Vancouver’s Traveling Chefs: Feel the Heat

We’re in a cramped four-storey townhouse in New York’s Greenwich Village. Its home-sized kitchen (save for two six-burner stoves and a dedicated dishwashing area) is light-years away from the professional workspaces at West, CinCin, Blue Water Cafe or Araxi. And yet tonight, seven top chefs from these four B.C. restaurants must crank out a seven-course meal for 70 very discerning diners who will soon be squeezed around tables in the former living room and bedrooms of a long-dead American culinary icon. They must do it in honour of the legendary James Beard himself (“Home, James,” below). They must do it in a toothpick of a kitchen, using unfamiliar equipment and without their carefully packaged box of short ribs confiscated by U.S. agriculture inspectors. They must do it with onlookers, including me, a team of documentary filmmakers hired to record the event and all 70 attendees who are scheduled to traipse through the kitchen en route to pre-dinner drinks and appetizers in the Beard House courtyard. Most importantly, they must do it under the watchful eye of restaurateur Jack Evrensel, under whose Top Table banner these four restaurants were created. And yet here five of them are, on the morning of the dinner, looking completely unfazed. David Hawksworth, Frank Pabst, Andreas Wechselberger, Yoshi Tabo and Andrew Richardson: all familiar names to Vancouver diners. Even Richardson, whose Kobe-style braised beef dish was in jeopardy due to the border confiscation, and who turned to his New York back-up source(researched pre-trip) only to get shortchanged on his order, manages to remain calm. The missing meat arrives. The chopping continues. They cast me a bemused look when I suggest the lack of elbow room at the counter might lead to conflict or disarray. Somewhere back at The Dylan, our accommodations on this four-night jaunt (full disclosure: I’m here as a guest of Evrensel’s), pastry chefs Thierry Busset and Rhonda Viani have secured their own prep space in the hotel kitchen. Their two dessert platters, each served with a B.C. icewine, are destined to draw ooohs from the oft-jaded Big Apple crowd. This is the hat trick for the Top Table team. It’s Evrensel’s third invitation to bring his chefs to cook for Beardies – influential members of the James Beard Foundation – plus a few New York food writers and, on this occasion, a table of his “regulars,” a dozen East Coast Americans who habitually fly west for work or play and who make it a point to eat in one or more Top Table restaurants. He’s brought quite the team with him this time. There are the chefs, of course, plus four sommeliers to oversee the wine service, a restaurant director to choreograph Beard House’s wait staff, communications director Annabel Hawksworth to charm invitees from Forbes, Saveur, Food & Wine, Food Arts and Women’s Day magazines, and “logistics guy” James Walt, fresh from a stint as executive chef to the Canadian consulate in Rome, to troubleshoot. Other Vancouver restaurant owners and chefs have scored invitations to Beard House, notably Rob Feenie of Lumière and Harry Kambolis (with chef Rob Clark) of C and Raincity Grill fame. No one has flown out three times. No one from Canada has ever arrived with such a huge entourage, either. Evrensel’s previous visits were in 1998 and 2002. Is there some sort of four-year Olympic- style cycle shaping up? There is no denying it’s nicely timed to create a buzz of awareness for the 2010 Winter Games here at home. But buzz at what price? The list of expenses is long: Airfares, ground transportation, hotel accommodations, printed menu booklets plus crate upon crate of food including Dungeness crab and Kusshi oysters, wild salmon from the Queen Charlottes and vegetables from the Pemberton Valley. Visiting chefs receive a small stipend (about US$20) per head toward food costs, but that rarely puts a dent in a grocery bill that might include foie gras, edible gold leaf and caviar. The B.C. wines, 11 in all, were donated, but there’s still the cost of flying them to the dinner. And since there’s absolutely no point in sending your best chefs to America’s culinary capital without setting them loose to reconnoitre the city’s hottest new eateries (the crew dropped into at least 10), Evrensel picked up the tab for that, too. I ballpark the outlay at $80,000, and when Evrensel hears this he pauses for a moment before replying, “I didn’t want to figure it out! It’s close. I’d say it was $70,000 to $75,000.” Chefs are summoned to strut their stuff at the James Beard House all the time, from all over the world. If you lived in New York, you’d buy an annual membership to JBH for $125 and suddenly your calendar would be chock-a-block with fabulous food events – dinners, seminars, awards functions, tastings. Yes, you pay to attend those dinners but you might never need to go to a restaurant again; eventually they’d all come to you. So what’s in it for the restaurants? They can hardly hope to make dozens of regulars out of Manhattanites when the restaurants are located across the continent. Evrensel says he’s done that on a very tiny scale (hence the small contingent here tonight), “but if I call it a tangible benefit then I’m a fool because I’m spending too much money getting that business.” The benefits for Top Table’s properties are largely intangible. First and foremost there’s the honour of being invited. “It’s a measuring stick,” Evrensel says. “And it’s essential recognition for the chefs and for the restaurants themselves.” Then there’s the trickle of press coverage over the following six months, both in the U.S. and at home, all of it dutifully monitored by Hawksworth. “It’s not really newsworthy in New York,” she explains. “There are events happening every other night at the House.” There’s the flag-waving aspect, the chance to flaunt B.C.’s best homegrown products. In any market that doesn’t have this stuff in its backyard – wild salmon, sea urchin, Riesling icewine – the reaction is bound to be hugely positive. And it is. And there are what Evrensel calls his “selfish reasons.” He is enormously proud of his chefs, and the gold star they earn on their resumes for making an appearance at JBH is compensation for all the hard work involved. Even better, “it’s an opportunity to spend time with them. Our four restaurants are very independent of each other. They have their own cultures, their own styles. I don’t encourage going out in Vancouver. But in New York we went to the best restaurants, the most cutting-edge places, because we want to see what’s happening and learn from it.” Evrensel is not your ordinary restaurateur. He is private, intense and very tightly coiled. Spend 20 minutes in conversation with him and you come away secure in the knowledge that the man is driven. Award-winning West executive chef David Hawksworth once complained that if he makes the mistake of telling his boss he intends to be up early the next day to tackle a new dish, “I can count on the phone ringing at 6 a.m., and it’s Jack with a question or a comment for me.” [pagebreak] In a volatile business that has a higher mortality rate than most 21st-century marriages, Evrensel’s success is noteworthy. His first restaurant, Araxi, is consistently chosen by international food critics as Whistler’s top dining establishment. It celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. West was just named by the U.K.’s Sunday Independent as one of “the World’s Top Ten restaurants.” All four Top Tables took home golds or silvers in their categories at the 2006 Vancouver magazine restaurant awards, and West won Restaurant of the Year for the third time. All the restaurants hold coveted awards of excellence from Wine Spectator magazine. Evrensel considers his success is partly due to his desire to establish certain “themes” for the restaurants. “It’s how we create the culture within each one and build around it, nourish it, strive to perfect it. There has to be a buzz and energy and constant pressure, but it has to be a positive pressure.” CinCin, for example, was ostensibly Mediterranean when it first opened but now derives its ineluctable flair from a thoughtful combination of warm interior design, a familiarity between staff and patrons and a menu that blends Italian classics with modern West Coast favourites such as B.C. sablefish, Alaskan scallops and triple-A Alberta beef tenderloin. Evrensel’s constant challenge is to “set my goals impossibly high. I’m very thick-headed about that. Why set easy goals? What’s the point?” West and Blue Water opened within three months of each other. Ask any restaurateur how smart that is. “They both worked out,” Evrensel says with a shrug. Will he open another? “If something new presents itself, if it’s a good idea, if there’s an opportunity of making the magic – maybe.” And will there be another James Beard House event, down the road? Another shrug: “If they ask….” Top Table’s third visit to Beard House is a resounding, sold-out success. Few of the dinners here include such an expert selection of wines, let alone great wines from western Canada. Most visiting chefs choose a red and a white, period. The raves I hear for the Wild Goose Mystic River Vineyard Gewürztraminer 2004, served first, and the Hainle “25th Anniversary” Riesling Icewine 2003, served last, are accompanied by expressions of surprise that the largely unheralded Okanagan wine-growing region is producing such quality and variety. The raves for the food include a comment made to Evrensel by a distinguished elderly gentleman and longtime Beard Foundation member who confides, “Congratulations. This is the best meal I’ve had at the Beard House.” Queen Charlotte wild salmon with Dungeness crab and leeks. Boneless saddle of lamb with root vegetables. Succulent braised shortribs. Not much goes back to the kitchen, even on the two successive dessert plates. Canada’s consul general to New York City, Pamela Wallin, is in raptures over Rhonda Viani’s lemon-tamarind frozen parfait with strawberry sorbet, meringue and caramel. It is a composition of beauty and simplicity, lifting diners at the conclusion of the two-hour meal rather than pushing them over the edge. Smartly, many of the items were tested pre-event on Vancouverites and will reappear on Top Table menus this summer. Evrensel and crew are hoping these Beard House-endorsed dishes will steer new and intrigued diners their way. “A restaurant is like a hungry monster,” Evrensel says. “It needs people every day.” Home, James In his lifetime (he died at 81 in 1985), food- and wine-lover James Beard was a tireless promoter of cooking with fresh, regional ingredients. He wrote 20 books and contributed 1,000-plus recipes to the U.S. culinary canon. After his death, friend and fellow culinary legend Julia Child spearheaded the creation of the non-profit James Beard Foundation to keep the philosophy and ideals of “the dean of American cooking” alive. The organization moved into Beard’s former brownstone, in the heart of Greenwich Village, transforming the home into a meeting place for chefs, winemakers, authors, academics and educators. Foundation members (and sometimes the general public) are invited to seminars, suppers, cultural exchanges and cocktail hours held several nights per week. An ongoing program of scholarships, grants and annual awards recognizes the work of young chefs, food writers, sommeliers and others across the U.S. For details, visit