Salt N Sear works with customers across the Lower Mainland
Some stories have an obvious starting point. For Jacques Kabuya, there are a few to choose from. It could be at five years old, when he moved from his birthplace of Lusaka, Zambia, to Vancouver with his mother and older brother. Or maybe it’s at 13, when he began helping out in the kitchen with local charities after his mom taught him how to cook at a young age. By Grade 2, he was making rice.
But it’s probably July 2016, when the then-26-year-old, with experience working in kitchens in hotels in Banff and Whistler and a degree in culinary arts from Vancouver Island University, was kicking around the idea of running a catering business. His mother died that month, and he vowed to get Salt N Sear Catering off the ground for good. “It clicked that cooking and helping people through cooking is what I wanted to do with my life,” Kabuya says.
Once a week, Kabuya ventures from his Port Coquitlam home to a BNI (Business Network International) Urban Professionals event at Chambar restaurant in downtown Vancouver. As one of about 35 members of the Vancouver chapter, he estimates he’s made back the $800 annual fee and then some. “When I was starting a business, that was steep,” he says of the cost. “But the first year I was there, they referred me $14,000 worth of business.”
Picking up some fresh ingredients for an event tonight, Kabuya heads to Commissary Connect–basically WeWork for chefs–in East Vancouver. He has a station on the top floor of the company’s building; though he likes to cook all of the food at the location, he does some prep, chopping carrots and bell peppers to get ahead of the game. “If it’s a sit-down, I’ll recommend something I think the guests will like,” he says. But that isn’t always the case, he notes, so he’s adapted with the times. “Now we also have stations, so if you don’t want a catered dinner, you can say, OK, I want a poutine station. And we can set that up with lobster, cheese, everything. Or if you want a taco station, we come and set that up.”
As someone in the food industry, Kabuya is somewhat choosy when deciding what establishments to patronize. He often grabs some smoothie materials and blends one while he’s making meals for others, but he has no shortage of favourites for picking up a quick snack. On that note, he’s partial to nearby Hanai Family Table, as well as two Commercial Drive haunts: DownLow Chicken Shack and Livia Sweets. It makes sense—before moving to Port Coquitlam, Kabuya was living on the Drive. “I kinda miss it, yeah,” he admits. “There’s just so many great spots.”
Kabuya makes for the real WeWork: he occupies a space in the company’s downtown Vancouver offices. There, he responds to emails and fills up his schedule. Because many customers come from referrals or people he meets, he doesn’t do much marketing. And it’s not just business partnerships that develop. He met his fiancée, Janice, a dental hygienist, at a charity dinner he did for her then-boss. The couple is getting married this fall, and a friend is deejaying the wedding in exchange for Kabuya catering his.
Tonight, Kabuya is holding court in West Vancouver, with a 10-person sit-down dinner on tap. It’ll cost upward of $100 a head. On the menu is a three-course meal, including a tuna main course in a herb jus with garlic mashed potatoes. He’ll bring a few additional kitchen workers and some servers (he contracts all his employees), but he’s hoping to open up a new space in Port Coquitlam that would come with a permanent staff. Throughout it all, there’s still a focus on what brought him to cooking in the first place. “She encouraged me to volunteer at YMCA and at Camp Moomba—a camp for kids affected by HIV or AIDS in Vancouver, which I still do,” Kabuya says of his mom. “I always grew up with [giving back] in mind.”