When Angus An was cooking in England during the early 2000s, most of the restaurants he worked at didn’t open until 7 p.m. and diners ate much later. The preferred mealtime wasn’t the only major difference An noticed upon returning to Vancouver in 2006. At the Michelin-starred Nahm in London, where he worked for two years, modifications to dishes due to allergies and dietary restrictions were seldom requested.
“In Vancouver, we get a lot of people who are not allergic but list what they don’t eat,” An told the Georgia Straight in a recent phone interview. “I think it’s the lifestyle here. People are more health-conscious. There are a lot of people who don’t eat gluten, not because they can’t but because they choose not to.”
Every city has its unique dining culture and Vancouver is no exception. To get some perspective on our quirks, the Straight called up two Vancouver chefs who have worked internationally and asked for their observations.
An is the owner and executive chef of Maenam and Longtail Kitchen and the soon-to-open Fat Mao. At Kitsilano’s Maenam, where An spends most of his time, up to 20 percent of orders include requests to change dishes.
“Very rarely will we go through an entire night without seeing food modifications or restrictions. When I was in Europe or in Montreal, it was very rare to get one, but here it’s very rare not to get one,” he said. “It seems like here on the West Coast, people want to go to restaurants but they want to eat how they want to eat.”
At Boulevard Kitchen & Oyster Bar at the Sutton Place Hotel, executive chef Alex Chen is accustomed to handling food modifications. Having worked in hotels and restaurants in Toronto, Chicago, and Los Angeles, he noted that every city has its set of dining and dietary trends. These days in Vancouver, many customers just happen to be on gluten-free diets.
“Words like celiac, I didn’t really feel the impact of that when I was running [the Polo Lounge at] the Beverly Hills Hotel for six years,” Chen told the Straight by phone.
In addition to being more vocal about dietary concerns, Vancouverites, according to Chen, are savvy about local ingredients. They are aware of what products are in season and often anticipate menu changes to reflect that. Many customers also care about sustainability and want to know exactly how food makes it onto their plates.
“They ask about the sourcing of our ingredients,” Chen said. “The Ocean Wise movement for fish and seafood is really, really important to diners here. I think it’s because that’s what our city is known for.”
An’s advice to diners is to keep an open mind.
“When I go to a restaurant, I use it as an opportunity to try something I’ve never had before,” he said. “Put your faith in the kitchen and the chef, and if it doesn’t work, let us know.”