When David Bowie released “Space Oddity” in 1969, the now-canonical track was largely considered a novelty, a young musician’s honest effort rushed by record executives aiming to capitalize on the impending Apollo 11 moon landing. But after Bowie’s star turn on the British TV show Top of the Pops later that year, the song accelerated its pop-cultural climb, with the refrain “ground control to Major Tom” following the beloved musician for the rest of his life. Reflecting the perennial popularity of “Space Oddity” with music lovers, Calgary’s Major Tom Bar, inspired by Bowie’s style and era, was a hit from the get-go.
Concorde Entertainment Group culinary director Garrett Bruce Martin, 32, is every bit the wunderkind yet man of the people Bowie was. After first setting foot in a professional kitchen at 16, the Calgary-raised chef worked and staged at notable restaurants both abroad and closer to home. He has cooked in Napa Valley’s Bouchon Bistro and the two-Michelin-starred Daniel Berlin Krog in Sweden.
In Calgary, he was chef de partie at two dearly departed Calgary icons—Catch Restaurant and Muse Restaurant & Lounge—and his first stint in a professional kitchen at a Calgary Earls left a lasting impression. “They have a lot of really good systems that they put in place. They build very streamlined kitchens,” he says. “At the time I was leaving, I was like, ‘I’m going to move on to bigger and better things—I want new challenges.’ Now, at this point in my career, I realize how much I took from that experience. Those guys really knew what they were doing.”
That unpretentious, focused attitude toward dining culture informs Martin’s menus to this day as well as his beliefs about how a kitchen should be run, the restaurant industry, and what it means to be a chef: unusually democratic and without delusions of grandeur. At Major Tom—a midcentury modern space on the 40th floor of the Stephen Avenue Place building in downtown Calgary—he emphasizes local produce, simple preparations, and bold introductions of unexpected flavours. “I find as I get older that I care a little bit less about impressing people with ‘look what I can do,’” he says. “When I was a younger chef, I really wanted to show all the things I know, how much different my stuff is than the other guys around me. Now, I think the best way to differentiate ourselves is just to be better.”
Martin likes to bring attention to Calgary as well as Alberta’s food scene, which shaped him and is only now receiving due praise. As much as possible in the westernmost of Canada’s frigid Prairie provinces, he employs local ingredients and highlights regional culinary traditions, with beef and hearty but complex vegetable dishes paramount. The North Star of the menu is the beef program, he says, as we dig into his delightfully astute beef tartare: influenced by French onion soup, it is delicately garnished with caramelized onions and gruyere. “But as far as my style goes, it’s about what goes on behind the scenes, what we can do to impress people without banging them over the head with creativity.”
The restaurant’s decor harkens back to Mad Men–era cosmopolitanism. Formerly an office, the almost-200-seat dining room features panoramic views that soar over Calgary’s downtown to the Rocky Mountains beyond. The design is pared back and elegant, leaning on dark woods and leathers, and the occasional curvilinear detail against otherwise squared-off features. Asked about the logistics of operating an industrial kitchen and an entire restaurant on the 40th floor of a functioning office building, Martin has a typically humble response: “It honestly isn’t that bad.”
Being voted Canada’s best new restaurant by Canada’s 100 Best at the end of a storybook first year, while appreciated, did little to change Martin’s view of Major Tom and its skyward trajectory. “The awards are great. I love the pats on the back, but I want to be busy,” he says. “I want to keep people coming in because they’re like, it’s a consistent product, the food’s great, the service is great, I love the vibes.”
Martin’s formula seems to be a winning one. Major Tom is packed to the brim night after night, with diners uttering another Bowie line between bites. Turning to the opposite end of the iconoclast’s career, they reference Bowie’s bittersweet departing single “Lazarus”—“Look up here, I’m in heaven.”