For Chef William Robitaille, creating food is all about letting the ingredients talk and trying to have fun with what he creates while keeping his standards high. He seeks out quality ingredients and tries to put new twists on old dishes while respecting their roots. Seasonality is crucial to his cooking as is keeping flavours simple and distinct.
Canada's Chefs: William Robitaille, Vancouver B.C
Chef William Robitaille puts his unique twists on Italian classics at Notturno in Vancouver.
Chef William Robitaille
1. What was your initial inspiration for becoming a chef?
It all started with my family. We're Italian on my mother's side and French on my father's side. My earliest memories of food were through my family. I grew up with my grandparents around. When I was kid both of my parents worked and I'm the youngest in the family so while my brothers and sisters were at school, I'd be home and my grandparents basically took care of me through the day. My grandfather would take me out mushroom picking on the North Shore. I'd help him make sausage and wine. We were a typical Italian family so there was an upstairs kitchen and a downstairs kitchen. My grandmother would be in the downstairs kitchen making pasta, other staple foods like that and desserts.
My parents were big fans of gourmet cooking and the progressive dinner. Long before most people knew about Julia Child and Jacques Pépin, they were into that stuff. They had this group of friends they called the Gourmet Club. When it was their turn to cook, my parents always brought out the French cookbooks and try the recipes out. I always hung around and ate the leftovers.
2. Discuss the experiences that have shaped you in your career as a chef.
I started working as a dishwasher when I was fourteen at a place in West Vancouver called Tassos. I did that quite a bit as a kid through high school and moved up to being a busboy. When I was nineteen a friend of mine asked me if I wanted to go out commercial fishing and I said yes because the money was really good. I started off as a deckhand and ended up as a cook on the boat. I was the cook and deckhand for a while. It kind of hit me there that it was a cool thing that I really liked. I didn't' really want to continue commercial fishing, it wasn't really the lifestyle I wanted.
I went and applied at a pub on the North Shore and got the job and started from there. I'm industry trained so I never went to culinary school. I've only done a few job interviews in my life because most of the chefs I've had the pleasure of working under said, "I've basically taught you everything I know. I want you to go talk to this guy, he can teach you something else."
One guy might be really good at doing the financial side of things, another guy might show you a different style of cooking. I was lucky enough to work under people like James Walt at Araxi, Bryan Fowke at Joe Forte's and Scott Brown. Scott was the chef at the first pub I worked at who taught me knife skills and basic cooking skills. I showed my appreciation to them by working hard, showing up early and really listening to what they said.
Burrata with smashed English peas and mint salad, shaved Italian black summer truffles.
3. Talk about your current approach to food and cooking.
I don't like to over-complicate things. I don't want too many ingredients and muddled flavours. You really want to let the ingredients you use stand out. I like to let the ingredients talk. I try to use local stuff as much as I can but I'm interested in what's interesting regardless of where it comes from. Right now ninety percent of the salumi I bring in is made locally because there's local guys who make some great products. I try to get the local stuff but sometimes you need things like Meyer lemons and truffles that you have to bring in. The approach is to have fun with it, make something I really want to eat and make it to the best of my ability.
4. Walk me through the process of creating new dishes for you.
*laughs* It usually starts in the shower. Where it really starts is with the season and what's around. I look at what's in season. As far as actually thinking of the plate, I'll think of a dish I had while I was growing up, that I read about or that I had somewhere. Sometimes I'll think of a really cool, old school dish and I'll want to reintroduce it. Sometimes I'll serve it straight up as it should be and sometimes I'll deconstruct a dish to its key components and try to rework it in a different style.
For instance, vitello tonnato is a really cool old school dish with veal scaloppini in a cold tuna sauce. I wanted to update it so I took a nice veal tenderloin and pounded it out into a carpaccio. I took some local smoked albacore tuna and tossed it in a Cinzano vinaigrette. I mimicked the mayonnaise part of the dish by making a saffron alioli and I garnished it with some petite basil. I like to deconstruct the main components and find an interesting way to twist it around. I also play around with molecular gastronomy by physically mimicking something or making something totally new but maintaining the original flavour.
5. How do you build relationships with your suppliers?
I've been in the industry for twenty-eight years so I know a lot of the companies and what they do. I know who's good and who has the quality. I use different suppliers like La Grotta for my Italian cheeses, my salumi, my dried pastas. I also use Mikuni Wild Harvest for bringing in truffles and really unique produce. I also buy produce from the local farmer's markets to see what's interesting there. Basically that's the way I source the ingredients. I get emails all the time from all of my different purveyors to let me know what's trending for them.
Marinated local white anchovies, sweet summer pea puree, olive oil powder, seawater caviar and a basil and black pepper
6. What are the traits you think a good executive chef should have?
A good executive chef has to have patience. If you don't have patience, its going to tear you apart. Humility is always a good thing as is being able to take constructive criticism. You have to be able to listen as well as instruct. I've learned a lot of these things from other chefs as I've gone along.
I've worked in some places where we've had thirty people working on a rotation. You've got to make sure that your sous chefs are on the same page, your chefs de partie on the same page. Your key messaging to them has to get down the road to everybody else. You have to follow up with everybody from the sous chefs to the dishwashers.
7. You have an award-winning bartender at Notturno. What is the relationship between his creativity behind the bar and your creativity in the kitchen?
I'll give you a bit of background on this. I used to work at a restaurant with Jamie Boudreau who is a very talented bartender. He was in that stage where he was really developing new things. We talked a lot about the food and cocktail component and how things can always work together. Working with him really clicked my mind into the pairing thing. Fast forward to present day when I opened Notturno, I had something specific that I wanted in a bartender.
If you look at bar tending, there's a lot of similarity to the kitchen because you're using a lot of key components but you also don't want a thousand things in there muddling the flavours. I happened upon H which was lucky and now we talk during the week about what we're doing. I won't sit there and make a dish just to go with one cocktail but we will talk about what we're doing. The food menu changes once a month and the feature cocktail changes once a month. We discuss flavour profiles that he's doing and the flavour profiles that I"m doing and how they work together.
8. Talk about how you stay motivated as a chef.
It's what I love to do. We've been open under a year so everything is new. The reason why the food and the beverage program is always rotating and moving with the season, the market and the ingredients is to keep it interesting for me. As a young cook, there were places that had one menu and that was it. It got a big boring after a while. I decided to have a place that makes it fun for me and makes it fun for my customers. Even if you're a regular, there's always something new to try.