The Uncommon Café builds community in Vancouver's Japantown and among entrepreneurs

    1 of 2 2 of 2

      Having grown up in the Champagne region of France, Valentine Kitamura worked for a time catering events at the kind of prestigious venues most people only see in magazines, like Moët & Chandon and Perrier-Jouët.

      Now she’s following in the footsteps of her father, a highly regarded baker, and pursuing her dream of offering cooking classes.

      Kitamura, who studied hotel management in France before moving to the West Coast, feels right at home at the Uncommon Café, a coffee shop and commissary at 477 Powell Street, a tiny spot in the heart of Vancouver’s historic Japantown, across the street from Oppenheimer Park.

      She is not only the spot’s resident baker—making items like muffins, cakes, and bars—but also the operator of Tartine and Maple, her on-site cooking school that specializes in the deeply flavourful dishes she grew up with. Her culinary philosophy is akin to that of Julia Child, who said “Cooking well doesn’t mean cooking fancy.”

      “I really like making people realize that cooking is not as hard as they think,” Kitamura says on the phone with the Georgia Straight. “A lot of people are really intimidated by cooking, especially French food; it has this reputation as being super fancy. I’m from France, and what people cook at home is not always complicated or expensive. I want to demystify French cooking.”

      Joining up with a group of people to learn to cook is also a lot of fun, she says. Her classes take different forms: some are hands-on, while others are demonstration sessions where she explains what she’s making while the only finger an attendee has to lift is to raise a glass.

      “It’s really about the experience and the enjoyment of being together, being social for a relaxing, fun night,” Kitamura says.

      Kitamura set up her business at the Uncommon Café after meeting one of its owners, Lisa Leimanis, at the Vancouver Baker’s Market. (Leimanis, who used to have a small baking company that made DIY kits, runs the place with her partner, Luc, a chef who got his start at Anton’s Pasta Bar and went on to work at a fishing lodge off Vancouver Island and with Jennings Hospitality & Culture, among other places.)

      Tartine & Maple

      During an interview at the bright, homey café, which is filled with antique furniture from the couple’s parents and grandparents and vintage décor pieces from Craigslist and welcoming neighbours, Leimanis says the spot has become more than an entrepreneurial venture for the couple—they’ve also discovered a genuine sense of community.

      “What I like the most is having the regular customers and chatting with them every day,” Leimanis says. “You have an extended friend group—a real friend, not a Facebook friend. I always liked throwing dinner parties, so it’s an extension of that. We wanted a space where people could feel at home.”

      Contributing to the community is another area of importance for the couple, who are both Vancouver natives. The two sponsor a group called Japanese Poets North of the 49th, which regularly brings in artists from Japan to read at the café, as well as art displays.

      “Since this is Japantown, we wanted to bring the roots back here,” Leimanis says.

      They felt motivated to open a commissary in the first place after finding it difficult to find kitchen space to share in the city at an affordable price. The couple has since worked with Trudy Ann’s Chai, A Bread Affair, and Dickie’s Ginger; currently, ventures that rent out the kitchen include Standard Kombucha, Mixers and Elixirs, the Local Churn, and the Golden Era food truck.

      “We were a small business and we wanted to help out small businesses,” Leimanis says. “People that use the commissary can sell their stuff here, too.”

      Customers, meanwhile, can stop in for a hearty soup, bun stuffed with pulled pork or bacon and onion, grilled sandwich, salad, stuffed meatballs—which got a nod in the L.A. Times—or other dishes that reflect Luc’s home-style cooking. The couple source their coffee from Vancouver’s own Rocanini Coffee Roasters.

      The two offer private pizza-making and cookie-decorating parties as well. For people wanting to take one of Kitamura’s cooking classes, among those coming up are one on choux-pastry basics, specifically éclairs and cream puffs (February 5), and one for chocolate lovers (February 8), who will learn how to make chocolate mousse, lava cake, truffles, and chocolate sauce—and take home a treat made for their valentine.