Using as many local ingredients and sources as possible is one way that Chef Eric Pless grounds his cuisine in his surroundings. His approach to food and cooking is one that respects the products he uses and the people who raise and grow them. He explains that he wants his food to be fresh, bright and without too many muddled flavours on the plate.
Canada's Chefs: Eric Pless, Hotel Eldorado, Kelowna B.C
Chef Eric Pless combines his wealth of culinary experience with a respect for ingredients and the farmers who grow them at Hotel Eldorado's restaurant.
Chef Eric Pless
1. What got you started down the culinary path in the first place?
I'd have to say it was my upbringing. When I spent time with my grandmother, I spent a lot of time in the kitchen. I also got a lot of downtime in the kitchen with my uncles as well. I started cooking at a very early age so it was a natural fit for me.
2. How have people you've met and experiences you've had shaped you as a chef?
When I started my career it was chefs like Miichael Olson and Mark Hand back in Niagara who were major culinary influences through the early part of my career and schooling.
Michael Olson especially loved the farm to fork approach and the one hundred mile diet before it was trendy. Michael did it more for the true reasons that I believe in it: supporting farmers. From there I met a gentleman named Jason Rosso who now runs all of the Milestone's operations. Jason and I worked together for over eleven years having a great time with food.
3. Talk about your current approach to food and cooking.
The industry's changed a lot. We have to look at the factors. We're still on a giant push here in Canada for the one hundred mile diet. However with everyone wanting and living in a twenty four hour society, we have to have everything available all the time or in close proximity to there. My approach to food from that angle is to shop local as much as humanly possible and get the ultimate use out of the suppliers that you have to use in a big box situation.
I think that its being able to bring in the products that everybody's looking for. I don't see myself as a trendsetter. Everything's being done before and we're just trying to reinvent the wheel time and time again.
I try to teach what I practice so that's to shop local, be local and embrace what you have. If you don't know what it is, read up on it and I don't mean just it look it up on the Internet. If you've got a question about a vegetable, who better than to ask but a farmer. If you go to a butcher shop, you might not buy anything from him but you might want to ask the butcher some questions.
4. Walk me through the process you take when developing new menu items.
If my fishmonger tells me he's got some great grouper coming in or the spring salmon run is coming and if its not already on the menu and we're not already manipulating to what we want it to be what can we’ll take it and work with it.
It's about bringing the products in, educating the cooks about what the product is and where it comes from and walking into the fridge and going, "Okay guys, what flavour profiles fit this product."
We want no more than four to five flavours on a plate so you can enjoy the flavours of a dish and make sure that everything comes together. Cooks today try to overcomplicate things. I want it to be fresh, bright and simple.
I try to make sure that everybody who's in the kitchen here buys at least two books and has them in their repertoire and those are "The Flavour Bible" and "Culinary Artistry". They have two different influences and flavours but they can read them and understand them instead of picking things out of the air that they think are going to match. We put it down on paper, we'll put the products together and we'll go from there.
5. How do you go about sourcing ingredients?
You have to support your local farmers in their desire to deliver what they see as the best locally grown product. Everybody says that they're the best and I love that enthusiasm with farmers. They're sustainably minded individuals, they want to make sure everything comes cyclically. They might hate a giant smelly pile of compost but they love what they're going to get out of it.
Luckily when I landed here at the Eldorado, I had a pre-built relationship with a guy by the name of Ted over at Brookdale Farms. He does a stellar job. The guy's got great product, he knows what he's talking about and he researches everything in books and on the Internet. I've got another guy that's new to the scene. He started out last year and had some fun with, this year he wants to go bigger. I asked him what he had for strawberries and he told me had a third of an acre, I said I’d take all of them. Now I’ve got everybody in the kitchen thinking about what they’ll do with his strawberries.
If I could find somebody who could deal with the scale we have at the El, I’d love to say I had a local butcher but I don't. I still buy local meats and as much B.C. fish as I humanly can. When you can find guys around the corner, embrace them and if you have to look a little further at least you’re still working with products in your realm.
6. What are the traits you aspire to having as a chef?
Patience and a willingness to teach. I remember working for chefs (not the ones I’ve named) and getting a recipe out of them in order to make sure the product was maintained consistently was like pulling teeth. I have my favourites and things I’m not going to release until I’m ready but at the end of the day, the majority of people are looking for a consistent product that they want to come back for time and time again.
I want the cooks here to understand that everything is given up freely. When a customer does ask for a recipe here, we generally put it together, we downsize it for them and get it to them as quickly as we can. I’m not in fear of holding back. Don’t let them come to you for everything of course, do some self-studying. This is a career that indulges in that, you’re going to continually study.
7. What makes for a good kitchen team?
Your staff has to come in and have a willingness to be in that environment. If they just want to come in, work for a couple of months, take a couple of recipes and move on to the next gig, well, sorry but that’s not really the way this game is played. If it is, nowadays, you have to be mindful of the people you’re putting in that environment.
I’ve got a very seasonal business here, I only have people for a five month period of time so my capture rate has to be on point. I want people to come in and have a good time but I also want them to understand the effort from myself, my chef de cuisine and my chef de partie to make sure this person is properly trained. They have to be trained for more than just their station, more than just the next service, they have to be trained for the future.
8. How do you stay fresh and motivated as a chef?
Don’t spend every waking hour in the environment. I did a talk with some students out at The Art Institute of Vancouver and towards the end of the talk the one thing I said to them was that you have to take some time for yourself. In order to be fresh and where you want to be, get on a bike, be physically fit, be mentally ready and read something other than a cookbook once in a while, do something other than go to work every day and slog it out for sixteen hours. Be willing to leave your mind at work every once in a while because it makes the things that you do all the more appealing. Enjoy both environments and have a little fun with life.