Being around his father’s traditional Greek restaurant lit the culinary fire under Chef Leo Pantel. After a brief foray into another field, Pantel returned to cooking and got his professional training through the Saskatchewan Technical Institute, Red River College and Northern Alberta Institute of Technology. He’s been working at the Conexus Centre for over 25 years.
Canadian Chefs: Leo Pantel, Conexus Arts Centre, Regina SK
Chef Leo Pantel brings a creative flair to the food that he creates for the Conexus Arts Centre in Regina.
Chef Leo Pantel
Traveling across Canada for work and pleasure helped to shape Pantel as a chef. He was the president of the Regina branch of the Canadian Culinary Federation and this allowed him to meet with and learn from many of his colleagues from all over the country. He had an eye opening experience when he met with Chef Simon Smatkovich in the early 90’s. Pantel says, “At the time he was Culinary Team Canada captain. It was really a good influence on me to look at the competition side of the culinary arts. He also had a very large catering facility so I toured it with him and saw how it worked.”
Working with both large and small events is a challenging part of Pantel’s job. He works with large batch cooking where he tries to achieve a flavourful product despite the scale. He also does smaller menus for the patron’s sponsor lounge that are closer to a la carte dishes, so he changes his cooking approach to work with up to twenty people there.
Although Pantel is limited on some items for larger events, he explains, “For the most part, everything that we can do on a smaller scale can be transferred to a large scale. When it comes to the smaller events we can do eight to 14 component plates. We tend to keep the plates down to seven components max for the larger events. We want every dish to be exactly the same and come out at the same quality and food integrity level.”
Roasted mini pumpkin with buttered shrimp, scallops and lobster.
The pleasure in his job, for Pantel, comes from creating a high quality dish that’s a little different. He uses the example of a wine and spirits gala where he was able to pair different dishes with different spirits. He enjoyed seeing the guests respond to what he’d created in a positive way.
Working with local products and unique international ingredients fascinates Pantel. He adds, “I like the art of braising meats and the long slow process of sous vide. I enjoy really trying to understand how infusing flavours works whether it's in a meat dish or a vegetable dish. That’s something that I really take pleasure in.”
Out of necessity, Pantel works with large international suppliers, but whenever possible he uses smaller local suppliers. He explains, “For example we have a small, local mushroom supplier who can grow things for us if we give them enough notice. We don’t want to cut into his regular supply but because we’re not an a la carte service, we do know about our menus well in advance, so we can get them to supply us without any logistical issues.”
One of Chef Pantel's Gold Medal Plates creations.
Creating a balanced workplace is one trait that Pantel feels he possesses as a chef. He’s able to find people’s strong points and ensure that he places them in the position that helps them be the most effective. Pantel explains, “My job is to oversee the entire process to see that the end result comes out well for us and our clients. It takes a lot of adjustment to make sure that everyone in the elaborate process plays their part because everyone is integral to the final product.”
Finding people with the right attitudes and aptitudes who fit into a large-scale culinary environment is important for Pantel. He seeks out people who are trainable and adds, “We can have people who are experienced and work well with the rest of the crew or people who really have no experience at all yet there’s a spark there that makes them trainable.”
The sheer variety of culinary experiences that Pantel is involved with keeps him motivated to do his job. He explains, “We’re creating almost 80 percent of the menus for specific clients. It’s exciting to be able to work with in season, local products and to work with theme specific events. I like creating a comfortable guest experience. We also have to create menus for people who are vegan, vegetarian or have dietary issues so that’s exciting for me too because it’s never the same thing over again.”
Beluga lentil salad with roasted red pepper, couscous, micro cilantro and lavender.
This article is based on an interview conducted with Leo Pantel via telephone on Nov. 9, 2015 and recorded.