Canadian Chefs in Conversation: Douglas King, Pigeonhole

by Krlmagi

Chef Douglas King combines a passion for organically raised proteins and vegetables with innovative cooking techniques at pigeonhole in Calgary.

Chef Douglas King went to university and got a degree before deciding to take the culinary path. He explains, "I spent the entire time that I was in university looking at cookbooks more than I was looking into my chosen field of study. At some point in my mid-twenties, which is fairly late for someone to start cooking professionally, I decided that I was going to move to Vancouver and go to culinary school. After that I just kept going and never looked back."

He was lucky enough to get hired by Chef Dale MacKay, owner of Ayden in Saskatoon, just as MacKay was chosen to open Daniel Boulud's Lumière in Vancouver. Douglas says, "Dale hired me as second garde manger which is almost unheard of for someone just out of culinary school. It was a super challenging experience but it gave me a strong culinary foundation that allowed me to move on from there. It was a good kick starter for my career."

23 oz. braised short rib, potato fondant, shiitake, onion rings (front), charred cabbage (back)
23 oz. braised short rib, potato fondant, shiitake, onion rings (front), charred cabbage (back)

The chef also had a positive experience while working at Kissa Tanto in Vancouver. Douglas elaborates, "Ten years into my career, it was an interesting experience to have because I got to see more of the business side of things and how it was possible to manage people on a more dignified level."

Adjusting to Calgary's shorter growing season is both a challenge and an opportunity for Douglas. He points out, "In Vancouver, we were spoiled because the restaurant community there has such a strong connection with organic and biodynamic farms on the Lower Mainland. As a chef in Vancouver, you're receiving fresh sheets every day from farms, but it's not the same thing here in Calgary which makes it a little more challenging."

He adds, "The growing season and access to sun isn't the same in Calgary. We also don't have the deep roots that the Lower Mainland does for organic farming, so for someone like myself who wants to support organic farming, it's more of a challenge but it's exciting! I don't have the contacts that I developed over ten years in Vancouver so this spring is going to be a time for me to develop my contacts here."

Along with organic produce, Douglas is also passionate about organic and ethically sourced proteins. He says, "I’ve had a chance to meet people like Bert (Van Bruinhorst) who owns Ewe-Nique farms. He raises fantastic lambs that are humanely treated."

Seasonality is a crucial part of Douglas' approach to cooking at Pigeonhole. He explains, "Everything is entirely ingredient-based here. There are a few things like asparagus, rhubarb and fava beans that are coming into season now so I keep those ingredients at the forefront in my mind and develop dishes around those ingredients."

The chef talks about a smoked beef tongue dish that he's developed as an example of what he's doing at pigeonhole. Douglas says, "Justin Leboe, the owner of the restaurant, bought a barrel smoker which is basically a four times sized barbecue which cooks over indirect heat using firewood. We hot smoked these beautiful beef tongues over the course of about 12 hours. I was extremely happy with the end result. I surprised that Calgarians accepted a dish like that, but it shows me that people here are willing to try new things. It's not limiting to us which gives us more confidence."

Fava bean, green almond and citrus kosho
Fava bean, green almond and citrus kosho

Running a restaurant is an expensive proposition and Douglas sees a positive trend in chefs finding creative ways to save money, reduce waste and still cook unique food. He says, "I'm interested by people who are using byproducts and secondary cuts in innovative ways to create delicious food. It's also exciting in terms of sustainability. There's less waste happening because we can't afford to waste anything."

Douglas gives an example of this approach. He says, “Some chef friends and I went down to a restaurant called the Willows Inn in Washington State where one of the courses we ate was fish fins served with a dipping sauce. You basically put the fins in your mouth and sucked off all of the meat and it was delicious!”

The biggest trait that Douglas sees as important in a chef is a good work ethic. He says, "It's no surprise to anyone outside of the industry that it's hard work to be a chef. There are long hours and stress involved. In this era of social media, it's tough when you go home, look at Instagram and see your friends on holidays or your family celebrating birthdays and you're not part of that. "

The chef elaborates on his point and says, "It takes a specific mentality and a specific work ethic in this day and age to succeed. At the same time, we're going through a time in our industry when there's so few people entering and so many people leaving that people who do have this work ethic have a very good chance that they're going to succeed in this industry."

In his career now, Douglas is seeking balance in his life. He explains, "It's not about punishing myself with as many hours as possible. It's  about spending my free time with my wife, it's about finding time to exercise and about finding time to enjoy food. At the end of the day, if we get a chance to enjoy food as chefs, it reflects on our plates for our guests."

One of his biggest inspirations has been his mother. Douglas says, "She prepared great food for us. There was constantly fresh baked bread, fresh roasted meats and vegetables. There were really diverse groupings of food and it made me interested in food because food was always so important to us. She has been my number one inspiration."

For more information on Douglas King and Pigeonhole, please visit them here.

Updated: 06/06/2017, Krlmagi
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