Chef Beja Cassiano was raised by her father, a high school culinary instructor, who was instrumental in her decision to take the culinary path. She and her father connected over food and cooking although he discouraged her from working in the culinary industry. She says, “He didn’t want me to go into the culinary world. He wanted me to go down the writing path but cooking was always in my back pocket. I got into photography for a bit and ended up thinking that, if nothing else, I could be a food writer. I went to culinary school and that’s how it all started.”
Young Chefs in Canada: Beja Cassiano, Calgary AB
Chef Beja Cassiano is a strong supporter of farm to table cooking, working closely with local producers and making as much as possible from scratch in the restaurant.
Chef Beja Cassiano
Although her father is her earliest and longest-standing culinary mentor, Cassiano was also strongly influenced by Chef Brian Newham at the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. She was working in the front of the house at the time but he inspired her to go down the professional culinary path.
Having female mentors has also been important to Cassiano in a male-dominated industry. She says, “When I worked in Italy, had a sous chef named Marinella who was an amazing chef. She was a strong female mentor and the kind of chef that I aspire to be one day.”
Her current approach to food is strongly focused around the farm-to-table movement and working closely with local producers. She says, “At the restaurant where I work, we bring in whole animals and break them down ourselves. I’m a little bit obsessive compulsive about everything being done in house. My approach is to go as far down the chain as I can.”
Creating dishes is a matter of taking elements from different parts of her culinary background for Cassiano. She was trained in the classical French style and she combines that with her Italian experiences and time spent in Southeast Asia. She says, “I like to use the traditional techniques from French and Italian cuisine with exciting flavour profiles of Southeast Asian food.”
Ingredient quality is a major consideration for Cassiano. She says, “Sometimes if farmers or suppliers can’t keep up with demand, you might get alower quality product from them. I try to remove myself from relationships when that happens because I want to do the best I can by the farmer’s products but to do that I need the best possible product from the farmer.”
She adds that for the most part she’s had good relationships with farmers in the Calgary area because they’re all on the same page about the factors that have to be considered.
The most inspirational moments for ingredient sourcing came during her time working in Italy. She points out, “We would have the farmers or the foragers come to the restaurant with whatever they had and we’d go through it and decide what we were going to take that day. It was my favourite because you never knew what was going to come through the door. The ingredients were absolutely insane!”
The traits that Cassiano feels a good chef should have include patience and a desire to learn. She says, “You can learn from the dishwasher, the salad guy or really anyone you’re working with but a lot of young chefs shoot themselves in the foot by thinking they know everything when we still have so much to learn.”
Another important trait from her perspective is adaptability. She explains, “In a kitchen anything can change at any moment. You need to be ready to respond to that change.”
As part of a kitchen team, Cassiano feels that respect between team members is crucial. She says, “It’s a high stress, fast paced and often quite verbally abusive environment so at the end of the day having respect for those you work with is the most important thing.”
She chuckles and adds, “Sometimes the ability to shut up and just put your head down is remarkably important.”
Molecular gastronomy becoming common has moved the culinary industry in a positive way for Cassiano. She sees people drawn into the culinary industry for different reasons and adds, “They might have gone to school for engineering or the sciences. Now they’re coming in and giving us perspectives that we never would have seen in this industry before.”
One area in which Cassiano would like to see improvement in the culinary world is the role of women in the kitchen. She points out that she’s often been the only woman in the kitchen in places where she’s worked. She says, “I feel that there’s a bit of a sense of, ‘Oh you can’t say that around her!’ I’d like to see that go extinct and for there to be the same level of respect for women. I’ve worked in sexist Italy and gone through that and I hope that the women after me don’t have to go through the same experience.”
Cassiano takes inspiration and motivation from as many sources as possible. She says, “Every season brings new ingredients. We just got fiddleheads into the restaurant last week so that has me thinking about lighter flavours and what I can do with them. I read almost constantly when I’m not at work. I just try to take little tidbits from a story or a recipe. My brother is the only one that didn’t become a professional cook but he’s a good cook, so I talk a lot about food with him.”
This profile is based on an interview conducted with Beja Cassiano and recorded on March 29, 2016.