Chefs’ tasting menus are nothing new. Nor are restaurants, mostly chains, that have test kitchens, giving chefs the chance to try out new items before committing to rolling them out on the menu.
What is rare is a small, independent restaurant doing a night of experimentation every week and letting diners in on the culinary creative process.
That’s what executive chef Jefferson Alvarez does at Cacao Vancouver with Test Kitchen Tuesday.
“That’s where the magic happens,” the Caracas-born chef says on the line from his Kits eatery, which bills itself as “progressive Latin cuisine”. “We’re creating dishes for people who want to try strange ingredients, weird techniques; there are no limits. It’s for people who are looking to do something special, who are looking for a new experience. They get to understand the restaurant as well and what it’s aiming for.”
Each 10-course evening costs $65, and the kitchen team is “allowed to fail”, although Alvarez says that hasn’t happened yet.
One of the most popular Test Kitchen Tuesday dishes to date was a “fake chocolate crème caramel”, made with beef blood, cinnamon, cardamom, vanilla and tonka bean, milk, and other ingredients. “It tasted like chocolate,” Alvarez says. “We’re experimenting. If I put blood on the menu, people won’t buy it, especially as a dessert. Same with caramelized crickets.
“A lot of the dishes we make end up on the menu, especially on the tasting menu, only more elevated,” he adds.
Another hit was a “moldy apple”. It wasn’t actually a piece of weeks-old fruit; rather, the dish consisted of a cooked Granny Smith apple and fermented tempeh, which took on the appearance of a kind of hairy coating.
Alvarez recently took his whole restaurant team to Peru to experience first-hand that country’s internationally revered cuisine. They got to taste and learn about all sorts of ingredients, from cherimoya, a tropical fruit, to honey sourced from the Amazon rainforest (“It’s not too sweet, but earthy and floral,” Alvarez says). “Peru to me represents Latin America,” he says. “I wanted them to get to know the background; understanding what we’re trying to do is very important.”
Cacao Vancouver, which has two patios and offers vegan cocktails, is also the first restaurant in Vancouver to do ticketed reservations from 7 p.m. onward, taking a $10 deposit that is non-refundable for no-shows. If people call to reschedule, that money goes toward their dinner bill on their next visit. (There’s no reso fee for bookings before 7 p.m.)
“A lot of good seafood restaurants in other cities do it,” Alvarez says. “It’s nice for the restaurant to know how many people are coming before they buy a whole bunch of oysters. The food is a lot fresher. I hope more restaurants here start to do it.”