Chef Talk with Robert Belcham and Brian Skinner
March 1, 2013
Vancouver Magazine How did you get into cooking?
Robert Belcham, Campagnolo
Watching cooking shows. It opened up this world that I never knew existed. Watching Justin Wilson, a Louisiana guy, or the Frugal Gourmet, or Jacques Pépin. Also my mum was a terrible cook so I wanted to learn.
Brian Skinner, The Acorn
There are a lot of people who end up in kitchens not by choice but circumstance or convenience. I was living in Whistler and I needed a job where I could snowboard every day. So I got a job in a restaurant. And once you're in it, you either hate it or you love it…
VM What makes for a happy, successful restaurant?
RB If everybody is treated well and respected, then the customers are happy, and ultimately that's why we're here. If you're a chef who yells and screams at the waiter and then you expect them to go onto the floor with a huge smile and be perfect, then you're deluding yourself.
BS I totally agree. You did an internship at The French Laundry, right?
RB I worked there for a year.
BS One of my favourite quotes from a chef is [The French Laundry's Thomas] Keller's: "There is no such thing as perfect food. The main reason you're in the business is to make people happy." That's not word for word, but that's the gist of it. I can hear echoes of Keller's philosophy in your answer.
RB That guy also ran that restaurant with an iron fist.
BS Oh, I'm sure he did. [Pierre] Gagnaire in London who I worked with, he showed kindness to a certain point, but then if standards aren't met at a high level you hear about it in a hurry.
VM How would you characterize Vancouver diners?
RB I've been cooking for almost 20 years, and it's changed dramatically over that time. With the amount of information that's out there today-you can read a restaurant review from anywhere in the world on your phone when you're having dinner-there's a lot of awareness. But Vancouver is a very young city, and there's not a lot of culinary heritage here. That can be very daunting and difficult, and it can be very freeing-you're not shackled by those traditions. But the diner is fickle, and their tastes can change on a dime. I think that The Acorn is something that was bound to happen, and I think that it's such a great idea to do fine dining vegetarian food; it makes a lot of sense in Vancouver where people don't necessarily want an Au Pied de Cochon.
BS I had the idea for The Acorn about eight years ago, when I started getting into higher-end food. I knew there was a void in the city. There's always this question of, Is Vancouver ready? I went to Europe for five years and figured somebody else would do it. They didn't, so I did.
RB More than ever, people want to do whatever they want to do at any time. That's fun for them, but it can be difficult to build a restaurant business around. We've all been taught the customer is always right…but the customer needs to be guided to have a good time. You go to the greatest restaurants in the world, or even the greatest restaurants in the city…you go to Pino's [Cioppino's in Yaletown] and he'll tell you what you're gonna eat, and you're gonna have the best time. It's gonna be expensive, but it's gonna be fantastic. And that's what great dining is, when the waiter and the chef can figure out who you are and what you want and guide you through a meal. And that can happen at a three-Michelin-star, or it can happen at a food truck on the side of the road. That's difficult in Vancouver. It's hard for people here to give themselves over.
BS I remember seeing the fine print on a menu: "Modifications will be politely declined" and I chuckled at that and put it on ours. If you have an allergy, of course we're going to accommodate you. But if you say, "Ooh, that looks good with that sauce and with these vegetables…" Listen, we've constructed a dish that'll work. Maybe you won't like it, but if you want to build your own meal then gto Subway. We want to keep the customer happy, but if you want the wrong thing with the wrong thing, I'm not gonna let you do it.
RB And nine times out of 10 the customer will be unhappy if you do. You must get tons of special requests.
BS Oh, crazy stuff! Customers'll go to the naturopath and get a sensitivity test, and they'll have it printed out and literally hand it over to the kitchen. It's hard, especially at 7:30 on a Saturday night. It's, like, "Really? Right now?"
VM Do you cook at home the way you do in the restaurant?
BS Like Rob, do you, at home, cook a lot of offal?
RB I hardly ever cook at home, though, and when I do, well, I'm sure you cook just like I do: simple.
BS [Laughs} I had pasta and curry the other night, in the same pan, just because it was easy. And I was, like, this is so bad, but so good, too. When I was broke I was eating a lot of Kraft Dinner. And I had perfected it to the point where I'm like, "Yeah, I got this." You have to buy an extra pack and dump out the noodles so you had the extra cheese packet, and you'd have to play with the ratios of milk and butter…
RB I think every chef has done that.
BS Exactly. People who aren't chefs just follow the instructions and it sucks every time! It's like milky, shitty, not that cheesy.
RB The funniest thing is, if you get a bunch of chefs together and they all cook Kraft Dinner, everybody'll point at each other's like, "That's completely wrong."