Canadian Chefs In Conversation: Sarah Stewart, Vancouver BC

by Krlmagi

Chef Sarah Stewart focuses on creating seasonally driven, flavourful food with a strong focus on locally grown vegetables and other local products at Juniper in Vancouver.

A summer job in a pizza restaurant and ice cream shop as a teenager was the spark that lit Chef Sarah Stewart’s culinary fire. She explains that once she’d worked in a commercial kitchen with its cast of characters, she realized that it appealed to her. She says, “You develop a certain skill set so you keep applying for more cooking jobs because it’s what you know and it’s part time work. You get into it until it becomes second nature and then you realize that you really enjoy it.”

Chef Sarah Stewart
Chef Sarah Stewart

Stewart's view of food was shaped by working in her family’s garden plots as a child. She says, “Sometimes you don’t realize until you’re older how cool your grandparents are. It’s like, ‘These cucumbers are really tasty but I don’t want to weed the garden.’ When you’re older, you’re like, ‘Damn! I wish I could have spent more time in the garden with my grandparents!’ ”

Another formative experience that Stewart mentions was moving to Toronto from a small town when she was 18. She points out, “Small town palates aren’t that exciting so when I moved to Toronto at the age of 18, I started to explore all of the different foods that there were to eat.”

One experience that helped crystallize Stewart’s view of food was working in a small café while she was attending university. She explains, “We made everything from scratch and it was fun vegetable-based cuisine. I realized that it was the food that I really liked eating. Once I got a little bit of an interest, it started developing and I got more involved in it.”

The approach that Stewart is taking to food at Juniper starts with using ingredients that are sourced from the Pacific Northwest. She says, “I want to source from Oregon and Washington State as well as using local Canadian products. I’m using all the suppliers that I’ve learned about and getting to work with them so that’s pretty exciting.”

Stewart showcases the main component of each dish that she creates. She adds, “I want to see what interesting flavour combinations I can get by using what’s seasonal and local from the producers and suppliers that I’m supporting.”

The approach that Stewart takes to menu creation starts with her exploration of what’s going to be coming into season through talking to her farmers and suppliers. She focuses on vegetable-based cuisine with less meat added to the dishes. Inspiration comes from looking at the visual aspect of cookbooks. After that she says, “I brainstorm ideas and think about what flavours go well together. I want to explore the different flavour components and the visual appeal of the dishes that I create.”

Wild Caught Sockeye Salmon
Wild Caught Sockeye Salmon
KK Law

A good example of Stewart’s approach to creating a dish comes in her “adult version” of pork and beans. She points out, “I’ve done a classic baked bean recipe but with eatgrain chickpeas. They’re western Canadian chickpeas and I’ve cooked them with maple syrup, baked beans and braised pork osso buco. We’ve used our bison trim to make our own hot dogs as well. The dish tastes familiar but it’s a little better for you.”

Building positive relationships with producers is important for Stewart. She has established good ties with some local farmers and says, “I work really well with Naty (King) from Hazelmere Organics and Paul (Healey) from Hannah Brook Farms. I buy vegetables from Naty regularly. She appreciates what I’m trying to do as a person, so she’ll give me vegetables when I’m doing a volunteer event because I’ve supported her in the past.”

Part of building positive relationships with farmers is showing respect for what they do. Stewart explains, “Naty pays her workers fairly, she pays for an organic certification and she pays for her property. The byproduct of that is that her produce costs a bit more and so you teach your cooks not to waste it and you explain to your customers why the dish has to cost a little bit more.”

One  of the traits that Stewart hopes to embody as a chef  is fairness. She says, “You have to be fair to your team and make sure they have an environment they feel comfortable working in. I want them to be themselves while still working hard.”

Stewart also wants to provide inspiration to her team. She says, “I want them to feel inspired by the quality of produce that we’re using and by the direction they’re getting.”

Seared Fraser Valley Pork Chop with Poblano Chimmichurri
Seared Fraser Valley Pork Chop with Poblano Chimmichurri
KK Law

Taking a collaborative approach in the kitchen is also important for Stewart. She says, “I’m trying to foster creativity amongst my team by getting them to do features. I don’t want to make it all about my vision alone.”

She adds, “I think that people can be really well trained without doing it in a completely top down way. We’re losing people in the industry, so I feel it is my responsibility to make my kitchen a positive environment.”

Stewart seeks out cooks who are hard workers and engage with some aspect of their jobs. She points out, “People can be engaged in whatever way works for them. Not everybody is driven to be creative, lots of people do just want to follow directions but I want people who are driven to show some kind of commitment in the kitchen in whatever form that takes.”

For those who are inclined, Stewart is happy to take creative input and enjoys hearing any ideas that her staff might offer to her. It plays into her collaborative approach to running the kitchen.

The motivation to continue in her career as a chef is rooted in Stewart’s passion for what she does. She explains, “I’m addicted to it in a healthy way. I love the interactions that I have with people and the plethora of beautiful things I have to work with. All of the positive things you get from being a chef outweigh most of the negatives.”

Apple Tart with Chestnut Frangipane and Aged Cheddar
Apple Tart with Chestnut Frangipane and Aged Cheddar
KK Law
Updated: 02/15/2016, Krlmagi
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