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|Written by Brendan Blom|
|Wednesday, 11 November 2009 00:00|
Lord Moran, Britain's High Commissioner to Canada from 1981 to 1984, wrote in his valedictory letter to his Foreign Office superiors that Canadian society has little of excellence, and that our society celebrates mediocrity. "Anyone who is even moderately good at what they do . . . tends to become a national figure," he wrote.
Chef Steve Vardy is the ultimate rebuttal to this toff's opinion. An undeniably top-level chef, he is extremely careful not to cultivate a prominent public persona. He is simply devoted to the craft, the art, and the business of cooking food for the enjoyment of others, and he shuns the TV deals that have produced so many Food Network stars in North America in the past few years.
The tattooed, Alberta-born-but-heart-in-Newfoundland chef has won critical (though not much public) acclaim through his work at premier Ottawa restaurants like Beckta, Whalesbone, and now the Black Cat Bistro; and he's won a small but devoted set of admirers with his down-to-earth, personable, demeanour.
During a brief conversation with (Cult)ure, Vardy made clear that his commitment is not only to his own career, but also to the development of a strong community among the restaurant industry in Ottawa. Asked if he goes out to other restaurants in the city, he answers enthusiastically, "Yeah, a lot, almost every week; usually on my day off. Today, for example, I had a meeting at lunch time at the Murray Street Restaurant. They're doing a good thing there. I definitely try to get to all the restaurants, though after a while you start to weed out the ones where you don't get value for money."
Later, he adds, "Ottawa's such a small city, you know. There's a big population because everyone lives out in the suburbs, but for restaurants, everything's either in the Market or on Elgin or Preston, in Westboro or Centretown. Everyone's pretty close. So there is a lot of contact [between restaurant people], despite the lack of free time.
"And a lot of us are pretty close in age, around 30 or 40, now with wives and kids -- when I was at Beckta, I was 24 years old, things were a lot wilder -- now we're a lot more tame -- but we have all sort of grown up together."
And it is not only the close relationship with other restaurateurs in Ottawa that Vardy values. He also appreciates the large network of suppliers of good-quality, local, organic ingredients that has been built up in the last few years, and he is quick to acknowledge that this development is the result of many restaurants demanding such produce. "Domus was the leader of the pack here, starting in the early 2000s, and then we came in in 2003 [at Beckta], and got a lot of press attention because of it -- though we weren't doing it for the press, you know. But it's a win-win because it's pretty much the norm now; we're all serving and eating better food, and we're even seeing it now in grocery stores."
It's not all good news, Vardy acknowledges, "The only down side - because there's a down side to everything -- is that it costs more . . .. Even at home, my grocery store bill is crazy. I remember shopping with my Mom, and groceries for a week would cost $100. Now when I go, I only get three or four bags, and the price is $100 to $140 -- so we do pay a lot more to eat well. And you know, we all only have so much money."
Still, Vardy points out, going for a dinner out is one of the best ways to relax and have a good time while experiencing something new or different, and, even in a high-end restaurant, can still provide great value for money. He notes that particularly now, as a result of the recent recession, many restaurants have slashed their menu prices by twenty to thirty percent (despite increasing food costs), to try to attract more business. "A couple of years ago," he says, "the prices on my menu all started at thirty dollars, up to forty for the lamb and the lobster. Now the items start at twenty and go to thirty. A lot of restaurants have been forced to lower prices."
So what keeps Steve Vardy motivated and focused in such a notoriously grinding and stressful profession? He has a typically Canadian solution: "I play ice hockey four times a week, throughout the year. It's physically exhausting, but it helps me stay sane and healthy; you know, avoid tendonitis -- standing all day, we're prone to back and knee strain. The last two years, for sure, it's kept me sane. In a way, I would say that hockey has saved my life -- probably that and having a child. We also encourage our staff [at the Black Cat], and support the kitchen team to do the same sort of thing.
"Now, when I play on Saturday nights, I'll actually leave the restaurant early, which, a couple of years ago, would have been unheard of. But I think I'm a better cook and a better person because of it. You know, it just gets my mind off food; whereas in my early 20s, I probably thought about food too much."
And so -- healthy and relaxed, happy to be surrounded by respected and respectful peers and competitors, promoting the benefits of good food produced by himself and others -- it seems we can all look forward to Steve Vardy's reputation continuing to grow, for all the right reasons.
Honey-Peach-Lime Marinade by Chef Stephen Vardy
3 Tbs Olive Oil
2 Tbsp Apple Cider Vinegar
1 ½ Tbsp Minced Ginger
1) Heat the olive oil in a medium sauce pot and cook the onion, garlic, ginger, peaches and pear until tender.