Sunterra Big Pans

Cast Iron Cuisine: A Look Behind the Big Pan

By Amanda Philipow

Published April 2024

If you’ve ever wandered along the streets of Europe at lunchtime, you’ve likely witnessed crowds gathering around street vendors whipping up delicious creations that satisfy all five senses: the sizzle of the pan, the bright colours of the raw ingredients, the aroma of the fresh herbs and spices, the comforting warmth of the food still hot from the pan and, most importantly, the incomparable flavours of a scratch-made meal prepared only moments ago. This type of experience was the inspiration for Sunterra’s big pan program, a centerpiece of our market kitchens since our first location opened its doors in 1990.

Ray and Glen Price, brothers and members of Sunterra’s founding family, discovered the concept of big pan cooking during a trip to Germany over 30 years ago. Watching people from near and far come together to savour the same meal from a giant pan of freshly cooked street food was something they had never seen back home in Alberta. Though the idea of communal cooking itself has been around for thousands of years, the Price’s recognized that this unique style of preparing meals in large batches for the community was hard to find in Canada — and they were inspired to change that.

Meanwhile back home, Canadians’ food habits were also beginning to change. With the economy shifting and many more parents heading into the workforce, the desire for quick, convenient meals was greater than ever before. The solution to this need? Fast food chains. While we can all appreciate a drive-thru meal when short on time, there's no denying that this speed often comes at the expense of quality and nutrition. The Prices were determined to find a way to offer Albertans restaurant quality food with the same convenience, and with their newfound inspiration from Germany, they planted the seeds for what became the Sunterra big pan program. 

Eye-catching and unique, this method of cooking is the perfect way to provide up to 150 servings of a homecooked meal at an affordable price — with the speed of a drive-thru! But before diving in fork-first, we had to inquire: what exactly is so special about these gigantic pans themselves? For answers, we sat down with Sunterra President Chris Alladin and Culinary Development Chef Raj Nandamudi. 

“They’re imported direct from Germany,” says Chris. “It doesn’t get any more authentic.”

Besides boasting a diameter of about four feet and weighing in around 200 pounds, these impressive pans are made solely of cast iron. Many home chefs can attest to the benefits of cast iron cooking, but for those who aren’t familiar, this weighty material has multiple benefits. Firstly, cast iron insulates heat extremely well. This means it controls temperature without fluctuation, resulting in even cooking without scorching or burning. Secondly, their extra-wide base allows for excellent searing and distribution of ingredients while cooking, resulting in better tasting food. Finally, they’re practically indestructible! When taken care of and seasoned properly, these pans can last a lifetime — in fact, our Bankers Hall location still uses the same pans we’ve had since 1990.

“They look as new as the day we got them 34 years ago,” Chris says proudly. 

In addition to the unique tool itself, Sunterra's big pan program offers customers an experience they rarely get to have when enjoying a meal of this quality — a chance to watch! Big pan stations are strategically placed where customers can get up close to see (and smell) the action without risk of any burns or splatters.

“The food is made right in front of you,” Raj explains. “When you walk into the store you can immediately smell it.” 

The chefs slowly add ingredients and build the dishes layer by layer, allowing the flavours to fully develop between steps. 

“It needs technique, creativity and skill to build all these dishes,” explains Chris; a nod to the expertise of our in-market chefs. 

We stood by and watched as Randy Rivera, market chef at our Bankers Hall location, began creating our bestselling butter chicken at 10 a.m., piquing the interest of passersby on their morning coffee run. 

“The customers are very excited, especially when they see us cooking it. If they see the action, they come back in the afternoon just to try it,” Randy smiles.

The aroma of the tandoori marinated chicken, cinnamon sticks and carefully curated spice blend fills the air as he swirls around the ingredients with a giant yet very proportionate spatula. This signature recipe didn’t just come from the internet or an ol’ cookbook. Our well-loved butter chicken was born decades ago from a generations-old family recipe belonging to one of our team members and has remained unchanged since. Many of our big pan recipes are inspired by our team members, representing cuisines from all over the globe like Thailand, Indonesia and the U.K., to name a few. With the mouthwatering scent filling the air, we’re confident everyone in a 50-foot range is dying to get even a small taste, and as it turns out, you can do just that.

“You can always ask for a sample,” Raj explains. “You aren't able to do that in a restaurant.” 

Menus rotate daily, and you’re bound to want to try them all! Beyond sampling each variety to make your decision, customers are also offered a selection of bases when it comes to their big pan meal. We offer fresh pasta, several varieties of rice including white, brown, turmeric and jeera, as well as spinach and kale for those looking for a lighter meal. Each delectable dish is also finished with a garnish to bring it all together.

“It’s not just scooped and served, there’s special garnishes like yogurt and fresh cilantro,” says Chris, referring to the butter chicken. “It not only looks good, but also adds that extra depth of flavour.”

Once you’ve made your choices, your meal will be hot, ready and waiting before you even get to the till.

Our markets are inspired by the European way of shopping for fresh food every day. Freshness is at the core of everything we make, and our big pans are no exception. Each dish is compiled of fresh, high quality meats, vegetables and stocks and made from scratch daily. Many ingredients come from our own farms as well, like our world-renowned Sunterra Farms pork and locally grown Sunterra Greenhouse tomatoes. Cooking it all up in our signature giant pans not only offers a European flair and unique family-style meal experience, but also allows us to provide the speed and convenience of something like fast food without sacrificing quality. 

If your stomach isn’t rumbling yet, it will be once you hear some of the offerings you can look forward to. Of course there’s our bestselling butter chicken, but that’s just the beginning! Keep an eye out for red Thai curry chicken, San Antonio beef chili, paella and even some brand-new options like deconstructed cabbage rolls, hunter chicken and beef stroganoff just to name a few. 

You can find big pan stations at our Keynote, Bankers Hall, Commerce Place and Bower Place markets. Prefer a different location? Don’t fret, our big pan offerings are also available in our Grab ‘n’ Go section to take home and heat up, no giant pan required. 

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