Meet Vancouver’s rising stars: The sous-chefs

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      It’s morning at Farmer’s Apprentice (1535 West 6th Avenue). The restaurant is closed until dinner service. Chairs are resting upside down on tables, and the space is dim, save for a few lights in the kitchen. Darren Gee works steadily, exuding a quiet intensity. As a sous-chef—who works under the head chef as the second in command in the kitchen— he receives little media attention for his dedication, passion, and impressive skills, but Gee is one of many rising culinary talents in town.

      Gee takes a break from the kitchen to chat. As a child, Gee looked forward to the weekend, when his grandfather, who ran a Chinese diner in Calgary, would cook dinner for the family. The meal was simple, with dishes like oxtail stew, but it helped forge Gee’s eternal love of cooking.

      In 2009, after high-school graduation, Gee, sick of academics, moved to Vancouver to pursue a culinary program at the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts. He liked that cooking was hands-on and meditative. He then apprenticed for three years at Le Crocodile. “It was great. They do things the old-school way, so you really work on your foundation there,” he says. Gee might spend a day chopping parsley, honing his knife skills and work ethic.

      After such focused training, Gee went on a tour of Southeast Asia, where he feasted on noodle soup from street stalls. He returned to begin at Farmer’s Apprentice as a chef de partie and was promoted this year to sous-chef.

      “When I come up with dishes, they’re simple, with not a whole lot of ingredients,” Gee explains. He also enjoys managing and instructing staff. Recently, he walked them through brining a pig’s head and braising it in soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, and five-spice powder.

      Farmer’s Apprentice chef de cuisine Douglas King describes Gee as focused, diligent, and calm. “He’s serious about everything,” he says. He adds that Gee is not only technically spot-on, but, increasingly, taking his skills to new creative levels.

      Sous-chef Scott Phillips receives high praise from staff at L’Abattoir (217 Carrall Street). “When we first met him, he was one of us, a cook. It’s been great to see his transition to sous-chef. He’s good at managing people with a calm focus,” explains Corey Hess, chef de tournant, over the phone.

      Hess echoes Phillips’s own description of himself. “I think I’m quite calm and cool-headed. Nothing fazes me. I don’t exude emotion, even at times when other people feel frazzled,” he says during a phone interview. “I’m not a hard-ass on everyone. I think I take a more friendly, calm approach.”

      Growing up, Phillips would make breakfast with his dad, who did most of the cooking for his family. In his late teens, Phillips worked as a dishwasher and then a cook at Montana’s BBQ & Bar in Kelowna. He was hooked. “Cooking was definitely my main passion. Nothing else really crossed my mind,” he says.

      In 2010, he yearned for a change of scenery and enrolled in a two-year program at the Culinary Institute of Canada on Prince Edward Island, a province he praises for its vibrant food culture and fresh, local ingredients.

      Phillips had a goal to return to B.C. During school summer break, he interned at Kelowna’s Mission Hill Winery, and then shortly after graduation, he moved to Vancouver to start work at L’Abattoir as a garnisher/entremetier. He became sous chef in 2013. Phillips says that the restaurant is a good fit for his training in classic, well-executed French techniques. When not working, he likes dining at Les Faux Bourgeois for simple, French bistro cooking.

      While he concedes that cooking can get stressful, Phillips says that he adores it when guests poke their heads into the kitchen and express appreciation for their meals. When he daydreams, he envisions a wee 10-seater restaurant located on a farm where he would grow his own produce.

      AnnaLena sous-chef Mark Singson thrives on creativity.

      While not every sous-chef has plans to open a restaurant, many do. Mark Singson at AnnaLena (1809 West 1st Avenue) hopes to open a few places eventually: the first an izakaya, and the second a Filipino establishment dedicated to his mom, Wilma Singson. She’s been his inspiration from day one. When the family moved to Vancouver from Manila in 1998, she studied at what was then Dubrulle Culinary Arts. She went on to run a Filipino restaurant called Wilma’s, which she closed in 2004 when she became ill.

      Sitting down to chat with Singson at the restaurant, you can’t help but be struck by his frenetic, boundless energy. After being expelled from high school, Singson knew he had to work like crazy at his cooking career: “That really pushed me. I know that I had nothing else.”

      Singson started as a dishwasher at Cactus Club in 2004, and then cooked at Glowbal, Coast, Sanafir, the Oakwood Canadian Bistro, Boneta, and Oru before joining AnnaLena this year as the opening sous-chef.

      Michael Robbins, executive chef at AnnaLena, has worked with Singson at five restaurants and has utter confidence in his continued success. “I think he’s the strongest sous in the city,” Robbins says.

      In 2014, a huge turning point for Singson was a one-year stint in Australia, where he worked at prestigious restaurants Vue de Monde and Saint Crispin, and also hosted a one-day pop-up restaurant, Food Art Music, with a menu that featured foraged ingredients. Singson often likens food to music in that it has the capacity to evoke memories.

      Asked to come up with a recipe that would illustrate this food-music connection, he describes albacore tuna done two ways, carpaccio and seared, served with nori popcorn, soy pickled mushrooms, and wasabi crackers. Like a well-known song, the dish is reminiscent of the familiar flavours of sushi but it’s been remixed into something completely new. “I like taking an old idea and turning it into something new,” he explains.

      Burdock & Co. sous-chef Will Beere enjoys the adrenaline rush of service.

      After instructing another cook about roasting and puréeing squash, Will Beere, sous-chef at Burdock & Co. (2702 Main Street), sits down at the restaurant to talk about his career. He seems thoughtful, knowledgeable, and sincere. He’s come a long way since he was a teen cooking spaghetti and meatballs for dinner when his parents were working.

      His restaurant career started in 2000, when he began at Milestones in Langley as a dishwasher. After relentlessly pestering his chef (“Can I please learn how to cook?”), he was eventually made line cook. After leaving Milestones in 2002, Beere gained experience at various establishments, including Hazelmere Golf & Tennis Club in Surrey, the Wedgewood Hotel, the Wickaninnish Inn in Tofino, Bistro Pastis, and Pied-à-Terre. Upon seeing an ad for Burdock & Co. this year, he jumped at the chance to apply.

      Andrea Carlson, chef at Burdock, characterizes Beere as extremely motivated, engaged, and keen to try and learn new things. She also likes the fact that Beere understands the need to have a life beyond the restaurant, mentioning his mountain biking and martial arts as examples of his work-life balance.

      Beere prides himself on being a big food geek. When he’s not working, he makes rustic, simple dishes like roast pork, and experiments with sausage- and charcuterie-making. He’s in the process of setting up a fermentation chamber in his apartment.

      His favourite moments cooking in the restaurant make all his hard work worthwhile: “I like being really busy, making dishes, and having everything fall into place. It’s an adrenaline rush.” He sees cooking as continual development, with every new place and position shaping him into the chef he wants to be. Beere hopes one day to have his own restaurant, which would also offer a menu that celebrates local and sustainable ingredients. In the meantime, he’ll continue to craft beautiful plates, and help mentor other kitchen staff as the sous-chef at a restaurant he loves.