Lunch with Bud Kanke

Restaurateur Bud Kanke’s time at the top of Vancouver’s culinary scene may be over, but he’s definitely not out.

Bud Kanke | BCBusiness
“I couldn’t image not working,” says Bud Kanke, “but I didn’t want to have to do it every day.”

Restaurateur Bud Kanke’s time at the top of Vancouver’s culinary scene may be over, but he’s definitely not out.

Bud Kanke officially retired earlier this year after four decades of restaurant ownership, but work is clearly still part of his raison d’être. After all, he explains, it wasn’t his decision – initially – to sell Joe Fortes, his epicurean flagship in the heart of Vancouver and one of the last of the 11 restaurants he has owned. His wife, Dotty, inspired him, after she held an “intervention” with the doyen of the B.C. restaurant scene.

“She told me, ‘We need to talk,’” says the 72-year-old, recalling that she wanted more freedom from his job running Kanke Seafood Restaurants Ltd. to open up time for charity work and travel. (The West Vancouver couple has another home in California, and trips booked to Martha’s Vineyard and Egypt.) “Although now she’s wondering what it’s really going to be like having me around,” the former owner of The Cannery, The Fish House in Stanley Park and Mulvaney’s says with a laugh.

She need not worry. Even in retirement the septuagenarian is beavering away, not only campaigning for a new centre for the Vancouver Native Health Society in the Downtown Eastside, but also consulting as an advisor for Fortes. “I couldn’t imagine not working, but I didn’t want to have to do it every day,” he says.

The Chilliwack native also continues to plan his days around lunch and dinner – under the mindful eye of his fitness-enthusiast spouse. “She’s always watching my health and weight; we work out five times a week,” says the inductee of the B.C. Restaurant Hall of Fame, who highlights his “good health: weight 185 lbs; height six feet” on his resumé. He shows me BlackBerry pictures of his home gym.

No additional fitness sessions will be needed after today’s meal, however: we opt for lean salmon, sablefish and tuna at Miku, the Yaletown restaurant in the former space of his Goldfish Seafood & Chops establishment. Miku “blindsided” Kanke with its offer. “I really wasn’t looking to sell,” he comments as the staff calls out “irrashaimase” to welcome him.

Kanke took a different route in selling Fortes. As someone who is “emotional in the negotiating stage,” he was advised not to solicit buyers himself, so he hired investment-banking firm Capital West Partners, which had previously sold the eight Boathouse restaurants. Of the 52 potentially interested parties across North America, David Aisenstat, owner of Hy’s, Gotham and The Keg restaurants, was triumphant. “It’s kind of funny that a steakhouse owner would come along and buy a seafood restaurant,” Kanke says. However, beyond Aisenstat’s solid management (“I knew our staff would like the group”), Kanke says his market positioning “was on the money.”

Having started his career in accounting, Kanke espouses a tightly monitored fiscal approach to the restaurant industry. “I like to have all the numbers in all the right compartments,” he says, using his bento box to illustrate. “You don’t just open the door, be nice to people and serve the best food. It’s much more than that.” A restaurateur needs an annual business plan so targets are clear, he says, as well as management-relations systems so everything is in place.

It’s a business that has fuelled plenty of memories. Kanke regales me with tales of trips to Europe with Umberto Menghi, his longtime restaurateur friend, where they would load Beaujolais Nouveau on planes bound for London at midnight (in the traditional rush to have it tasted away from France as quickly as possible), and touring Californian eateries run by pioneers such as Alice Waters. Such chefs helped to form his love of good food – along with Dotty, of course; his wife’s legendary chopped salad is on the Fortes menu.

Kanke is happy that Vancouver’s “once-uninspiring” culinary map has become more adventurous over the decades, but he adds that “with fusion, there’s a lot of confusion. Take a rack of lamb, for example. With Dijon mustard, rosemary, garlic, it’s simple. Then someone came up with blueberry glaze.” He winces. “I just don’t think so.”

As long as work doesn’t get in the way, cooking’s something the father of three and grandfather of six hopes to have more time to enjoy, as well as a few moments to reflect on his career. “I would definitely do it all over again,” he says. “I’ve no regrets.”