Botanist executive chef Hector Laguna fell in love with Vancouver the first time he saw it—even though the weather totally sucked.
"It's funny," recalls Laguna on the phone from the restaurant, where he's taking a break from rolling pasta. "We came in December for my mother's birthday, and the weather was horrible. You know, Vancouver weather in December is really, really bad. A little rain. But we got to downtown and we walked around and I told my wife, 'I would live here for sure.' And she said like, 'We got here an hour ago.' But I like it. A year later we were here."
Laguna first discovered his love of cooking growing up with his seven siblings on a farm in Hidalgo, Mexico. All the kids had to pitch in, so they would start out doing dishes and then graduate to making tortillas.
"We were always in the kitchen," he says, "that was the place where all important conversations were had."
It was there that young Hector learned the basics of cooking from his mom, who he says is the best chef he knows. She makes a wicked mole.
"She cooks so much stuff," he says, "and it amazes me, now that I cook professionally. When I think about it, she doesn't have a single recipe, it's all by memory and by feel and touch.
"But I did learn a lot from her," he adds. "I think the most important thing I learned from her was just my love for food, and what food really brings to the table, other than just being food."
Ten years before landing the executive chef job at Botanist in 2017, Laguna was picking up valuable pointers under the mentorship of James Beard Foundation Award recipient Michelle Bernstein at Michy’s in Miami.
"She for sure was, professionally, the person who made me want to cook for a living. She is so passionate. She has Latin background as well, so she sees food the same way I see it—as something that brings people together. So we had that in common. She definitely played a big, big role in the fact that I became a chef."
As far as the food at Botanist goes—cuisine which just won it Readers' Choice Awards for Best Hotel Restaurant and Best Pacific Northwest Dining at the 2021 Golden Plates—the dry-aged duck breast (with onion crêpe, wild mushrooms, nettles, and preserved cherry jus) is the most popular item on the dinner menu. But Laguna says that the lamb rack and lamb belly duo (with tomato fondue, puffed grains, and lamb consummé) is his personal favourite.
"It's a recipe that we grew up eating on a Sunday," he says, "so it brings a lot of memories for me."
Apart from the food he cooks, Laguna says he enjoys being executive chef at Botanist because of the openness and freedom there, where he's able to do what he likes to do. But the job is not without its challenges.
"At the current moment it's definitely staffing," he reveals. "It's hard, it's hard. Of course it's not just around this city, it's around the country and around the world. But other than that I think the biggest challenge I've had is to make sure everybody is motivated, to make sure everybody comes to work with the attitude that they want to be here and they want to learn."
When he's cooking at home for his wife and two kids, aged five and three, Laguna loves taco night, his favourite being tongue tacos. But he also likes to go out on the town and sample the competition. When asked if there any other local eateries he recommends, the chef raves about delicious meals he's had at AnnaLena in Kitsilano and St. Lawrence in Gastown. And he wants to try the food at Published on Main very soon.
So what does he think sets Botanist apart from the other restaurants in Vancouver?
"You know, we never take a break," he replies. "We're always thinking about a new thing. And with that, I'm not saying we are innovative; at this time I don't believe anybody is inventing anything else. But it's getting creative and always trying to use the fresh ingredients, always trying to treat them the best way possible. Trying to accentuate the produce itself more than, you know, the aesthetics."
Botanist is located in the Fairmont Pacific Rim hotel, 1038 Canada Place. You can view the restaurant's menu here.