Canadian Chefs in Conversation: Chef Robert Belcham, Vancouver B.C

by Krlmagi

Chef Robert Belcham approaches Italian cuisine with an eye to seasonality and using local ingredients at Campagnolo Restaurant in Vancouver B.C.

When it comes to cooking, Chef Robert Belcham says that he wants the local ingredients that he uses to speak for themselves on the plate. The chef takes his inspiration from all of the products he receives from farmers and translates it into dishes that showcase the flavours of the ingredients without gilding the lily.

Chef Robert Belcham
Chef Robert Belcham
Chris Mason Stearns

1. How did you start down the culinary path in the first place?

I moved to Victoria B.C. from Edmonton A.B. to go to cooking school. I really had no idea that I was going to become a chef. I went there for a girl and she had this calendar for Camosun College at her apartment. I had no idea what I was going to do and I saw a cooking program in there. It was cheap and so I thought, "Why not? I've never lived in Victoria, I love to cook and at the very least, I'll be a better cook at the end of it all."

On the first day of cooking school, I absolutely fell in love with it. I got to meet some unbelievable professionals who were the teachers. These guys were European, old-school guys. They opened up this whole world to me that I never even knew existed. I grew up in Northern Alberta where a fancy meal was a burger and a Coke. It was this whole different world that I'd never been a part of before.

2. Talk about some of the people and experiences who've shaped you into who you are today as a chef.

The thing about cooking is that the people you work with, the decisions you make and the places you work at will define you as a cook. The first real cooking job I had after school was working at re:bar. I didn't want to do the same old, lame old food. re:bar was doing something interesting, something I'd never seen before. 

I got a job at the French Laundry which really defined my cooking. I worked hard to get a job there. There I figured out that you can get a job at pretty much any restaurant in the world as long as you're the right person at the right time.

From there I went on to be a private chef. That really taught me about the front of house aspect of it. It opened my eyes to the importance of the liaison between the back and front of the house. It's hard to keep a smile on your face when someone tells you that they think something is gross. I think I'm a better chef for having done that job.

The biggest influence I had was probably Chef Robert Clark at C Restaurant. I worked there for five years. I started off as a sous chef and worked up to chef de cuisine. He didn't teach me so much about cooking but he taught me about product and I feel he taught me how to be a chef. It has much less to do with cooking and much more to do with getting the best out of people.

Nonna's Meatballs: aioli, winter herbs, capers
Nonna's Meatballs: aioli, winter herbs, capers
Campagnolo Restaurant

3. How do you approach food and cooking right now?

My philosophy has evolved over the years but the main focus has always been using quality raw ingredients and not screwing around with them too much. I really want to let Mother Nature shine on the plate. It's a very difficult thing for a chef to do because ego gets involved.

The places that do it best are in France. The masters of French cuisine are so good because they have unbelievable technique but they also have the wherewithal to let the product shine through in a simple preparation. That's what we try to emulate.

I always tell my cooks that we try to cook extremely seasonally. It's common sense to cook with the best ingredients which comes with seasonality and locality.

4. How do you build relationships with your local suppliers?

I talk to farmers all the time and a farmer will come to me and ask me what I want them to grow. You wouldn't go to Champagne and ask them to grow some Viognier. I want a farmer to come to me and tell me that he has the best tasting beans or artichokes or whatever. He'll ask me if i want to try them and if I think it is the best tasting bean or artichoke then I'll buy them. That's the way its always worked for me.

For example, I have Milan who's the tomato man who comes to the Lower Mainland twice a week. He has a small farm with his parents up in the Mission in Kelowna. He truly has the best tomatoes you've ever had anywhere. That's what he does and he does it very well.

I won't use fresh tomatoes on my menu until I can use Milan's tomatoes. It's kind of odd to have an Italian restaurant that doesn't have fresh tomatoes on the menu year 'round but we won't because they're not the best tasting tomatoes. We'll have canned tomatoes we do ourselves from Milan's.

5. When you create a new dish where do you get your inspiration from?

Inspiration for dishes can come from anywhere. You have to open yourself up to receive that inspiration. Artists and craftsmen train themselves to be able to do that. I feel that chefs do it as well. We try to take our inspiration from as many different places as we can. We get it from the people that we meet, the architecture that we see and the art we see. It also comes from the beautiful food we eat. I tell my cooks all the time that when a new product comes into season, these products are what make it exciting for me and that's why you should want to be a chef.

Spot Prawn Rigatoni
Spot Prawn Rigatoni
Campagnolo Restaurant

6. What are the traits that make up a good chef?

Good communication is probably one of the most important things to me. Being able to teach your cooks what you want them to do on a daily basis is the most difficult thing but obviously also the most important thing. You can't personally cook every dish that goes out of the kitchen.

The ability to inspire your cooks and your service staff to do the best job they can is another great trait. Being the chef in a kitchen is like being an officer in the military. You're trying to inspire your troops so they'll do what you need them to do. It's difficult but it's gratifying at the end of the day.

Taking ego out of the equation is helpful as well but its difficult to do. You're putting your heart on your sleeve when you put a dish out there but you have to take the lumps with the praise I guess.

7. What are the traits you look for in the cooks that you hire?

The thing that I always look for in cooks is the willingness to learn something new. You'd be surprised at how many young cooks think they know everything already. They've read Modernist Cuisine or they watched chefs on TV and they think they're the next Joël Robuchon. I'm the first person to say that I've been cooking for twenty years and I'm only scratching the surface. The ability to be humble and understand that you really don't know anything is important as well as the ability to take direction and learn.

8. How do you stay fresh and motivated as a chef?

It's a combination of a lot of different things but when I see a young cook learn something and you can see a light going on as they go, "I get it!"

The other day I showed someone how to make a style of ravioli they'd never done before and the look on their face as they had a eureka moment made my day.

Chefs are mentors and a cook's life is a hard one. The only thing we really have to offer other cooks and chefs is knowledge so when we can put it across, that's the only reward we need.

Campagnolo's Panna Cotta
Campagnolo's Panna Cotta
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Updated: 03/19/2014, Krlmagi
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Mira on 03/15/2014

Love that panna cotta! :) Great article, Karl!

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