Talking tableside: Uri Heilik of Alloy restaurant

A sitdown with the restaurateur about what gives Alloy its longevity and what inspires him

Uri Heilik. Photo courtesy of Todd Korol.
Uri Heilik. Photo courtesy of Todd Korol.

Brainstorming, dreaming, creating, finessing: it’s what partners Uri Heilik and Rogelio Herrera do best. In 2000, both chefs by trade, they shared ideas shoulder-to-shoulder in the then Wildwood kitchen. And it didn’t take long for them to start planning a space of their own. With an inventive menu and an unmatched global experience, Alloy leaves a lasting impression that has built a loyal following. Maybe that’s why 10 years has flown by and they’re still making top 10 lists.

Starting from scratch in an atypical, out-of-the-way location, Alloy was on OpenTable even before Twitter was a thing, when you could enjoy a meal without having to take a picture of it. We sat down with Uri to talk about what it takes to stick around for a decade, and how he stays inspired.

How did the name Alloy come about?

As all good ideas came, it was from a night of drinking, because nothing bad ever happens then, right? I was out with my cousin and we were talking about names, something that incorporates the room, food, service, wine, the whole experience. He suggested an alloy, weaker materials coming together to make something stronger than its parts alone. We’re also surrounded by metals, being in an industrial area. Alloy is all the things we do well together.

Ten years is really something to be proud of, especially in a city where the industry has changed so much. What’s your biggest takeaway from the last decade?

This is just a building full of tables and chairs and food, but so many meaningful special occasions have happened within these walls in 10 years. We’ve had so many engagements, weddings, birthdays, anniversaries… My servers don’t always recognize the significance of these events, but when we have a wedding on our patio, I say to them: “Think about it: the biggest moment in their lives is happening right here, think about how much that means?” That feeling, all of the memories that people have built here; it makes me emotional.

You can definitely be proud of what you built here; it’s more than just tables and chairs and bricks you brought in from Kansas. Can you share a proud moment that stands out?

I was nominated for [Avenue magazine’s] 40 under 40. I lined behind this brilliant Doogie Howser 17 year old that works at the cancer centre, and a guy from NASA was behind me. All I could think was: “What am I doing here? I’m not curing cancer!” But it was very humbling that people saw value in what we’re doing, in making people happy.

What do you think has been the biggest change in Calgary’s restaurant scene?

People are more knowledgeable and they really want to try things from around the world, which is great because there is so many choices right under our noses! You can find anything here in Calgary if you look for it. Generally, we try to push the boundaries of our diners with things that aren’t mainstream. For example, five years ago, we had octopus on our menu and it sort of freaked everyone out, but now you see it everywhere.

Uri Heilik and Rogelio Herrera. Photo courtesy of Todd Korol.

With so many restaurants opening, how does Alloy stay relevant?

There are so many really great places to choose from that are casual, approachable restaurants that young people can frequent weekly. We’re just outside that in terms of accessibility, but a lot of people choose us for their special occasions; there are so few really great high-end places that offer our fine dining experience. We’re lucky enough too that we get good recognition like being in Avenue’s Top 10 year after year, and we have a loyal following. We’ve been here 10 years and I still meet a lot of people who have never heard of Alloy, which I actually think is amazing because those are new customers. If everyone knew about us, we’d have no new customers!

Can you share a blessing and a curse of being a restaurateur?

The curse is that I can’t go out for dinner as just a patron; I can’t blend into the crowd. It’s good and bad: we are treated very well by our peers, but at the same time, if I have a bad meal, I can’t say anything about it. And I’m always looking around the room, checking out the space. People think it’s weird that I go out for wings and nachos, but who doesn’t like wings? I like to go to pretty casual places so I can just enjoy the time out.

A blessing is being able to leverage our contacts and do good with them. When we first started, we did a collaboration dinner between Rouge, Charcut, and Alloy for charity. That was one of the first experience of chefs collaborating and it was wildly popular; those are popping up all over now. We just finished up October Feast for the Calgary Food Bank and the Soup Sisters Cookbook launch, and we’re hosting Mario Bollag of Terralsole for a charity dinner on November 7th. Those kinds of events are really special; there’s a huge sense of community that has come out of giving back.

It takes a great deal of commitment (and a little crazy) to open your own restaurant. Where do you draw your passion? How do you stay inspired?

Oh! It goes up and down, we’ve been through two recessions. You have to learn to not throw too many pots and pans, knowing that other people’s lives depend on you. It can be very stressful. Travelling keeps me motivated; it renews my love and passion. Going to different restaurants helps spark ideas and jogs our creativity. And inside these four walls, we do daily tasting menus to keep things exciting and it allows our kitchen to stay inspired too.

Where is your favourite place to travel?

Israel, that’s easy. If I could live there tomorrow, I would. My mom is Israeli, so I try to go as often as I can. Every one of my memories--my bar mitzvah, my wedding, every summer--they’re all in Israel. Aside from that, I love Asia. I love the food for the most part, Japan and Morocco are next on my list.

(Photos courtesy of Todd Korol.)

Favourite local gems in Calgary

Attraction: Heritage Park, especially since having my son. His favourite his watching the piglets grow through the season.

Bakery: Sidewalk Citizen

Local Beer: Annex just opened next to us and it’s good. And I like Wild Rose beer.

Guilty pleasure? Japanese whiskey.