Getting a job as a young teenager in a meat department was the beginning of Ron Shaw’s path to becoming a chef. Learning about the unique cuts of meat there intrigued Shaw. His next job was in the kitchen of a chain restaurant and one day, while looking out at the guests in the dining room, he came to the realization that he enjoyed providing an enjoyable experience for people through food. After that, he went to culinary school and started on the journey to becoming a chef.
Chefs in Canada: Ron Shaw, Grapes and Soda, Vancouver B.C
Chef Ron Shaw uses seasonal, local ingredients to create small plate dishes based on the wine selections of his sommelier at Grapes and Soda in Vancouver.
Chef Ron Shaw
There are two chefs with whom Shaw worked who were strong influences on his approach to being a chef. Eric Vernice was his first chef out of culinary school. He was a classically trained French chef and Shaw spent most of his time asking him as many questions as possible to gain a strong foundation. Shaw adds, “He always told me that if you want to learn the most, you have to go work with the best. You can only teach yourself so much. You need to be in an environment where everything’s at a higher level.”
Shaw sought out that higher level by moving to Europe. He got a job at the world renowned Maze restaurant in London working under Chef Jason Atherton. It was Atherton’s obsessive attention to detail that most inspired Shaw. Shaw explains, “I don’t have his militaristic style but I do have his attention to detail. He thought of all of the details that could make a customer’s experience better.”
The current approach to food and cooking taken by Shaw was instilled in him both as head chef at Bishop’s and by working with Chef David Gunawan to open Grapes and Soda. It’s an approach that relies on locally sourced ingredients and respects the seasons. Now Shaw is focusing on creating dishes that showcase one ingredient and make it shine. He adds that he’s also drying, pickling and preserving ingredients to extend their lives.
Creating a dish starts with a wine tasting for Shaw and his team. They taste the wine and start to brainstorm flavour ideas and other inspirations for a new dish. Shaw steps away from the dish for a day and process the ideas. He often visits the local markets and reads through emails from suppliers about what’s in season or going out of season.
Shaw comes back with a short list from the ideas that were brainstormed and each member of the team presents their basic ideas for a dish which they then critique. At that point, Shaw says, “I have a framework for a dish and then we go ahead and make one. Over the course of a few sessions, we might taste a whole bottle of wine before we come up with a final dish.
Getting to know his suppliers is an important part of Shaw’s job as a chef. He credits John Bishop and Andrew Carlsen for helping introduce him to quality local suppliers during his time at Bishop’s as well as David Gunawan for creating some newer relationships for him. Shaw spends time talking to suppliers when they make deliveries and even goes to their farms to see them and spend time helping them.
Shaw adds, “You feel for them, you see the dirt under their fingernails and the bags under their eyes. You look at your own face and hands and realize we go through a lot of the same battles.”
Having a positive attitude is one of the traits that Shaw tries to promote as a chef. The culinary field is challenging and keeping morale high is important for the chef. Shaw takes his job seriously but wants to be able to walk out of work at the end of the day and feel eager to return the next day.
Allowing cooks the freedom to bring their own ideas to the table is another important factor that Shaw tries to emphasize. He says, “I don’t want to steal their ideas but it’s important for them to evolve and feel like they’ve contributed to the menu. Sometimes the ideas aren’t technique or recipe related, they could be organizational or even how much of something we should order.”
Passing on his culinary knowledge is also of importance to Shaw. He wants to pass on the knowledge that other chefs took the time to pass on to him. He explains that in many ways the kitchen is like a university for cooks. Shaw feels that he’s furthering their culinary education by passing on what he knows to the next generation.
When Shaw has to hire cooks, he’s looking for well-presented people who work cleanly, are team players and show enthusiasm for what’s going on in the kitchen. Age and gender are much less important to Shaw than the work ethic and drive of his cooks. He explains, “You can teach a lot of things in terms of skills so sometimes it’s better to take someone just out of culinary school and break them in rather than trying to break more experienced people of bad habits.”
Inspiration can come in many forms for Shaw. He enjoys visiting farmer’s markets with his family on the weekends, perusing his extensive collection of cookbooks and reading through culinary magazines and websites to stay up to date on culinary happenings.
Dining out is another great source of inspiration for the chef. He says, “It’s a way of seeing what cool stuff people are doing with the same ingredients that I’ve got. It’s like, ‘How did they do that?’ I don’t steal their ideas but it’s good to know that we haven’t exhausted every option, there’s still a lot out there!”
This interview with Chef Ron Shaw was conducted via telephone and recorded on Sept. 3, 2015.