Phil Scarfone’s first restaurant job was not, as the story so often goes, the thing that made him dream of one day becoming a chef. In fact, the executive chef of Nightingale, the newest addition to the Hawksworth Restaurant Group, hated it.
He was 16 and spent eight months making sandwiches at a Tim Hortons in his hometown of Hamilton, Ontario. Afterward, he vowed he’d never work with food again.
A lot has happened in the 16 years since for Scarfone, who has been selected by readers as chef of the year in the Georgia Straight’s Golden Plates Awards.
Sitting with Scarfone before lunch service recently on the second level of the spectacularly designed restaurant, adorned with golden origami-style birds seemingly in flight, it’s clear that he has drive. Wearing jeans, nonslip chef’s clogs, a dirty apron, and a Nightingale T-shirt that reveals his colourful right-arm tattoo sleeve—a pig’s face here, a spot prawn there; some garlic, rosemary, Brussels sprouts, even sriracha, among other foods he loves—he speaks at a swift clip, explaining how he initially enrolled in a journalism program after high school. He decided to pull the plug at the last minute, however, phoning his parents just before the fall session to say he wanted to pursue culinary training instead.
He made that decision after getting some work experience that summer for which he hadn’t bargained. Wanting to get out of Hamilton, Scarfone, then 18, saw a help-wanted ad that mentioned a moneymaking stint in the States but few other details. He ended up getting hired to do dishes at an all-girls camp in the “middle of nowhere” in Maine.
When he reported for duty, things didn't go quite as anticipated.
“It was a really old chef, and I showed up and said, ‘I’m your pot washer,’ ” Scarfone recalls. “He was like, ‘No. We can get anybody to wash pots. I need help in the kitchen.’ ” Did he ever: the elderly man and a skeleton crew of international students, few of whom spoke English, were tasked with making breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks daily for 200 hungry campers.
Two things stuck with Scarfone: how much he was enjoying himself and what his boss had to say about a culinary career.
“I liked working with my hands,” he says. “I learned a lot, and he [the head chef] was really enthusiastic. He taught me how to communicate in the kitchen, how to be cordial.
“I remember him saying, ‘If you’re good at this, you could have a job anywhere. You can see the world. It’s fun, and you’ll meet the best people. All the fun happens back here.’ ”
Scarfone started at Niagara College soon after. If that initial exposure to a cook’s life was a gentle one, the training he got the following summer was not. He worked at a renowned resort called Taboo Muskoka, where the head chef at the time ran the kitchen in the style of Gordon Ramsay. Although Scarfone had a year of culinary school under his belt, he didn’t know that frozen chicken stock should never be thawed in hot water, a method that can result in the growth of harmful bacteria.
“I remember hearing him yell across the kitchen, ‘Who the fuck did this?’ ” Scarfone came clean, but not before the chef took the block of stock, which had started to melt in the middle, and threw it into an empty sink. “Liquid shot up and hit the ceiling; it was all over everyone. He just yelled, ‘Never, ever do that again! You could kill someone!’ ”
Even on days when he wasn’t having major screwups, Scarfone felt out of his league.
“You come off your first year of culinary school thinking, ‘Yeah! I know how to make a roux!’ But I knew nothing,” he says. “And I just got destroyed. I got broken down. I went into his office one day and said, ‘I can’t do this. I’m scared to come to work.’ But, looking back, I can see what he was trying to do. He said, ‘I wouldn’t give you shit if I didn’t think you have what it takes.’
“And I was learning every time,” he adds. “As I was learning, I was getting better and more organized.”
After graduating, Scarfone worked at the Fairmont Banff Springs resort before a month-long stay at the three-Michelin-star rated Fat Duck restaurant in the U.K. The experience involved everything from shucking 300 oysters a day (hands blistered as a result) to simply observing some of the world’s top chefs in action.
“I got to hang out in the actual kitchen. You just wedge yourself in a corner and watch,” he says. “I absorbed everything—how neat and tidy everyone was and how organized it was.”
After going back to Taboo for a time, then working in Majorca, Spain, Scarfone returned to Canada, landing in Vancouver. He worked at db Bistro Moderne, headed by internationally renowned New York chef Daniel Boulud, and then ORU Cuisine at the Fairmont Pacific Rim, before applying at Hawksworth Restaurant. When he was asked during his interview what station he would want there, his answer—“p.m. veg”—raised eyebrows.
“It’s the hardest station in the kitchen by far,” Scarfone says. “Usually, cooks want to be the meat guy or the fish guy. The meat guy passes the plate to me, and at Hawksworth there were probably five or six garnishes on every plate. So you have four pans going for one plate. Then you’d have a six-top [table of six] who ordered all different things. And we were busy. You fill up your flattop [stove] full of pans, and you’d have to prioritize and be the most organized. You have to talk to yourself for the whole service [all night]. I wanted them to know I was serious about the job, that I was willing to work through that.”
He clearly proved himself over time, ultimately earning his first head-chef gig at Nightingale, which opened last year. Its concept is very different from that of Hawksworth, which showcases more upscale, detail-oriented cuisine. Scarfone makes changes to Nightingale’s menu regularly, depending on weekly fresh sheets, with a focus on what’s in season. He’s just as proud of the recipe he and his team developed for hand-pulled pizza dough (the pies being baked in a wood-fired oven) as he is of standouts like pork belly with shaved apple and house-made sauerkraut or yellowtail crudo accompanied by orange, scallion, and Fresno chili.
Other especially popular dishes include a bright apple salad with toasted walnuts, Szechuan pepper, and Avonlea cheddar cheese dressed with lemon vinaigrette, as well as shaved bison tongue with carrot escabeche, celery root, and grilled bread. Then there’s crispy fried chicken with preserved-lemon yogurt, dill, and Espelette pepper—simple but addictive. The food—best shared—is delicious, not pretentious.
David Hawksworth says he chose Scarfone to lead the Nightingale kitchen because of his commitment to, and obvious passion for, his craft. Scarfone also helps Hawksworth with menu development for Air Canada’s business-class meals on its outbound flights from Vancouver.
“He’s a hard worker, he listens really well, he has a great palate, and he’s dedicated, organized—all of the things you want in a chef,” Hawksworth says by phone. “He’s very reliable, and he’s really into working with great products. It’s been fantastic to see him start on the veg station and come all the way up—just fantastic.”
What Scarfone has found most challenging about switching from fine dining to more casual fare has been the restraint required in creating new dishes.
“It’s about peeling back the layers, figuring out what makes a dish tick, what makes it delicious, and knowing that what’s on the plate was just picked this morning or yesterday,” he says. “You have to be willing to tweak it or scrap it and start again. That’s the biggest thing—being humble.”
And although he doesn’t run his kitchen with the same rage as Ramsay, he is stern when he needs to be. (“If you burn the bone marrow, you get the Phil eyes,” he says. “That’s what they [the cooks] call it; I give them the dead eyes. We’ll have a chat in the back.”) Leading a team of almost 40 cooks and six dishwashers, he hopes to be as influential for his staff members as those chefs out east were for him so many years ago.
“I want all these guys to leave here feeling like they’ve accomplished something, like they’ve been a part of something and have taken responsibility for their work,” Scarfone says. “I want to run a kitchen with a culture that is friendly and professional and clean and that’s about the team. I want this to be a formative kitchen. I want to lead by example.”