So, what should we have for dinner?

In the majority of cities around the world, this question would not require a great deal of deliberation. Each region has its staple fare, its traditions, and very specific foundations for its cuisine. Food is influenced by cultural identity, so those in ethnically homogenous societies where food diversity is not readily available, to hearken it to food journalist Michael Pollen’s koala bear example, will be having eucalyptus leaves tonight.

But as Vancouverites well know, we’re privy to one of the most impressive culinary landscapes in the world. As an internationally-recognized city, our population represents all corners of the globe, and all walks of life. Ethnic eateries are embraced and celebrated, and certainly not in short supply. Though our sophisticated populous recognizes this good fortune, we may still take for granted the sight of a Mongolian restaurant next door to an Ethiopian café – across the street from a Jamaican diner. This, folks, is not the norm.

To best understand Vancouver’s culinary climate, we need to thoroughly explore its framework. And who better to discuss Vancouver’s place in the food world, and the food world’s place in Vancouver, than a well-traveled chef who helps produce not only some of its greatest culinary creations, but also the next generation of students whose creativity and vision will help us continue to make our culinary mark.

Chef Christophe Kwiatkowsky, food consultant and owner of Northwest Culinary Academy of Vancouver, has spent over 25 years in the food and hospitality industries, perfecting his skills and palate throughout Europe, Canada, and the West Indies. He has worked in five star hotels, owned his own restaurant, and served aboard high-profile cruise ships. Before opening his own academy with Chef Tony Minichiello, he taught for five years at the esteemed Dubrulle Culinary Institute.

Chef Christophe on Vancouver’s evolved food culture:

“Vancouver is a true culinary microclimate,” he says. “If you go down to Seattle, or anywhere else close by, you’ll see it’s completely different. The selection is diverse and, for the price, the quality would rival that of any major city in the world.” He adds: “There exists a very sophisticated and educated clientele in Vancouver. People here want to know the source of their food. They want their food to be local, organic and ethically grown.”

On North American and European attitudes toward food:

“People in North America make a big deal about where their food comes from. They want to know if the fish is sustainable, if the food is organic, what’s in the food, and if it’s all fair trade. In Europe, these topics do not receive a lot of mainstream attention, and aren’t discussed nearly as much. They’re important things to consider, but the topic has been beaten into the ground.” Chef Christophe suggests for people to, “Go with the flow. Enjoy the food you eat, and don’t focus so much on food politics. It takes too much away from the actual enjoyment and experience of eating.”

On the business of the industry:

Chef Christophe says that thinking ahead and having multi-skilled employees are keys for achieving success in this difficult and competitive business.
“I find restaurant chefs aren’t always organized with respect to their employee’s growth and development,” he states. “Chefs sometimes fly by the seat of their pants and don’t have a long-term plan. They don’t always realise that new cooks need ongoing coaching and training, and should be prepared at more than one position.” He adds: “Hotels do better because they’re better planners and are willing to pay more for quality help.”
He also thinks that some of the time spent on food analysis should be put towards improving the quality of the employees, as they are the very crux of a successful establishment.

On Vancouver

Chef Christophe says there are two kinds of cooks: “Those who are passionate about cooking and will never do anything else, and those who are just looking for a paycheck.”
“Cooks here are still making $12-$14 an hour in our industry,” he says. “Employers want to have a stable job pool to choose from, but at those wages, in this city, there is no stability.”
He also notes that people transitioning to higher paying jobs in the construction sector have hurt the overall talent pool.
“When somebody can make $20 an hour in construction, they do it. To retain quality help, restaurants need to think about where the cooks come from.” He adds that businesses should recognize where their students have been, what kind of training they’ve received, and remember that quality and stability comes with a price.

On his teaching philosophy:

Students need to familiarize themselves with the fundamentals of cooking, Chef Christophe says, but that doing too much of the same thing for too long can be counter-productive.
“Students need to have diversity in their tasks, and should know when to move on to something new. That is partly on the instructors, but it is also up to the students to be proactive, both in their growth and for their futures.”
“It is important to closely monitor your students while they’re training, and stay in touch with them once they’ve entered employment,” he states. “I’m much more aware of where my students go now than ever before.”

Please visit the Northwest Culinary Acacademy of Vancouver’s website for more information.

Barbara-Jo McIntosh

February 26, 2009

I wanted to know more about the respected author and avid contributor to the food community, Barbara-Jo McIntosh. We met for coffee last week and she shared some background about her history, vision and inspirations.

Barbara-Jo knew she possessed an entrepreneurial spirit at a young age. She worked as a seafood whole seller during school and recalls that the inspiration she felt with her first contact with those “strange specimens”, also known as Chefs. She was intrigued by these passionate individuals that were mostly from overseas and felt enthused by their different types of cuisine.

That led her to culinary school and then quickly on to her first business, a catering venture. She recalls the unique opportunities she had serving her customers, “We once flew a piano on top of a mountain to surprise a customer”.

In 1990 she opened her restaurant Barbara-Jo’s Elegant Home Cooking. She incorporated an idea she found during her travels of creating a unique Southern entertainment feel to the place. She successfully ran the restaurant for a few years and decides to sell.

After selling the restaurant, Barbara-Jo shared her skills and knowledge by offering consultation while working on developing her dream business. She envisioned an epicurean’s delight, where food lovers and cooks of all abilities would find inspiration.

Barbara-Jo’s Books to Cooks opened in Vancouver’s Yaletown district in the fall of 1997.

Author of the bestselling Tin Fish Gourmet, Barbara-jo served on the prestigious James Beard Awards cookbook selection committee for six years. In 2003, Vancouver Magazine honored her with a lifetime achievement award for her many contributions to the local culinary scene.

In 2004 Barbara-Jo published Great Chefs Cook at Barbara-Jo’s. This fabulous book captures the ambiance of forty culinary events featuring celebrated chefs and authors and their cookbooks. Look for this collection of charming memories and more than 50 recipes in fine bookstores everywhere (especially at Barbara-Jo’s Books to Cooks where autographed copies are available).

The store stocks cookbooks, wine books and periodicals from around the world, including professional books and a carefully chosen selection of out-of-print books and “rare finds.” Unique and useful kitchen tools are also for sale.

The focal point of the shop is the fully-appointed demonstration kitchen, where cooking classes and demonstrations feature recipes from new and notable books.

Books to Cooks was presented as one of the top ten cook book store in the famous Saveur magazine April 2008 edition.

I invite you to visit books to cooks for a great source of inspiration and the chance to meet fellow passionate colleagues and perhaps, Barbara-Jo herself.