A few years ago while out with friends, Tomi Okunnuga was introduced to an Edmonton hidden gem: Monamie Resto.
The restaurant had a menu made primarily of African dishes. It took self-proclaimed foodie Okunnuga, who emigrated from Lagos, Nigeria, by surprise. He said it was the first time a meal was beyond his expectations.
"There are a lot of places that are out there that nobody really knows anything about," he told CBC Edmonton's Radio Active.
"Unless you're in that circle, you don't know about these places, and most of these businesses are not benefiting from that."
This 2017 experience, along with his background in film, inspired Okunnuga to start YEG Eats, a series of short films showcasing the lesser-known restaurants in the city.
A lack of funding plagued the project with delays. He applied for funding from countless organizations to no avail. But the pandemic kicked everything into high gear. Okunnuga noticed the struggles locally owned restaurants went through during this time.
Eventually, he decided to pitch his idea to the Edmonton Community Foundation.
"They told me it's not the kind of thing we do, but it's a great idea and we'll figure out a way to fund it. And it got funded," he said.
With a new budget of $8,000, Okunnuga partnered up with Orchard Lane Media, and rented the equipment he needed that would still allow him to follow social distancing rules.
"We ended up realising that there are a lot of places by people of colour that nobody knows about," he said, adding "Most of their restaurants were just under the radar."
Listen | Edmonton filmmaker talks web series showcasing hidden restaurant gems:
Finding the restaurants
A crew member took over the task of finding restaurants and discovered the overlooked food gems, like Greenhouse Health Food Eatery.
"The fact that they had healthy food that actually tasted good and you didn't have to break the bank for it was huge," Okunnuga said.
Restaurant owner and chef Mikhail Prime has been running his business for 12 years now. It has become a staple at the University of Alberta, and has a loyal customer base, according to Prime and Okunnuga.
Prime's menu, which Okunnuga describes as "healthy junk food," draws on his Caribbean heritage: the meal is full of flavour and colour and focused on health.
Prime works alongside dietitians and nutritionists to develop his recipes.
"We all grew up playing sports," Prime said. "And you know, one of the biggest things that we know is that nutrition is really big and how you perform, how you move in your daily life."
Prime describes his business as being in the "mid-major status".
"You've got to be in the know to know us. And that's kind of cool right now," he said.
Now that his eight episode series has drawn to a close, Okunnuga has turned his focus to season two.
"The food scene is a lot bigger than people think. There's a lot out there."
Watch | YEG Eats' episode on Monamie Resto: