It was his father’s cultural heritage that first drew Chef Ryan Zuvich to the culinary world. He explains that his father grew up in a family that grew their own food and even made their own soap. Zuvich explains, “It always resonated with me but only later in life did I actually appreciate exactly what it meant.” He adds that this zero waste philosophy is fashionable now but for his father’s family it was a matter of survival.
Canada's Chefs In Conversation: Ryan Zuvich, Nanaimo B.C
Chef Ryan Zuvich combines a passion for cooking with quality local ingredients to create dishes of refined simplicity at La Stella Trattoria in Nanaimo B.C.
Pizza with funghi, panna, roast garlic, shaved mushroom, fontina, arugula
Zuvich says that his stints cooking at various Michelin-starred restaurants in Europe were what shaped him as a chef. He explains that it was those restaurants that pushed him to excel and refine his practice. He says, “I think the individuals rather than the specific restaurants were motivators for me. Seeing the way that certain individuals worked and how they evolved as cooks made me want to be better.”
The approach that Zuvich takes to food and cooking has evolved over the years according to the chef. He says that as a younger cook he was more preoccupied with technique and sometimes his dishes were overcomplicated. As he's matured, he says that he’s refined his technique and come to understand the importance of different cooking methods and using high-quality ingredients. He adds, “We want the ingredient to speak for itself to the point that we pair with local farms and we’re growing a lot of our own products right in the kitchen.”
Using local ingredients has become a buzzword in the culinary world, but Zuvich explains that he works with local suppliers on the basis of seeking out those who are passionate and committed to what they grow. He explains that quality is the most important consideration and says, “If I find a farmer that’s growing the best potatoes in Pemberton, miles and miles away, but I like his practices and his product and I can get his stuff without too much recourse then I’ll do that because that’s where the best product is.”
He adds, “Fortunately on the island we have a grower for just about anything so it’s pretty easy. You do have to take the time to develop relationships with the farmers because there isn’t just a list that you can Google. “
When it comes to writing a menu and creating new dishes, Zuvich says that his first consideration is the fresh product he has on hand. He points out that the premise of using local ingredients is to keep them as close as possible to their source to preserve their nutritional value and freshness. He adds that fresher vegetables also have a deeper flavour. Zuvich also says that the kitchen does a lot of preserving and canning to prepare for the winter months when it’s harder to get fresh ingredients.
SmokeArctic char mousse on crostini with in-house grown micro green salad.
La Stella Trattoria’s wood burning oven is another important element in Zuvich’s creative arsenal. He explains that working with a real wood fire is like working with a “living animal” and says, “It’s not like you set a gauge to 800 degrees, you have to watch it and you have to understand what the fire looks like at the temperature. It’s a humbling and rewarding experience, but ultimately the product is better.”
Zuvich talks about the traits that he hopes to have as a chef. The first thing he mentions is the fact that self-sufficiency is important in the restaurant industry. He elaborates, “You can’t survive if you’re looking for other people’s approval. You have to have your own motivations.”
He continues, “I hope that people see me as a passionate individual with refined technique and methods and someone that’s dedicated to the craft.”
Zuvich also notes that many chefs say that they cook to make people happy and says that while that is the end goal, “Ultimately we cook for ourselves. We want to make a better product and push ourselves to do better. When you do get good with something and you are passionate about, people like it and they are happy with it but that’s as a secondary result of the original motivation.”
The chef says that he wants his kitchen to be a “a collaboration of talented individuals that are passionate about what they do” and adds that he’s looking for a high level of dedication in his team as well as a variety of skill sets.
Finding motivation can be a challenge in the high pressure world of professional cooking. Zuvich says that he finds his motivation in new things. He talks about starting to grow microgreens in the kitchen and learning about horticulture and says that it sparks new ideas. He adds that his business started out as a charcuterie and learning about curing and fermenting also sparked new ideas. He says, “Recently we’ve really been looking at traditional methods and trying to modernize them and see what we can learn. It’s been a really interesting time and I think that the future looks pretty cool too.”
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