Acclaimed San Diego–based chef Jason McLeod has come a long way since leaving his hometown of Ladysmith in search of a summer job in Banff. He found it at the local Smitty’s, where he got hired as a dishwasher.
McLeod worked hard, got promoted, and moved up the line. But he was hooked on restaurant life from the get-go, the industry introducing him to people he felt a kinship with from all over the world.
Over the past two decades, he has worked around the globe with luminaries like the U.K.’s Marco Pierre White (who is sometimes referred to as “the man who made Gordon Ramsay cry”) and held positions at luxury properties like the Fairmont Chateau Whistler and several Four Seasons hotels. He was also the opening executive chef of Ria in Chicago’s five-star Elysian Hotel, which earned two Michelin stars during its first year.
“Michelin is all about consistency,” McLeod says in a phone interview. “You need a team vision and dedication. You need everybody to be focused. At Smitty’s, I learned speed and organization, the importance of working clean, working fast, and keeping your head down. Being a breakfast cook is one of the greatest trainings you can have. It all ties in together.”
These days, McLeod oversees the culinary operations of Consortium Holdings, a hospitality group with 14 restaurants (plus more in the works) in San Diego. He’ll draw inspiration from one in particular, Ironside Fish & Oyster, when he comes to Tourism Vancouver’s Dine Out Vancouver Festival 2019 to participate in the Vancouver World Chef Exchange.
Although Dine Out may be best known for the fixed-price menu deals that started it all 16 years ago, it has grown into the biggest annual celebration of food and drink in the entire country, with everything from cooking classes and food trucks to culinary tours and winery dinners. This year, more than 300 restaurants, wineries, breweries, and suppliers will take part in the 17-day event.
At the heart of the festival is community, and nowhere is this more pronounced than in the Vancouver World Chef Exchange.
The program invites five visionary international chefs to collaborate with some of the city’s standout culinary talent to develop multicourse menus with wine pairings.
McLeod’s visit is a homecoming of sorts: he hasn’t cooked in B.C. since the 2004 opening of the Whistler Four Seasons Resort. He’ll be teaming up with Coquille chef de cuisine Chris Janowski at the Gastown seafood restaurant run by the team behind L’Abattoir.
The two will create a meal that celebrates the Pacific Ocean. McLeod hints at dishes featuring spot prawns, honey mussels, black cod, oysters, and more.
“The World Chef Exchange goes back to how I got started in the industry in the first place: it’s all about relationships,” McLeod says. “Any chance you get to go cook in another restaurant or city, you meet really great people. The people are the most special part of it. We’re able to share stories and do different techniques, and there are all the things you learn from doing that.”
Janowski’s kitchen stories go back to his childhood in Saskatoon, where his family loved gardening and cooking together, making their own sausages, pickles, and Polish classics like cabbage rolls and Easter breads. By age six, he knew he wanted to be a chef, that dream being realized after he attended Toronto’s George Brown culinary school. He worked at several notable Toronto restaurants before taking on the head-chef role at Paris’s Ellsworth. During his tenure, Condé Nast Traveler magazine named it one of that city’s best restaurants.
Janowski thrived under the pressure of a Parisian kitchen. “I learned to have courage, to be brave, to challenge yourself, and to follow your dreams,” he says by phone. “That’s where it really started to come to me, a real love and passion for the simplicity of the food and the quality of the products. I visited farms around the countryside to get the very, very best ingredients we could and prepared them simply, with care and passion.”
Employing the same approach at Coquille, he views the exchange as an exciting opportunity for local chefs and diners alike.
“It allows us to be a part of the new wave of food,” Janowski says. “It’s nice to have a global community right here and cook together for a day of friendship and learning.”
Presented by Aeroplan, the Vancouver World Chef Exchange has hosted chefs from Thailand, China, Japan, Ireland, Mexico, and other nations since launching in 2016.
Though the popular culinary series gives food lovers the chance to taste cuisines by innovative chefs from far-flung destinations, it also helps raise the city’s culinary reputation worldwide. Visiting chefs typically take home with them news and inspiration from Vancouver’s vibrant dining scene, and the invites are often reciprocated, with local chefs later travelling abroad to bring their styles to other corners of the map.
“I’m so stoked to be coming,” McLeod says. “Vancouver is one of the great dining cities of the world, with its ethnic diversity and so many young chefs. It’s still underrated.”
The four other Vancouver World Chef Exchange pairings are just as exciting as the Coquille-Ironside mashup.
Edgar Kano, executive chef of Yew seafood + bar at the Four Seasons Hotel Vancouver, who hails from Mexico City (and whose CV includes positions at the resort’s outposts in Bora Bora and Berlin, among other places) will host Italian-born, Australia-based Francesco Mannelli from Mode Kitchen & Bar at Four Seasons Hotel Sydney. The tasting menu is to incorporate Kano’s Latin influences and Mannelli’s Mediterranean slant in dishes like scallops crudo with lemon stracciatella and smoked-hamachi tataki with Northern Divine Caviar.
Bauhaus Restaurant’s chef team of Tim Schulte and David Mueller joins forces with Sascha Stemberg of Düsseldorf’s Haus Stemberg, which has had a Michelin star since 2013. Stemberg is the fifth generation behind the family-owned restaurant, which opened in 1864.
Highlights of the trio’s menu include marinated and flamed Japanese kingfish with wasabi vinaigrette as well as charcoal-roasted Canadian beef with miso-aubergine, peanut, and puffed rice.
For a night of classic French food with a Québécois flair, J C Poirier of St. Lawrence Restaurant will host Jérémie Bastien, who helms Monarque, a 10,000-square-foot brasserie and dining room in Old Montreal.
Poirier and Bastien met while working at Rob Feenie’s Lumiere over a decade ago. “It was hard,” Poirier says of those early days in his career. “We worked six days a week, 16 hours a day. We bonded. I saw him more than my girlfriend for two years.” (Bastien’s chef the cuisine, Antoine Baillargeon, also worked at Lumiere at the same time and will be coming to the West Coast for the event; so will Bastien’s partner, pastry chef Lisa Wu, who has worked at several Vancouver establishments as well.)
Dishes are likely to include for pâté en croûte, seafood vol au vent, guinea-fowl ballotine, sunflower-seed pork sausage, and tuna tartare with foie-gras custard.
“French food is festive,” Poirier says. “It feels like a big party. With these collaborative dinners, it gives us a connection with our customers; we want them to enjoy the experience as if they were in my home.”
Heritage Asian Eatery chef Felix Zhou hosts Warren Geraghty, culinary director of the U.K.’s Rhubarb Hospitality Group. The two met several years ago while working at West Restaurant and worked together again at Galvin La Chapelle in London. Zhou considers Geraghty one of his early mentors.
The pair’s East-meets-West menu will range from Kona kanpachi with sea-grapes seaweed, tapioca crisp, and shisho (paired with sake) to a crispy chestnut cake.
Geraghty, who has also held roles at other Michelin-starred restaurants throughout the U.K., tells the Straight that he’s looking forward to taking advantage of B.C. ingredients again, with foods such as short ribs from Two Rivers Meats, Thiessen Farms ducks, West Coast oysters, squash, sturgeon, pine, and more.
“My time in Vancouver at West were truly some of the best years of my life,” Geraghty says. “The ingredients are second to none on the West Coast, and the love of food and wine in B.C. is so strong that it’s a real pleasure to be a cook here.
“Since I left in 2010, I have followed the food scene, and it’s been amazing to watch the new and exciting places that have opened and flourished,” he adds. “It’s a real honour to come back. Vancouver is such an incredible culinary city, and events like these can only help to reinforce this.”
Tourism Vancouver’s Dine Out Vancouver Festival 2019 runs at various venues from January 18 to February 3. See the Dine Out Vancouver website for more details.