scaffolding shrink-wrapped in white plastic and lit at night.
The buildings showed off the latest cold-weather construction technology, but there were complaints not enough was happening inside.
Albi admits there were times during the seven-week run when they didn’t have a lot of programming.
While it’s hard to shorten the festival because it takes weeks to construct and dismantle the site, he suggests using fewer structures and reducing heating costs by changing the flooring to leave less space underneath.
The Events Edmonton board is reviewing the future of the festival, and it’s uncertain whether it will be staged next year, he says.
However, new festivals often have issues to resolve, he says.
“You have to develop a customer base and develop the programming, and that takes patience,” Albi says. “My whole vision was it was tied to the construction industry … There are so many opportunities, but it needs a chance to evolve.”
He plans to focus on painting in preparation for a February show at the Peter Robertson Gallery, although he might continue taking on event planning projects as a consultant.
His interest in the field was reaffirmed last weekend when he was introduced to the mayor of Harbin, Edmonton’s sister city in China, during a tour of Taste with local officials.
“He shook my hand and said ‘You make a lot of people happy.’ That’s my legacy,” Albi says.
“Someone like the mayor of Harbin saying ‘You make a lot of people happy,’ that’s what makes it all worthwhile.”
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