Canadian Chefs Profiled: Chef Steven Elskins, Unsworth Vineyards, Cowichan Valley B.C

by Krlmagi

Chef Steven Elskins combines the rich local produce and meats of the Cowichan Valley with food that explores a diversity of cuisines at Unsworth Vineyards.

A chef’s career is a mosaic of many experiences that form their approach to food and cooking. Chef Steven Elskins is a good example of this. He says, “Right now, I’m exploring different cuisines from around the world. I came from Belgium so I’m mostly French trained. When I came to Canada there was this whole Asian influence. I started exploring Middle Eastern cuisine and Mexican cuisine. I’ve been dabbling in many different cuisines and reading a lot of cookbooks.”

Elskins says that he “just rolled into” being a chef. He explains, “I started dish washing twenty years ago as a first job, just to make some money. The chef at the time saw a little bit of life in me and told me not to waste my time dish washing, that he’d teach me how to cook and that’s how it all started.”

Chef Elskins in the Unsworth Vineyards gardens.
Chef Elskins in the Unsworth Vineyards gardens.

The chef says that his career has had his ups and downs. Elskins elaborates, “I think in the beginning of your career you have to do a lot of menial tasks and a lot of repetitive work. I even took a break for a while just because I was a little fed up with cooking but that comes with any job.”


“After that break, I went back to another restaurant where my love of cooking was rekindled. I just kept exploring for myself, teaching myself lots of things. I started my own catering business five years ago and I’m in a good spot in my career right now where I feel comfortable.”


The process of coming up with new dishes starts with finding inspiration. Elskins explains, “You can draw from a lot of things. You draw from your own experiences, from the places you’ve been to, and the techniques you’ve picked up. Whenever I try to come up with different items, I think about what’s in season right now and work around that product. I think about what kind of flavours go well with it.”


Once the initial ideas are in place, Elskins says, “To balance the dish out you can think about texture and you can think about temperature contrasts. You want to think about the four tastes, you want to think about adding a little spice or a little acid. Sometimes even the shape of the plate can inspire you.”


The seasonal ingredients that the chef mentioned are readily available in the Cowichan Valley. As Elskins points out, “I’ve been in a chef in the Cowichan Valley for thirteen years now. We’ve really established a good rapport with local farms here. The Cowichan Valley has been called the Provence of Canada so there’s lots of farmers around here. You go visit them and you get to know them and if you can get the product straight from them its better for you and its better for your customers. The products are going to be fresh, unblemished and more beautiful. ”


He continues, “With live animals, some farmers have small stocks so they take care of them a little more. It’s a win-win situation because you support your local community and you get good products in return. The relationship between the chef and the farmer is really fun.”

Chef Elskins taking canapés through the vineyard.
Chef Elskins taking canapés through the vineyard.

Being a chef is as much about leading a team in the kitchen as it is about cooking. Elskins says, “I’d say that one of the biggest things is that you have to be there, doing the work yourself so you can lead by example. You have to be calm. I don’t like to explode and I don’t like to shout. If things get really chaotic, it’s important that the chef stays calm. As a chef, if you start moving around in a chaotic fashion, things break down on the line too. The leadership traits are the same as in any business.”


As for the qualities Elskins wants in the members of his kitchen team, he says, “I expect the same passion from them that I bring to the job. I want people that care and I want people that are interested in cooking and keep exploring for themselves so that it becomes a synergy. Its not just one mind thinking about how we can improve our dishes, our kitchen and our restaurant but it’s everybody’s minds together thinking about it. I’m looking for drive, passion and taking care with what you do.”


The work of being a chef can be demanding but Elskins says that he finds motivation in the feedback he gets from his customers. He explains, “I never get tired of hearing compliments. Its something that chefs are quite sensitive about because you’re putting your product out there all the time and you’re being judged all the time. Those few compliments every day is really what you’re doing it for. Sometimes people say it was the best meal they’ve ever had. We get that once in a while. It’s a real treat when that happens because you’ve really made an impact on someone’s day for a moment.”


He finishes by saying, “You’ve connected with them with your plate. When they come and tell you personally, when they come into the kitchen and tell you that personally the whole crew thrives on that. Other than that, its like any craft where you’re trying to get a little bit better every day. “

Selection of small plates – Warm swiss chard with preserved lemon, braised octopus salad, arancini & rabbit croquettes
Selection of small plates – Warm swiss chard with preserved lemon, braised octopus salad, arancini & rabbit croquettes
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Updated: 11/17/2014, Krlmagi
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