When Trevor Bird went solo in Vancouver’s restaurant industry six years ago, he did so with a bang. He had just finished as a finalist on Top Chef Canada’s second season when he opened Fable on West 4th Avenue, to critical and popular acclaim.
In the city’s highly competitive dining scene, with new and notable spots opening all the time, there’s no room for complacency; chefs have to stay at the top of their game. For the Ottawa native, things have only gotten busier and better since he introduced Vancouver to Fable’s trademark dishes like crispy chickpea fritters with curried mayo and “canned” tuna, the fish served in a small glass canning jar with potatoes, grape tomatoes, and olive oil.
Bird has gone on to open Fable Diner, which gives milkshakes, burgers, and fries a good name. He also cofounded Meatme, an online marketplace for and delivery service of ethical, humanely slaughtered meat, giving people an alternative to factory-farmed products. More recently, he launched an eponymous line of condiments featuring another of his signature items, a spicy-sweet black-pepper jam. (It is served with grilled strip loin and wild mushrooms at Fable.) He started offering private catering services and signed on as a brand ambassador for a handful of companies, including Real Canadian Superstore. He had a second go on Top Chef Canada, on its recent All Stars edition, again finishing as a finalist. And he has gotten married and become a father, his two-year-old boy, he says, loving playing the drums and jumping up and down, especially when he’s not supposed to.
“Life is the best it’s ever been,” Bird says in an interview at his Kitsilano restaurant on a chilly weekday afternoon. “I feel like my vision is really broad. Fable is just one piece of Trevor Bird; it’s just one piece in the puzzle, not my be-all, end-all. I love catering because I love organizing and putting things together; it’s all about connecting puzzle pieces and figuring out problems. For chefs, problem-solving is something you want to do.
“I’m insanely passionate about business,” he adds. “I love running numbers. And I want to broaden my horizons.”
Having gotten his start in the industry at age 14 at Boston Pizza, Bird is only gaining traction in his food-oriented career. He has become known for seasonally inspired dishes that are technique-driven yet straightforward, refined but not fussy.
For this year’s Georgia Straight Golden Plates awards, readers voted him chef of the year. Fable won for best local ingredients. Fable Diner, meanwhile, landed best diner and came in second, behind Cactus Club, in the midprice category.
If he has all the elements in place for the Trevor Bird brand to grow, the past five years or so have done more than spark his entrepreneurial streak. This period in his life has also been a time of personal growth. Bird admits that it all started after he and his business partner, Kathy Schleyer, had a frank discussion over drinks one night following dinner service.
“She said, ‘You’re a great cook but you’re an absolutely terrible manager,’ ” Bird recalls. “My ego took the biggest hit. But then I reflected on that, and I was like, ‘I am an absolutely terrible manager.’ I like people but I just had no idea how to motivate people, how to keep them around, how to treat them well. I was intense as hell. I was working huge days, and I was expecting that of my staff as well and not giving them a break.
“It was a huge revelation for me,” he adds. “I will always thank her for that conversation. At the time, it was very painful to hear, but it sent me down this total journey: how do I show up for people better? How do I lead a team? How do I be happy with myself and project that onto people?”
Bird says that that one discussion led him down a spiritual path, one that now sees him practise daily meditation. He describes himself as a “bit of a self-help junkie”; books like Great at Work: How Top Performers Do Less, Work Better, and Achieve More are on his list of recent readings. Exercise, too, helps keep him grounded; he’s going for a personal record at the BMO Vancouver Marathon in May. And the concept of mindfulness—the state of focusing on the present moment—is one he is working hard to stick to.
“Not to get too flaky, but I’m really learning how to be present and accept things as they come and trying to really focus my energy on the matter at hand,” he says. “I try not to get too caught up in the past or future or plans but to just focus on what matters now.”
And has the attention he’s been paying to self-betterment helped with his managerial skills?
“I can tell you I don’t scare people out of the kitchen anymore and people last longer than three months,” he says. “Would people say, ‘Trevor’s a great manager?’ I have no idea. But there’s been an improvement.
“I’m just starting to be very comfortable with myself as a restaurant owner, as a chef, as a business owner, and as a leader that shows up for people the way they need me to and not demand the world of everybody and not put too much pressure on myself as well,” he says. “I’m just getting comfortable with giving up control, removing yourself and being okay with that and empowering your staff to make good decisions. I oversee an amazing team—Max [Straczek] at the diner and Jeremy [Kersche] at Fable—and leave them to their own devices. I trust everything they do.”
Being able to step back allows Bird to spend time with his wife and young son. He says he’s home most evenings, which in itself was an adjustment: prior to becoming a dad, he spent the better part of two decades working 12- to 15-hour days. Although he loves the social aspect of the restaurant industry, he laments the way any semblance of work-life balance is elusive to so many.
“Learning how to be a father is fucking hard,” he says. “It’s very difficult, as the owner of a small, independent restaurant, to employ people that want a family. The industry doesn’t allow it. It sucks.”
He gives a shout-out to places like Cactus Club, where kitchen staff work eight-hour days and have benefits: “It offers a really good place of employment for someone who enjoys cooking. Every young cook should work in a corporate place like that that will teach you a lot of really good skills.”
Bird acquired his on-the-job training in several restaurants, including Market by Jean-Georges and Daniel Boulud’s Lumière. It was at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa that he learned from its former executive chef, the late Kurt Waldele, who would become his mentor. The German-born chef was a father figure in the culinary field across the country, cooking at the centre for three decades, often for heads of state, dignitaries, and royalty. He championed Canadian cuisine long before it became a trend.
“He was a very successful businessman,” Bird says. “Watching him take on everything he took on, and how he integrated the food realm into his life, was so impressive.”
As for what’s next, Bird says he wants to focus on expanding his catering business and the distribution of his black-pepper jam (which can currently be found in several local food stores, such as Edible Canada on Granville Island and Kitsilano’s Pete’s Meat Butcher Shop and Deli). He’s excited about Fable’s recently revamped menu. Classics like the chickpea fritters, canned tuna, and steak and black-pepper jam are still there, but new dishes, developed by Kersche, have been added, such as charred beets with smoked-almond cheese and oysters accompanied by smoked shiitake mushrooms, pickled honey mushrooms, and dried-porcini foam. The brunch menu is next up for a refresh. (The form of the menu has changed too, from a sheet of paper to a book made out of recycled chopsticks by ChopValue Manufacturing.)
Meantime, he’s content being entrenched in the sector he grew up in while being able to prioritize his family.
“If you can make it in the restaurant industry or food industry, I respect the hell out of you,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if it’s take-away meal services or healthy-meal prep; if you’re making it work, all the power to you. If you’re doing tasting menus and making it work, that’s amazing; if you’re making burgers at a burger joint and making it work, that’s amazing. I would never knock anybody else’s hard work.
“Being chained to a stove is something I can’t do anymore,” he says. “You have to set your boundaries and expectations. I run my businesses; my businesses don’t run me.”More