A Restaurant Empire’s Last Service
March 1, 2015
It was the media launch for seafood ("sea" for Sustainable Environmental Awareness), a pioneering partnership with the David Suzuki Foundation, and, as usual, host venue C Restaurant was puttin' on the ritz. After checking in with the valet, guests were escorted under umbrellas to the tented False Creek patio. Servers offered wine and hors d'oeuvres: oysters, smoked octopus, and conversation-piece salmon "fingers" (fried, edible rib bones with crispy flesh still attached).
This was 2001, and the event's fin-to-tail tasting menu — proceeds of which benefited the foundation's marine-awareness program — was visionary. (It would be another four years until the Vancouver Aquarium set Ocean Wise afloat.) Executive chef Robert Clark and owner Harry Kambolis were the first to champion a carte du jour composed solely of local sustainable seafood — including wild sockeye salmon — at a time when most people still thought farmed Atlantic was the responsible choice. Then they pushed the ship even farther out by using the whole fish and all its trimmings for stocks, sauces, and garnishes.
"People thought it was crazy," says food writer Sid Cross, recalling a few of C's more esoteric dishes, which included apple-glazed fois de saumon, skin chips, and tofu salted with crushed cartilage. "But it turned out to be pretty good foresight."
Those were swashbuckling days all around for the Vancouver restaurant scene. At Lumière, Rob Feenie was reeling in international awards and accolades. David Hawksworth had just returned from overseas to captain the kitchen at West (then called Ouest). Pino Posteraro was casting new nets around modern Italian cuisine at Cioppino's. And this magazine's restaurant awards were doing their best to turn dining into high drama. C Restaurant and its trendsetting sibling, Raincity Grill, were there at the forefront, breaking ground with not just sustainable seafood but support for small artisan farmers, B.C. wines, and elevated service. I was there, too, lapping (and writing) it all up with hungry abandon.
Now, that ship has sailed. Swamped by financial struggles after several rocky years, C and Raincity closed last fall. Both businesses were sold to Viaggio Hospitality (owners of the Moda and Waldorf hotels), which plans to renovate and reopen them with new concepts and names. But as with intrepid explorers who charted new courses, their legacy will live on.
Harry Kambolis was born in 1968 in Denville, New Jersey. He was nine years old when his father died and his mother, Georgia, moved them to Vancouver to be with her family, which was deeply immersed in the restaurant industry. "Casual dining, diners, catering facilities, my uncle's souvlaki place — that's just what we did," he says.
Restless by nature and obsessed with fast autos, Kambolis went through the motions of studying biology at Capilano University while holding onto the dream of becoming a race car driver. He was close to getting his racing licence when his family convinced him to give up his university studies to run a new restaurant they had purchased. It was 1992, and Reds, located on Denman just north of Davie, was a greasy chicken diner. Within a year, it was renamed Raincity Grill and well on its path to reinventing local dining.
The restaurant's radical overhaul wasn't given much forethought. "We were just young and somewhat naive and doing what we wanted," says Gregory Walsh, the original chef. At first, the food was all about the grill. They'd cook everything on it, from peaches to endive and hearts of romaine — the latter for a dish that would eventually become a signature, the grilled Caesar salad. "People were always sending it back in the beginning," Walsh says with a chuckle. "They thought we were serving rotten lettuce."
The "Raincity" half of the name was in reference to the at-hand seasonal ingredients that formed the basis of the regularly changing menus, which were based on whatever Walsh and Kambolis found while shopping at Granville Island Public Market. "People said, ‘Why don't you bring in Dover sole or mahi mahi?' To me, it wasn't necessary," says Kambolis. Adds Walsh: "You have to remember how different things were back then. When people ordered scallops, they thought it was going to be scalloped potatoes."
Both men credit a positive review in this magazine with bringing diners around. "It is a place of such remarkable fidelity to its prescribed purpose — to serve the best grub from the city's markets in a seasonal manner — that it's hard to believe the idea hasn't been worked over for decades," wrote Brad Ovenell-Carter in March 1993. A year later, the New York Times's Bryan Miller called Raincity "the hottest restaurant of the moment in Vancouver." There was no looking back.
An already extremely rare and exclusive West Coast wine list was expanded to a staggering 100 selections by the glass. (Some say, quite seriously, that sommelier Peter Bodnar Rod was the B.C. wine industry's patron saint.) A succession of chefs, which included Scott Kidd, Sean Cousins, and Andrea Carlson, kept forging relationships with area farmers to source products that weren't available anywhere else in the city and to create special menus around such ingredients as heirloom tomatoes, edible flowers, and wild mushrooms. The crowning feather of the initiative was Carlson's 100-Mile Menu, launched in 2006, which used only foods and wines that were grown, raised, or processed within a 100-mile radius.
With C Restaurant, opened in 1997, Kambolis was determined to push contemporary fine dining even further. At first, he refused to serve coffee, insisting instead on loose-leaf tea service, which he felt paired better with seafood. Caviar spoons were stored individually in felt holders, and there was special glassware for every type of wine. There were always two or three managers on the floor, so every guest would be "touched" in some way; there were warm hand towels, and dim sum lunches when dim sum could be found only in Chinese restaurants. The menu covers were hand-stitched from rubber boots (which, unfortunately, melted if the candles got too close); the bread with baked-in seaweed was formal service; the martini glasses were rimmed with gold dust. Kambolis was at the forefront of Canadian restaurateurs choosing to retain a publicist, because he recognized the importance of reaching out to media directly. (Some say he created a monster.) "He had his hands on everything," says Annette Rawlinson, one of C's first general managers. "There was always something new going on. He was always raising the bar."
Kambolis also had a knack for inspiring creativity in others. When Clark, the original sous-chef, took over from departed executive chef Soren Fakstorp, he sought to emphasize sustainability as much as luxury. Kambolis let him run with it. The result? Octopus bacon (long before either octopus or bacon was trendy) and urchin soup (not just novel, but also theatrical when served in the shell with its spiky quills quivering under the heat).
They took the show on the road, travelling to the James Beard House in New York, Epcot Center in Florida, and California's Monterey Bay Aquarium. Back in Vancouver, celebrities came to them. "On any day, you'd turn around and find Jeff Bridges, Salma Hayek, or an NBA all-star team in your section," says one former server.
But then it all ended, not swamped by one huge tsunami but slowly knocked off course by a string of hazardous swells.
In 2005, Kambolis opened a restaurant called Nu directly across the seawall from C. It was an expensive ($1.8 million) expansion for a company that may have already stretched itself thin by buying out the strata lease for C from its previous owner. (Nu was rented, not bought.) The eclectic room — with its hand-blown Italian chandelier, gilded ceiling of stamped brass tiles, and carousel wine bar — was an elaborate showboat. People either loved it (the plate-glass patio railings that provided unobstructed water views were popular) or hated it (the tight turquoise cube chairs were particularly loathed, especially by overweight Americans).
The concept was confusing. Nu (French for "nude") meant a lot of simply steamed seafood and fresh ceviche, but then there were all the decadent finger foods: crispy fried oysters skewered with a squeeze-syringe of beer; molten foie gras croquettes. Many, including me, were puzzled when enRoute named it the best new restaurant of the year. In retrospect, that magazine was correct in predicting that shared plates in a more relaxed setting represented the future of fine dining. But again, Kambolis was ahead of his time. "People weren't ready," he now reflects. "That's always been my Achilles heel." Five years later, the ailing Nu was turned into a Greek restaurant — kind of cute for its mom-and-pop sensibility (mother Georgia helped design the menu) but never as modern as intended (what with the cheesy belly dancers).
In the meantime, Kambolis and his wife of 14 years, Michele, got divorced. It was "a distraction I probably didn't need," he says. When asked if he took a big hit from the settlement, he demurs. "I think the North American statistics on people's net worth make that answer pretty straightforward." Although the divorce gave him more time to work, it also gave him more time to play. Former employees say he was less hands on, often absent. Kambolis, in turn, says he was kept busy behind the scenes because he had less staff to rely upon.
In 2005, C became the founding restaurant partner for the Vancouver Aquarium's Ocean Wise program, which promotes sustainably harvested seafood through participating restaurants. Suddenly, chef Clark's raison d'être ceased to exist. "For the first seven years, before Ocean Wise, I spent every hour of every waking day sourcing new producers," explains Clark, who had given his chefs de cuisine free rein long before then. "For the final five, all I was doing was PR. I wasn't steering the boat. I was no more than a figurehead, like the Queen."
Then, in 2008, the recession hit. "People were suddenly spending $75, instead of $150 or $500, on a bottle of wine," says Kambolis. Although Vancouver was partly protected by the Olympic bubble, he had to make up the lost revenue somehow. He began cutting staff, issuing Groupons, extending his catering operations, and stretching his resources. "There was a time when we only had one working ice machine between the three restaurants," a former staff member explains. "Somebody from Raincity would come by every day to pick up a load. Or sometimes we'd send it over in a taxi." A taxi? It made perfect sense to Kambolis. "Why would we buy ice from 7-Eleven wrapped in plastic — a form that was terrible in a cocktail — if we had ice at Nu?"
In the struggle to survive, there was little room for the creativity and passion that had flourished in the early days. "Looking back on everything we did, the wonderful thing was we all chose to do something more than just serve food," says Kambolis. "And maybe, by pushing that envelope and trying to have a bigger impact, it made us a bit weaker."
Others are harsher in their assessment. "At the end, he let the restaurants rest on their laurels," says Cate Simpson, Kambolis's first general manager at C, now working in restaurant PR.
When Clark left in late 2012 to open the Fish Counter, a seafood shop and casual takeout on Main Street, things really began falling apart. "Harry's not a chef," explains Cioppino's Posteraro. "After a catastrophic event, the ones that survive are rats, cockroaches, and chefs. All your costs are in the food. Every day, a billion decisions are made in the kitchen. That's the key to success."
Staff members say they sometimes had to wait weeks to be paid their tips, which was a large portion of their income. Suppliers gave up. "I had to start hounding him," says Paul Healey of Hannah Brook Farm in Maple Ridge. "It was like pulling teeth," adds Joe Salvo, president of Ponderosa Mushrooms, noting that the problems went back at least five years. "One or two invoices would be paid, but then he'd go right back to the same old BS."
Nu closed in October 2011. When C followed suit in September 2014, the occasion went sadly unremarked. No one in the media even noticed. In the final days of Raincity Grill, before it closed last November, the restaurant was a shadow of its former self, with a menu that included a hamburger and fries.
Although Kambolis was ultimately the victim of his own mistakes, overall shifts in the dining landscape — to casual, to value consciousness, to safe uniformity — arguably would have left his restaurants behind anyway.
But his efforts won't soon be forgotten. "The changes Harry made were groundbreaking," says Rob Feenie, who knows what it means to lose an empire. "He and Rob Clark changed the way people eat seafood across the country. That legacy will never go away."
Kambolis has no plans to open another restaurant. For now, he wants to spend time being a dad to his two sons. "I feel like I missed out on so much. I want them to understand where I was when they were growing up."