Vancouver restaurants: the next global trendsetters?
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Where we excel
Many of those interviewed felt that although Vancouver may not lead the world in culinary innovation, our city is definitely influential in Canada.
“Where we push trends is that we have an incredible wealth of ethnic restaurants in this city that do just a phenomenal job day in and day out,” said Dean Mallel, president of BierCraft restaurants.
Eric Pateman, president of Edible Canada, asserted that Vancouverites’ multicultural eating habits surpass even cities like New York. “We probably have the most ethnically diverse weekly diet of almost any city in the entire world,” he said, noting that an individual might eat five or six different ethnic cuisines in a given week.
“In the Japanese culinary scene, we are the leading city within Canada,” asserted Iori Kataoka, owner of ShuRaku Sake Bar and Bistro. India Bistro owner Kamal Mroke noted that visitors from Toronto can’t get enough of Vancouver’s sushi. And Maenam owner and chef Angus An pointed out that Guu Izakaya has expanded to Toronto, “so in that aspect of Asian dining, we’re definitely trendsetting.”
Peaceful Restaurant’s Amelia Huang thinks regional. Stephen Hui photo.
David Lee, owner of the Flying Tiger, noted that Vancouver’s Chinese food is comparable to that in China and Hong Kong because many excellent chefs have immigrated here. And Amelia Huang, general manager of Peaceful Restaurant, pointed out that “Vancouver’s very forward with lots of different [regional] Chinese cuisines.”
Vancouver’s diversity also drives creativity. “I don’t know if trendsetting’s the right word, but there’s always something a little Asian in something we do, or something a little Indian,” said Neil Wyles, owner and chef of the Hamilton Street Grill. In this respect, “Vancouver is quietly becoming a very trendsetting city.”
“I definitely think that we’re creating new things, like a mixed culture,” said Zest Japanese Cuisine executive chef Yoshiaki Maniwa. “It’s really different from other cities…so very unique.”
Spinning trends the west coast way
We may not be global trendsetters, but “Vancouverites are very good at taking ideas…and putting their own stamp on it,” said Adam Pegg, co-owner and chef at La Quercia.
“Arguably, there are very few new ideas in the world. But there are always interpretations,” opined Josh Wolfe, corporate area chef for the Glowbal Group and owner of the Fresh Local Wild food cart. “Everybody needs a jumping-off point.”
“You bring it back and make it your own,” explained Bill McCaig, owner of Nicli Antica Pizzeria. “Nicli is exactly that. I found a place in Calgary—Pulcinella—that I loved and did my best to copy it and bring it here.”
Many of those interviewed noted that even though Vancouver didn’t start the sustainable-seafood movement, our city adopted it with gusto. They pointed to C Restaurant’s Robert Clark and Blue Water Cafe’s Frank Pabst as pioneers in this area.
Pabst recalled that when he came to Vancouver in 1994, “Chilean sea bass was the fish to have on the menu.” Inspired by a similar program at California’s Monterey Bay Aquarium, he started sourcing alternatives to this overharvested fish and other threatened species. In 2005, Blue Water Cafe was a founding member of the Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Wise program, which expanded nationally in 2009. “This is certainly a cultural trend that moved on to other cities,” Pabst said, noting that Ocean Wise inspired a similar Australian program.
Andrew Wong, owner of Wild Rice, noted that Vancouverites were early adopters in the movement to stop consumption of shark-fin soup. However, he noted that we still have a way to go in raising awareness. “We see customers shifting their habits,” said Jason Chan, executive officer at Kirin Restaurant, which now offers alternatives to shark-fin soup for banquets.
Other interviewees pointed out that although Vancouver didn’t start the movement toward local eating, John Bishop was an early advocate. Since Bishop’s opened 26 years ago, many Vancouverites have come to demand local products, which have become easier to source. As Abi Sharma explained, he had to import goat meat from Fiji when he opened Café Kathmandu six years ago; now he gets it from the Fraser Valley. Toby Tseung, owner and executive chef at Kin Resto Bar, said that he “lived in L.A. for two years, and the relationship between restaurateurs and the farmers isn’t as good as what we have in Vancouver”.
Others expressed joy that our street-food scene is finally developing. “Unfortunately, I think we’re playing catch-up instead of being ahead of the curve,” said Neil Ingram, co-owner of Boneta. However, he noted, “We’re catching up well.”
Regarding street food, Fresh Local Wild’s Wolfe claimed that Vancouver is “the first in Canada to really open our eyes to what’s possible. That will solidify ourselves as trendsetters in this regard because the rest of the country will look to Vancouver to develop their own programs.”
What the market will bear
Although it was generally agreed that Vancouver is a great city for food, some pointed to factors that may limit our culinary growth. The most obvious is the size of our population.
“You’ve got a couple of incredibly high-end chefs that work in this town, and I think that they always push the envelope as far as product goes,” said BierCraft’s Mallel. “But we just don’t have the population, like cities like Chicago or New York, where we can support avant-garde dining or extremely fine dining.”
“There are few restaurants in the world that are breaking new ground,” said David Hawksworth, owner and chef of Hawksworth Restaurant. “We’re not doing that in Vancouver, but I don’t think we have to. We don’t have the critical mass of people to support an Alinea-type restaurant,” he noted, referring to Chicago’s celebrated temple of molecular gastronomy. “And that’s not what people are really looking for.”
On Vancouver’s limited market for high-end dining:
“The Pear Tree has some of the best food in Canada. It should be booked up four months in advance.…I don’t understand where a guy who went to the Bocuse d’Or and placed quite high, why we didn’t have a parade for him throughout downtown Vancouver. I think it’s unbelievable. But that’s just the way it is here.”
—Robert Belcham, co-owner of Campagnolo, Campangolo Roma, Refuel, and the forthcoming Fat Dragon Bar-B-Que
“I don’t think we’ll ever become a New York or a Tokyo,” said Edible Canada’s Pateman. He explained that cities with larger populations have a broader pool of diners that can not only support more restaurants but create a market for specialized ones. (Marc-André Choquette, executive chef at Tableau Bar Bistro, noted that Vancouver’s relatively small population makes it difficult for vegan restaurants to thrive as they might in larger U.S. cities.)
“Our high-end dining is virtually nonexistent,” lamented Andrey Durbach, who co-owns La Buca, Pied-à-Terre, and Cafeteria. “Unfortunately, it’s that sector of the marketplace that generally drives trends and sets standards.”
High mortgages and rent also mean Vancouverites don’t do the discretionary spending that people in other cities might. Since Vancouver is “one of the most expensive cities in the world to live in, you’ve got to make a fair bit of coin to go out,” asserted Gord Martin, chef and owner of Bin 941 and Go Fish. He believes that people would rather dine at relatively inexpensive eateries several nights a week than at a more expensive restaurant once.
On diner demand for high-quality, inexpensive meals:
“One of the things that people never think about in this supposedly social conscious city: when you put downward pressure on pricing and demand quality things for $8, somebody’s standing behind there making it. Is that person making enough money? Can the operator afford to pay that person enough money to live in Vancouver? What about offering them a health plan? What about the cost of their transportation, the exorbitant rents that are getting paid in Vancouver? If people want to go and have a quality of lunch somewhere, they’re going to have to pay a little bit more. They’re going to have to want to pay a little bit more.”
—Andrey Durbach, co-owner of La Buca, Pied-à-Terre, and Cafeteria
Pino Posteraro, owner of Cioppino’s Mediterranean Grill and Enoteca, has also noticed Vancouverites’ price sensitivity. “People are eating out more,” he said, pointing to the abundance of 500-square-foot condos downtown that discourage cooking. He expressed frustration, however, that diners don’t understand that menu prices reflect the cost of doing business. Although he hasn’t raised the prices of his main courses in 10 years, his cost for albacore tuna, for example, has almost tripled, and half his suppliers now demand fuel surcharges.
Kirin Restaurant’s Chan also expressed how challenging it is to meet diners’ demands for low prices. “A couple years back, we were able to get Dungeness crab at a fairly decent rate. We were able to purchase geoduck at a very decent price,” he said. “Nowadays, it’s very hard to source these materials at a good price that our customers can afford.”
“People in Vancouver expect gold for the price of silver,” Durbach said. He attributed this to “constant downward pressure on pricing” from Vancouver’s many ethnic eateries. Because these places are so inexpensive, they form “the base of reference for comparison”. So when he puts a dish with high ingredient costs on his menu, people won’t buy it unless it’s priced so low that the restaurant loses money. For this reason, he no longer serves B.C. halibut.
Competition among many restaurants keeps prices here relatively low. “It costs a lot more to go eat in other cities than it does in Vancouver,” noted Joe Chaput, co-owner of Au Petit Chavignol. “I think we offer great value.”