Jennifer Gardiner, or “Jen Unplugged” as she was known to many, was a force of nature, a larger-than-life personality and a stalwart in many Calgary circles. Now, more than a year after her death at the age of 48, Gardiner is still inspiring people, bringing them together, and making a difference.
“She really captivated people. Her personality was so big, so glowing. She loved fashion, she loved travelling, she loved life. She had a huge heart,” says Jesse Willis, who is Gardiner’s stepson-in-law (his partner Laura is the daughter of Gardiner’s husband, Sean Dunnigan).
As co-owner of Vine Arts Wine & Spirits in Calgary, Willis founded Carnival Cocktails for Cancer in Gardiner’s memory, a fundraiser held earlier this spring, with money raised going to the Alberta Cancer Foundation and the Jennifer Gardiner Chair in Surgical Oncology, an endowment fund at the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine.
“We were really close and good friends,” Willis says, of his relationship with Gardiner. “She was always hugely supportive of Vine Arts, the work I was doing and what we were trying to build. We had a lot of fun together.”
Holding this type of glam event was an idea that Willis and Gardiner had discussed, even before Gardiner was diagnosed with cancer. When they first began tossing the idea around, they envisioned it as a carnival-themed food, wine and cocktail event, focused around a new business that Gardiner was preparing to launch: an online Calgary lifestyle magazine called Calgary Unplugged. Gardiner had just quit her job working for Berkshire Hathaway’s Business Wire, “because she wanted to go out and do something on her own,” Willis explains. “Calgary Unplugged was going to mash up a lot of different things. She was interested in style, fashion, food and wine, and things happening in the city.”
Willis had suggested that Gardiner hold Carnival Cocktails as a promotion for her new magazine, to help launch her business. “We also intended there to be a charitable benefit,” he explains.
After Gardiner was diagnosed with stage four colorectal cancer in December 2011, they still wanted to hold the event, but eventually decided to change the focus. “That’s when it became a fundraiser for the Alberta Cancer Foundation, raising awareness and money for that cause,” Willis says.
Gardiner soon became an advocate for the Alberta Cancer Foundation. And her story was chronicled by Canadian filmmaker Judy Gabriel in Uplife Project: Jen Unplugged, and screened in Calgary, Edmonton and Toronto. Her family has been selling DVDs of the documentary, with a portion of the proceeds going to the Alberta Cancer Foundation to support clinical trials at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre.
Gardiner enjoyed a strong following on social media, and on Facebook she became an inspiration “to a lot of people,” Willis recalls, noting that Gardiner had 2,400 Facebook friends. “It was a support network – a lot of people would reach out to her. She inspired people to live life in the moment. She’d post pictures of herself at a chemo session in a crazy outfit with a crazy pair of shoes and a big hat.
“The biggest thing was how she was never really concerned for herself – she was always concerned about how her diagnosis was affecting other people, and about really being supportive of her family and friends.”
Willis and Gardiner planned to organize Carnival Cocktails together. After her death in February 2014, Willis carried on, with the support of the Dunnigan family, organizing Carnival Cocktails for Cancer at Hotel Arts and drawing on his many contacts in Calgary’s flourishing restaurant and cocktail bar community.
“We have a lot of friends who are chefs and bartenders at some of the best restaurants in the city, and I reached out to a group of them and pitched the idea of the event,” he recalls. “There have been some awesome people helping me.”
Carnival Cocktails for Cancer, a festival-style cocktail and food focused evening that took place in April, included food samples by each of the 10 participating chefs and 11 bartenders, along with a silent auction. The evening raised almost $45,000.
The intent was to make the event feel like a carnival midway, with a variety of food and drink options. “It’s all part of the excitement of being there,” notes Willis, a born and raised Calgarian who co-founded Vine Arts three years ago and worked in the specialty wine business for a decade before opening his own business.
“Cocktail culture in Calgary is growing by leaps and bounds. There has been a resurgence in the last three to five years of classic cocktails and classic cocktail culture, all over the world. It’s hitting Calgary now. In popular culture too, shows like Mad Men have done a lot for it.”
As part of Carnival Cocktails, chefs from the participating restaurants created their own unique takes on classic midway and carnival dishes. And for the bartenders, Willis assigned each a base spirit to use: vodka, gin, whisky, rum, cognac and bourbon. He also assigned them a carnival, midway or circus-related theme to follow as an inspiration for their cocktail creation – such as the trapeze, Ferris wheel or bearded lady.
Participating restaurants and bars included Teatro, Model Milk, Raw Bar, Black Pig Bistro, Brasserie Kensington, Anejo and Ox and Angela. Attendees were encouraged to dress up. Gardiner “loved fashion, she loved dressing up, in outrageous and extravagant outfits and hats,” Willis recalls. The event’s dress code included everything from “casual to fabulous, including costumes.”
It’s been a hectic time for the Dunnigans and for Willis, 31, who was in the middle of opening another business while organizing Carnival Cocktails: Proof, an upscale cocktail bar, which he co-owns together with his Vine Arts partner Jeff Jamieson and Nathan Head, owner of Milk Tiger Lounge in Calgary.
Gardiner’s husband Sean Dunnigan has also been “a huge advocate” for Carnival Cocktails for Cancer, helping spread the word about the event and selling tickets. Dunnigan put Willis in touch with the Alberta Cancer Foundation. He’s also very active in the Enbridge Ride to Conquer Cancer and was one of that event’s top 2014 fundraisers.
Willis would like to make Carnival Cocktails for Cancer an annual event, bringing people together, raising money for cutting-edge cancer research and treatments – and honouring Gardiner’s memory.