Life lessons from Vancouver’s chefs and restaurateurs, TED Talks-style

In the spirit of the TED conference, Vancouver’s veteran chefs share the lessons they’ve learned over their years in business.

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      When Stephanie Jaeger opened the Pear Tree Restaurant in Burnaby 17 years ago, she couldn’t help but take things personally. After all, her business was personal: it was her first venture, and she ran it with her partner, Scott Jaeger, who became her husband a year and a half later. While Stephanie greeted guests and managed the service staff in the dining room, Scott handled the kitchen.

      The elegant restaurant earned praise from the start, and the awards are still coming in. (In this year’s Georgia Straight restaurant-industry survey, local chefs and restaurateurs chose Scott as Vancouver’s best chef and the Pear Tree as Metro Vancouver’s most underrated restaurant.) But no matter how much went right during those early days, Stephanie would stay awake into the night, worrying about things that had gone wrong.

      “I took everything to heart,” Jaeger recalls on the line with the Straight. If a diner didn’t love a particular dish, she would obsess over it. If a server dropped a tray of glasses, she became upset in front of her staff in the kitchen. “From an owner’s perspective, that could be a night’s profits,” she explains.

      But at some point during the restaurant’s first five years in business, she realized things had to change. “You don’t realize the impact you’re having on your staff and yourself,” she reflects. “Obviously, the server didn’t intend to drop a tray of glasses…and not being able to sleep at night because somebody’s made a comment about their dinner that wasn’t positive.…It’s okay that they didn’t like it. Learn from it and move on. I don’t need to take it home and dwell on it.”

      If there’s one thing Stephanie has learned in 20 years of working in the restaurant industry, it’s this: “Let it go,” she says. “If you don’t let it go, it affects everything. It creates more issues than it solves.”

      The lesson seems obvious, yet as anyone who has tried to “just let it go” knows, it’s easier said than done. “There are days when I still need to remind myself,” Stephanie says. “I’m probably still learning it.” But letting go has made everything easier, she says. In life, as in the restaurant business, “you just have to clean it up and move on.”

      In the spirit of the TED conference—which takes place in Vancouver from Monday to Friday (March 17 to 21) and highlights “ideas worth spreading”—the Straight called up Vancouver restaurant-industry veterans to learn from their experiences. We asked each of them to tell us about the biggest lesson they’ve gleaned from their years working in the industry. If they were to collectively share their answers on a TED Talks stage, here’s what the take-away would be.


      Be true to yourself

      In the 15 years that Pino Posteraro has owned Cioppino’s Mediterranean Grill & Enoteca in Yaletown, he’s seen numerous restaurants open with great fanfare only to be shuttered a short time later. Part of the reason, he says, is that chefs and owners are trying to capitalize on the latest culinary trend, rather than offering something that’s meaningful to them.

      “Cooking is like any form of art,” he says. “We paint our life experience on the plate.” Posteraro feels that customers don’t embrace restaurants that are trying to be something they’re not. “People are looking for authenticity,” he emphasizes—that is, “integrity in the concept of your food”.

      For example, even though he lived in Singapore for two years, Posteraro knows the soul of his cooking isn’t Asian. His restaurant draws on his Italian and Mediterranean upbringing and way of life. “I present something very honest and something that’s very truthful to what my roots are,” he explains. Posteraro singles out Tojo’s, Le Crocodile, and Vij’s as restaurants that have been successful because their owners “have been truthful and authentic to themselves and their customers for years”.

      “You should stick to what you do best,” Posteraro says adamantly. “Be truthful to yourself.”


      Find and be a mentor

      Tina Fineza has been a familiar face behind the scenes at dozens of Vancouver restaurants. The co-owner of Service Excellence Hospitality Consultants has designed menus, revamped concepts, and guided kitchen staff at places as diverse as the Flying Tiger, Commune Cafe, Terra Breads, La Taqueria, East of Main, and La Mezcaleria. Although she’s worked with hundreds of cooks, she credits two people at her first job right out of cooking school with shaping her into the chef she is today.

      Her mentors were Frank Pabst, who’s now executive chef at Blue Water Cafe, and Kamel Abaci, a French chef who had once worked for Joël Robuchon. Both worked as sous-chefs with Fineza at the now-closed Lumière restaurant during the first two years of her career. She credits them with instilling in her basic cooking skills and teaching her to have a humble attitude in the kitchen no matter how celebrated the restaurant. Her mentors ensured that she’d mastered a skill before moving on to the next one—something she says is essential for becoming a good chef.

      Her greatest lesson? “It’s so important to have a good mentor,” she says. “That is your foundation.”

      Robert Clark—who co-owns Main Street’s new Fish Counter restaurant and shop and worked as the executive chef in fine-dining establishments like C Restaurant for years—also emphasizes the importance of building a solid skill base. “It’s just like a pyramid.…Get a firm, sound foundation. The more you know before you go to the next level, the stronger you will be.”

      Clark and other veteran chefs such as John Bishop credit their mentors with not only helping them build skills but guiding them through key points in their careers. Bishop, for example, speaks highly of Peter Barry—a Swiss-trained hotelier he worked with in his first job—for helping him develop his hospitality skills. “Peter is with me wherever I go, in spirit,” Bishop says. “He was a very, very talented hotelier, really great cook, multilinguist, and incredible people person, so he was the example that I relied upon in my early life.”

      Rob Feenie, executive chef at Cactus Club Cafe, points to several mentors over the course of his career, including Charlie Trotter and Thomas Keller. But the first and perhaps most pivotal was Michel Jacob, who owns Le Crocodile.

      “When I started working for Michel, I think I was 26 or 27, and I had been cooking since I was 19. I thought I knew everything,” Feenie recalls. “Then I started working for Michel, and he soon taught me that, ‘No, wait a minute, young boy. Let me teach you a few things.’ ”

      Feenie decided that perhaps cooking wasn’t for him after all, so he quit not only Le Crocodile but his culinary career entirely and started looking into becoming a firefighter like his father. Unbeknownst to Feenie, Jacob telephoned his father.

      “All of a sudden, my dad said, ‘We’re going for lunch. Michel invited us to go to his restaurant,’ ” Feenie recalls. “My dad’s kind of a hard-working guy from the burbs, right? So we drive down, sit down at Le Croc: there’s myself, Michel Jacob, and my dad. And Michel’s telling my dad, ‘Listen, this kid’s too talented.’ And Michel convinced me to come back. The irony is if that phone call didn’t happen, I don’t know if I would have gone back to cooking or not. I went back, and then Michel—from that day forward, I’ve always gone to him for advice. Still do.”

      Now that he’s well established in the culinary scene, it’s important for Feenie to be on the other side of that mentoring relationship. His role at Cactus Club allows him to mentor more than 50 chefs that are coming up in the company. “I get to give back to a lot of these chefs,” he says. “That’s something I’m really proud of.”

      David Hawksworth, who runs Hawksworth Restaurant, also emphasizes the importance of mentorship. He set up the Hawksworth Young Chef Scholarship program as a springboard for talented young Canadian chefs to advance their careers. The nonprofit foundation offers a $10,000 scholarship provided by the Chefs’ Table Society of B.C. and a stage at a top international restaurant.

      His advice for young chefs: “Go and work for people that really challenge you…learn as much as you can.”


      Stay on top of your game

      Although those interviewed stress the importance of building a solid foundation, they also note that once you reach the top, you can’t just coast on your success. Whether your aim is to cook topnotch food or run a successful business, “the key is being super-consistent and never taking anything for granted,” Hawksworth says.

      The Fish Counter’s Clark expresses a similar sentiment. “Things are always changing. What’s in today is out tomorrow,” he says. “You always have to be ready for anything, and that’s in life, that’s in business, and that’s in the kitchen.…It doesn’t matter how successful you are.…You’re always going to be presented with new challenges every day.”

      Alessandra Quaglia, who co-owns Provence Mediterranean Grill and Provence Marinaside with her husband, Jean-Francis Quaglia, notes that even long-standing restaurants need to adapt to changing tastes. “We opened our first restaurant 16 years ago, and the scene has changed probably 15 times in that time,” she says. “But we’re still here.”

      That’s in part because the restaurant has adapted while remaining true to its Provençal roots. For example, the Quaglias converted part of their Marinaside restaurant in 2012 into a casual space offering wines by the glass. “We saw a huge change in how people were dining and drinking,” she explains. “People don’t come in drinking big bottles of Champagne anymore.…People just want to drink one glass of wine. They want to try different things—very interesting, eclectic, newer wines.” So the business evolved. “You can’t just stay in a rut and sit back and say, ‘Well, I’ve been here forever and I’m not going to change anything.’ ”

      Cactus Club’s Feenie echoes that thought and underlines the necessity of paying attention to customer feedback. “At any restaurant, it’s important to hear what your customers have to say,” he states. “Never, ever sit back and think you’ve made it, because the way this business works, you’re continuously improving and moving forward.”


      Learn how to take care of business

      For many cooks, moving forward means opening their own restaurant. But according to the restaurateurs interviewed, often people don’t understand that running a restaurant means running a business.

      “Being a chef and opening a restaurant are so completely different,” says Provence’s Alessandra Quaglia. “I have people sometimes say to me, ‘Oh, I would love to open a little café or restaurant.’ And I’m like, ‘No, you don’t. You really don’t.’ ” That’s because as a restaurateur, “you’re not only a chef, you’re a plumber, an electrician, a handyman, a painter—you learn to do everything.”

      Bishop recalls experiencing a steep learning curve when he opened his namesake restaurant in 1985. “There’s a lot for a small-business owner to look after. Not only do you have your staff—front and back—you also have all your bills to pay, your leases to understand, so I’ve learned a lot about that.”

      For him, the biggest challenge was learning to manage the team around him. “I found it incredibly difficult to give orders,” he recalls. He overcame that by finding his own leadership style: rather than giving direct orders, he asked for assistance from his fellow workers. “I think of my role at the restaurant as a caretaking role,” he says. “It’s one that I absolutely adore.”

      Another seasoned restaurateur, Andrey Durbach—who co-owns La Buca, Pied-à-Terre, and the Sardine Can—recalls that opening his first restaurant on his own was “a huge lesson”. In 1996, he launched Etoile on Hornby Street across from Il Giardino. With “naive optimism”, he figured that because Il Giardino was always busy—and he was confident that his food was at least as good—the crowd would spill over to his restaurant.

      It wasn’t that simple. He quickly realized that he needed a broad skill set in addition to talent in the kitchen. “In order to operate a successful restaurant, you have to be a good businessperson,” he says, summing up what he learned. “Etoile made me wear all the different sets of hats as an owner. It’s basically like learning how to fly a plane while you’re flying it.”

      Then there’s the matter of making a profit, which Durbach says not enough chefs connect to their trade. He recalls that when he was a student at the Culinary Institute of America, a teacher tried to convince his bored classmates that the math class was the most important class they’d take. “ ‘You can be the most brilliantly talented cook in the world, but if you can’t make money for the owner, you are useless,’ ” the teacher told them. “That was a great piece of advice,” Durbach recalls. “That has stuck with me forever.”

      Pabst, the executive chef at Blue Water Cafe who mentored Fineza, also emphasizes that being a chef requires business savvy, not just creative chops. “Lots of young chefs, especially when they’re starting their first job, they’re not thinking about the business side of it,” he says. They cook what they want to create, rather than what their customers want to eat. He notes that although innovation is essential to staying current, chefs need to understand their customers’ tastes and respond to them.

      As a chef, Pabst notes, you also need to understand what the kitchen can produce efficiently so the whole operation, front and back, runs smoothly. “I have to design a menu that we can serve people in a reasonable time so they don’t wait too long,” he explains. It’s not just about the food but about the entire guest experience.

      While good chefs take these considerations into account, successful restaurateurs also understand their personal limitations. “I really made a mistake my first time around,” Durbach says. “I got buried with the deluge of paper and numbers and books and licences.” After he sold Etoile in 1999, he decided that “in order for me to go forward, I could not do it again without a business partner. I am where I am today because of my business partner [Chris Stewart] and a really fantastic group of support staff. You cannot do it all yourself. You have to learn to divide the labour, delegate, and, honestly, to give things over.”


      Step back and get some perspective

      Karri Schuermans, who opened Chambar with her husband, Nico Schuermans, 10 years ago, knows very well that the couple can’t do everything themselves. She’s adamant about delegating and automating tasks so the business doesn’t run their life. And she firmly believes that her business should be shaped around how she wants to live her life, not vice versa.

      Things weren’t always so clear. Six years ago, Schuermans realized that although her restaurants were thriving, the minutiae of running them were taking over her life. In addition to running Chambar, she was involved with Chambar’s sister restaurant, Café Medina, and the Dirty Apron Cooking School & Delicatessen. She and Nico were overseeing these highly social enterprises and yet, ironically, they didn’t have enough time to spend with their own friends and family. They were bogged down by tasks like responding to emails.

      Prior to entering the restaurant industry, Schuermans worked in corporate marketing. She left that career because she disliked the emphasis on profit over leading a healthy, balanced life. Later, however, she found herself running a successful business but without the balance she craved.

      After realizing that she couldn’t separate her work and home lives, Schuermans made a decision to reorganize her professional life around her personal values. “I did a pie chart of how I spend my time now and how I’d like to spend my time,” she recalls. “It was about saying, ‘This is what I want, personally.’ As soon as you make that statement for yourself…all the decisions you make about saying yes or no to opportunities, staffing, the type of people you hire…all of a sudden, it became clear.”

      Schuermans implemented new software systems to automate parts of the business that were eating up her time. She made other changes, like limiting the time she spent answering emails to just one hour per day. Essentially, the pair restructured the business “so that we could have a life. Otherwise, what’s the point of doing it?”

      Schuermans believes that those in the restaurant business need to make time for pleasurable activities, such as hobbies and travel, because these things not only are personally fulfilling but promote big-picture perspective. “Find space to get out of the business to be inspired,” she says. “The only way to get a perspective of where your business is at and how you’re doing is to get out of it.”

      Today, while continuing to run Chambar, she is halfway through a degree in sculpture at Emily Carr University of Art + Design. She and Nico encourage staff members to take time off to travel, and they do the same themselves. They recently took their three children to a remote area of Colombia, where they unplugged completely. “To have that kind of reset when you come back, it gives you such clear perspective,” she says.

      Her greatest lesson? “It’s really important that the business values align with your own values,” she says. “But also that the business works for you just as much as you work for the business.”


      Do (exactly) what you love

      As Schuermans learned, it’s important not only to find your passion but to make sure it stays stoked. Part of the key, according to many of those interviewed, is focusing on doing what you do best and finding somebody else to do the rest.

      Chef-consultant Fineza notes that although every chef’s dream is to own a restaurant, there are many other career paths that cooks can take in the industry. She advises those starting out to get a broad range of experience and then decide what suits them best. For her, that’s consulting. “What I love about consulting is I can live that dream with the owners, give them the knowledge that I have, and see them on their way to that dream,” she says. “It’s so fulfilling.”

      Meeru Dhalwala, who co-owns Vij’s and Rangoli, knows exactly where her strengths lie: in the kitchen, as opposed to running the front of the house or promoting her restaurant in the media, jobs she leaves to her partner, Vikram Vij. “Don’t be so afraid of being perceived as hidden,” she advises young people. “We need to ask ourselves, ‘Where does that confidence stem from?’…Pick what gives you that inner confidence.”

      Perhaps Dhalwala’s lesson is another version of Posteraro’s: be true to yourself. It’s a simple, oft-repeated message, yet one that we seem to need to hear again and again. The big ideas, it turns out, are actually the smallest.

      > With files from Michelle da Silva