In honor of Canadian Thanksgiving, The Takeout is celebrating the nation’s culinary contributions all week long. We hope you enjoy Canada Week.
Of the many only-in-Canada foods and restaurants, there’s one that’s universally considered a cornerstone of Canadian cuisine: Swiss Chalet, a chain of restaurants identifiable by the exposed wooden beam ceilings in its dining rooms—just like a Swiss chalet!
Serving casual North American classics like BBQ ribs, burgers, and salads, Swiss Chalet is best known for its Quarter Chicken Dinner: rotisserie chicken, a bread roll, and choice of side, accompanied by a cup of Signature Chalet Dipping Sauce. The chain has become a staple for many during major holidays, even offering promotional meals like a “Thanksgiving Feast” that embellishes the Quarter Chicken Dinner with seasonally appropriate stuffing, cranberry sauce, and a slice of pumpkin pie, plus a Lindor chocolate truffle (from the Swiss confectionery company Lindt).
For the uninitiated, there’s one point that needs to be clarified: the restaurant is not Swiss. This is an entirely English Canada creation (and it seems the Swiss are keen to keep it that way). The first Swiss Chalet restaurant opened in Toronto back in 1954 and has since exploded into 220 locations across the country—except the province of Quebec, which has its own beloved rotisserie chicken chain (more on that later).
Now, I have nothing against Canadian businesses. They employ many of us, after all. I do, however, have issues with abominable food—if it can be considered food—like Chalet Sauce.
Chalet Sauce lies somewhere between gravy and a non-tart sweet and sour sauce, heavy on cornstarch and spice. To me, it always tasted of expired Christmas spices, namely nutmeg and cinnamon—but triple the amount that’s actually necessary, in the way bad cooks overcompensate by adding extra seasoning to a dish to make up for whatever other ingredients have gone stale. I’ve almost lost friendships because I think it’s terrible. But other people, like my friend Jesse Vallins, chef at the Maple Leaf Tavern in Toronto and someone I highly respect—save for having terrible taste when it comes to Chalet Sauce—seems to drink it by the cupful.
“Chalet Sauce has a salty umami kick that when combined with the mix of spices is pretty unique,” Jesse says in defense of his and other sauce-lovers’ taste buds. “It accentuates the flavors of the chicken and fries. I love it. I don’t know why? Is it because we all grew up on it? Possibly.”
Maybe that’s why there’s a large contingent of Canadians who, like Jesse, are devoted to the stuff. If encouraging people to dip innocent pieces of chicken into the offensive pool of sadness wasn’t bad enough, Swiss Chalet also offers Chalet Sauce–seasoned fresh-cut fries and crispy chicken that’s coated with Chalet Sauce–seasoned breading and sells the sauce in powdered or canned form at retail grocers. There are also spin-offs like the limited-edition Chalet Sauce Lays chips, which, according to Ally Tosello, senior director of marketing for Swiss Chalet, were so popular last season that they’re available for a limited time at select restaurants this Thanksgiving. And for the truly devoted, there are copycat recipes on the internet.
Some argue that St-Hubert, Swiss Chalet’s Quebec-based rotisserie chicken rival, has a better barbecue sauce even though both chains are owned by the same company, Recipe Unlimited. (I haven’t tried it myself, but a friend from Quebec recently sent me a few cans and powders, and I plan to try them during Thanksgiving dinner because I am a masochist.) When Recipe Unlimited bought St-Hubert in 2016, many feared that the recipes would change, including the beloved dipping sauce. However, Tosello assures me that both brands are “intentionally kept distinct [with] the St-Hubert team operating out of a separate office in Quebec and the Swiss Chalet team operating out of the head office in Vaughan (Ontario) to maintain each brand’s unique identity. The signature sauces are quite different between both brands and ingredients lists are not shared between one another. It truly comes down to personal preference and what Canadians grew up on.”
In order to revisit the traumatic flavor of Chalet Sauce, and to make sure I’m describing it accurately for posterity as I haven’t eaten it since university more than a decade ago, I visit the oldest surviving Swiss Chalet location, on Yonge Street in downtown Toronto. If I’m going to sacrifice myself for the sake of journalism, I’m going to do it from the OG Swiss Chalet. Because I’m thorough, I order a takeout order of the Double Leg Dinner with Chalet Fries. The chicken itself is, as expected, tender, but the real test is how it tastes with the sauce. It is watery-viscous and oddly sour, and while the seasoning is more muted than I remember, it still tastes like a flat Bloody Mary with a flaccid kick. I remember what Jesse told me, but I find neither saltiness nor umami, just a now-contaminated piece of thigh meat.
Because I am a complete masochist, I even dunk the Chalet Fries into the Chalet Sauce. This should be a Fear Factor challenge. The taste is akin to licking the stale dehydrated tomato-coated chip crumbs from the bottom of a chip bag. I repeat this dunking and eating exercise trying to figure out what else is assaulting my palate. I think it’s despair.
While the strange people who love Swiss Chalet will likely gang up to hate on my denunciation of the unsavory sauce—in every sense of the word—the rest of the world needs to know. Chalet Sauce is not good. It never was good. It doesn’t have any remotely redeeming characteristics that will make it good.
Down with Chalet Sauce.