Chef of the Year 2009

IT’S often said open kitchens work against cooks, the presence of customers distracting rather than inspiring. At Fuel’s front-row kitchen bar, co-owner and executive chef Robert Belcham artfully turned that myth around. There, in full view, he thrives.

“I love everything about this chef,” a fellow judge confided, describing Belcham’s food as “some of the best this city has seen.” And some of the most interesting, too, with straightforward, unapologetic presentations of “the nasty bits”—brain, cheek, jowl, offal, bacon, loin, and cured whole leg, each sourced from the same pig and all plated during the same service. If it’s hard to imagine this champion of lardo and foie gras training at a vegetarian restaurant before taking up residence at False Creek’s sustainable-seafood-savvy C Restaurant and then opening his own room, it’s impossible to forget him dutifully doing bemused, stoic battle with vegan protesters during the dinner rush. “Fuel’s charm and ingredients of choice are entirely authentic,” a food writer pointed out. Our Chef of the Year shares in that authenticity. Witness his Everyman turn with buttermilk-fried chicken next to biscuits smothered in gravy. Protest that!

Called “Vancouver’s practitioner of nose-to-tail eating,” Belcham, in his mid-30s, personifies the ascendancy of a new generation of Vancouver cooks. A giant of a man, colourfully tattooed and blessed with the quiet confidence that comes with studied ability, he’s earned the respect of his peers who applaud his knife skills, his affinity for local ingredients, and his unfailingly jovial manner on the line.

In December, Belcham and his partners opened a second restaurant, the Italian-themed Campagnolo, to critical acclaim. He’s a chef’s chef, “a total food dork” as one judge wrote, the kind who eschews ego in favour of mentoring and opts for honesty at the expense of pretence. His enthusiasm for his tough craft is exceeded only by the strength of character required to survive it. For that, and for the mark he’s making on the city’s food scene, we congratulate him.