Canada's Chefs in Conversation: Benjamin Curtis, Vancouver B.C

by Krlmagi

Chef Benjamin Curtis places a strong emphasis on sustainable, local ingredients in his tapas style dishes at August Jack in Vancouver B.C.

For Chef Ben Curtis respect for local, seasonal and sustainable ingredients isn't a matter of being trendy. He has a strong belief in these principles and goes out of his way to adhere to them in his cooking. His dishes are creative and are designed to showcase their ingredients and to pair well with the restaurant's wide variety of craft beers.

Chef Ben Curtis
Chef Ben Curtis
Ben Curtis

 Some chefs learn their passion for food, others are apparently born with it. The latter is, according to Ben Curtis, the case with him.  He says that he's always been obsessive about food and illustrates his point with this story, "I moved to Canada when I was six from Britain. At the time I got taken to a pancake house and they used this awful fake whipped cream. Being the snotty little British kid that I was, I sent the pancakes back to the kitchen because the whipped cream wasn't real."

There are a whole host of influences that Curtis cites as having shaped him. He says that he started out going to school to be a pastry chef because he loved making sweets, but once he'd worked in hotels and restaurants, he started cooking savoury food as well.

Another important influence was growing up eating a variety of seafood in Nova Scotia. Although he says the approach on the west coast is different, the abundance of seafood is the same.

Living in Vienna, Austria contributed another element to Curtis' career. As he explains, "Vienna's one of the meccas of the world for food because you've got the western European influences and the eastern influences from Hungary all the way to Turkey. Its an incredible place for food and especially sweets."

Curtis says that he's approaching food with a keen eye for sustainability because of his concerns about the environmental crisis that the world is facing. He says that he's confronting the situation by sustainably sourcing as many ingredients as possible. He adds, "I'm trying to use smaller suppliers and I'm a certified Ocean Wise restaurant as well. I'm trying to be as sustainable as possible and as green as possible."

In terms of cooking, he says that he wants to keep his food simple and let the ingredients speak for themselves, especially now that he's using local and organic ingredients.

Wild Mushrooms on Toast
Wild Mushrooms on Toast
Ben Curtis

Developing new dishes, for Curtis, starts in several different ways. He says that it can be someone giving him an idea, a book he's read or a dish he's tried at another restaurant that sparked his own ideas.

Once he has the spark, Curtis says that he thinks of new possibilities and new methods of doing things and begins to play with the ingredients or techniques that he needs to master in order to cook the dish.

Finally, the chef says, he has to decide if the dish is going to go anywhere. He says that if some of his ideas don't work he just chalks them up to experience.

The relationships that Curtis has with producers often start with networking at farmer's markets. He says that the markets provide the best opportunity to find new products and talk to new purveyors. He adds, "Most cooks and chefs will hate the idea but you need to get up in the morning on the weekend and go down to whatever the biggest farmer's market is." 

He explains that, from his perspective, talking to the people at the markets draws them out about their products. Curtis points out that most of the farmers are doing it as a labour of love and they'll be eager to talk about their products and to cultivate good personal relationships with the chefs.

He adds, "I go to farmer's markets and I'm either looking for a particular product or I see something that piques my interest. I start chatting people up and seeing if they're interested in supplying me."

The most important trait for a chef is "good attitude" according to Curtis. He says that people who arrive on time, are motivated and ready to work. This goes for cooks in training as well as the chef. He says, "A long time ago I had a boss tell me that if someone asks how you are, you should say great or excellent. Its just, "Hey, where's your head at right this second?" and you should always have your head in a positive space."

Improving himself, his skills and his knowledge base is how Curtis stays motivated. He says that he's constantly updating and changing his menus as well as introducing new specials to try. He explains, "I guess that the key concept here is evolution. You really need to keep moving, you can't let yourself stagnate or you'll lose interest and go backwards."

Lemon poached sockeye salmon
Lemon poached sockeye salmon
Ben Curtis
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Updated: 01/17/2015, Krlmagi
 
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