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Photos: Evaan Kheraj Left:Andrey Durbach Right:Park Heffelfinger
Vanmag: How did you get your starts?
PARK HEFFELFINGER Memphis Blues Barbeque House: I managed Bridges in 1981, ’82, ’83. I moved from assistant bar manager to bistro manager to upstairs manager.
It wasn’t so much what was going on in the kitchen that was mentorship for me. It was the owner, George Frankel. He’s a marketing genius.
ANDREY DURBACH La Buca, Pied-à-Terre, Sardine Can: I worked at a place called Saltimbocca. It was the talk of the town in the early ’90s. I’ve never seen so much money coming in and I’ve never seen so much money going out. We might have done better to stand at the front door with a pocketful of toonies and just give them to people and say, “We’re going to lose this on you anyway. Why don’t you just have it and we’ll take it easy for the evening?” It was a formative experience.
VM: How else have you seen city dining evolve?
PH: Forget Chinese restaurants. Now we have Vietnamese, Thai, Cambodian, Malaysian. We always had Punjabi, but now there’s South Indian…so many different influences from Asia, plus the sophistication of European cuisines, regional Italian, really authentic and rustic. Spanish taking off like crazy-20, 30 years ago there was La Bodega and now look at all the little tapas places. But we’re still in the early stages.
AD: We said that 25 years ago! When are we going to not be in the early stages anymore? I think we use that as an excuse sometimes when things aren’t going our way.
PH: We’re still a frontier city. If you go to Italy, people spend gobs of money and everybody knows the names of all the food they’re eating. Even the kids!
AD: A six-year-old only knows as much about food as their parents teach them. Part of having a sophisticated and vibrant food culture is to work under the assumption that everybody eats everything. In Italy or Vietnam, people come in and say, “My six-year-old eats everything.” Not, “My six-year-old is on a special gluten-intolerant Paleo diet.” Food isn’t an enemy or an evil thing. People here just don’t care as much.
VM: Diners are very focused these days on what they can’t eat.
AD: Man is built to be omnivorous. The healthiest people eat everything in moderation. And people who step out sometimes and enjoy things in quantities a bit more than moderate are happy too. And live longer.
PH: Even at a casual place like Memphis Blues, there’s a lot more fish and chicken only, more no-gluten. But we’re not going to start serving whole wheat or quinoa or non-gluten bread. It just doesn’t make sense. Classically, barbecue comes between two slices of white bread-that’s how you pick up the meat.
AD: What I don’t get is the people who come into La Buca-it’s an Italian restaurant where we hand-make most of our pasta-and they go, “What are your gluten-free options for pasta tonight?” At some point you just go, “We have a lot of other stuff on the menu that you can eat in the way it’s conceived, the way it’s best enjoyed, and you pretend you’re having a real proper night out instead of yet another evening of managing your diet.” Most of us have trained a long time and we’re passionate. It’s our life’s work, what goes on the plates.
I really wish people would just appreciate what it is chefs are doing. When you go to the Vancouver Art Gallery, do you call the guy over and ask him to turn his painting upside down?
PH: Frankly, I don’t blame chefs who say, “This is my creation. If you can’t eat it, don’t come.” I don’t mean to sound disrespectful, but that behaviour is disrespectful.
AD: I don’t expect, like, a parade of respect. Just some notion of reality.
VM: What have you seen in your travels outside Vancouver that you’d like to see really take off here?
PH: There’s not a lot of inexpensive, very casual seafood places. There’s something wrong with it, that we can’t do that here.
AD: Partly, it’s the amount of money our seafood commands on the global market. For example, halibut-the quota has been cut every year for the last I don’t know how many years. If the quota is cut by 25 percent, the price goes up by 25 percent. More, because you start creating a luxury product.
PH: That’s why we migrate toward the Asian restaurants with their tanks, or T & T, where we can get pounds of it for really inexpensive. There are places in the States that are just tents where you grab jugs of beer, jugs of wine, and sit out at the picnic table and you start cracking and peeling and eating and throwing the shells and it’s great. That regular, average, everyday Joe food just doesn’t get done here.
AD: I was in Italy last year, Apulia, and if you want to see a parade of great seafood, oh my god-that southern Adriatic coast there, unreal. And it’s not cheap, right? But people go, “Well, this is the best. We’ll spend money on it.” You go Sunday afternoon for lunch and there’s families sitting around spending great big dobs on the best seafood. Here, it would be a risk for us. You’re buying this really expensive seafood and you’re sitting on it because people only want to pay $25. But it doesn’t cost that. Gold doesn’t cost the same as silver.
So you have a bunch of really passionate, committed restaurateurs who are passionate and committed about losing money. Well, that mentality is going to end. There’s a bunch of people, especially people who just opened or are in the process of opening, who are not going to make it. The business model here is impossible.
PH: It’s true. A lot of spots have faced their demise over the past couple of years.
AD: People are very quick to talk about things that are sustainable. Well, what about the economic viability and sustainability of quality?