When it comes to Vancouver-based chefs, Rob Feenie certainly reigns supreme. The Burnaby native has been taking the culinary world by storm from a young age, opening the internationally celebrated Lumiere Tasting Bar when he was just 29 years old. In 2005 he became the first Canadian to ever win Iron Chef America when he bested Chef Masaharu Morimoto, and today he holds two Vancouver Gold Medal Plates awards, a Relais Gourmands label, and the Mobil Travel Guide four-star designation. And all this while concocting and creating the menu at the Cactus Club Café.
In anticipation of all the mouth-watering Asian, French and Italian dishes we expect to see from Feenie as one of the newly minted Iron Chefs on Iron Chef Canada, we caught up with the chef to get his take on Canadian cuisine, an unfortunate run-in with potatoes when he was younger, and his love of all things food.
Did you always want to be a chef?
No. I grew up in a large family in Burnaby and I was always interested in food, but like most Canadian kids I grew up in the hockey world. Being a chef wasn’t initially something I thought about but food was always a big part of my family.
Is that where your love of food began, with your family?
If you don’t include the fact that I almost burnt our house down when I was in Grade 7 while roasting potatoes, I guess we’re good with that. But yeah, I grew up in an Irish family and Sunday was a big night for us. My mom had a large family so I got an interest in cooking there. Then I was very fortunate to grow up with some Japanese neighbours of ours that were from Osaka. My love for Japanese food started at a young age. I definitely loved food but I wasn’t thinking about being a chef.
What happened with the potatoes?
I was getting ready for soccer practice and I put them on high and I left the oven on and I burnt my dad’s brand new kitchen. He had just redone it. I didn’t burn it down, but I smoked it out and burnt the new floor when I grabbed the pan and dropped it. I have never done that ever, ever again. I was only in Grade 7!
When did you realize that cooking could be your career?
I was very lucky because at the age of 16 I was an exchange student at the Rotary Club and I travelled to Sweden and I spent a year there. I had the opportunity to travel all through Europe —Denmark, Belgium, France, Italy, Switzerland, Austria and Germany. I developed this taste for everything—stuff like mussels and cheese and Bratwurst and pasta. When I flew back at 17 years old my mom even said that’s when I started to really love food.
Can you tell us about opening your first restaurant in Vancouver?
It was scary. It was a very exciting time. I had taken a break from cooking and Michel Jacob called my dad said, ‘Get him back down here, I see talent in him.’ A year later I opened my restaurant. It’s kind of ironic that I opened my restaurant after I was going through that time in my life; my dad was going to get me onto the fire department. But I took a real chance and Michel Jacob, who was my biggest mentor, pushed me towards getting it ready. I was 29 years old so I was really scared. We opened and the first night we did 80 people, it was a Thursday. And then Friday we did 80 people. Saturday we did 120. It was a crazy and very exciting time in my life and something I’ll never forget.
What’s your favourite dish to make and why?
Everyone probably thinks I’ll say ravioli and they are something I really like to make, but I would have to say chicken. I love a basic roast chicken. Whenever I see chicken on the menu I order it. It’s something I’ve always enjoyed. My kids love it, they ask for it. I’ve done versions of it in the restaurant. I just enjoy really well-roasted chicken.
What’s your favourite local ingredient?
That’s an easy one because they’re just coming out this time of year. They’re called matsutake or pine mushrooms. I love all kinds of mushrooms but it’s one of my favourite ingredients and there are a lot of reasons why. Most importantly it reminds me of when I really started to love food and that’s when my Japanese neighbours cooked with them. They’ve stuck on my palate. They’re grown right here in B.C.
Can you name a Canadian chef who inspires or excites you?
There are several because this country is full of great chefs. Michel Jacob is my mentor and someone who inspires me locally. Pino Posteraro owns a restaurant called Cioppino’s and we’ve been friends for over 20 years and he inspires me. Then I look across the country and Normand Laprise in Montreal, Anthony Walsh, John Horne—one of the guys I competed with—even though he’s very young I’m proud of what he’s been doing. Marc Thuet doesn’t cook anymore but he makes some of the greatest bread and is someone I admire a lot. Marc is one of the guys I look up to most. He’s an incredible chef.
How did it feel to bring an iconic series to Canada? What do you think makes it uniquely Canadian?
I’m very proud to be Canadian. I’ve always believed whatever country you look at, what makes a chef great is the raw ingredients. What’s wonderful about Canada—Lynn Crawford has showcased this a lot on her shows—is that we have a lot of great product and a lot of great chefs. What I’m proud of is we get to showcase great products. Whether it’s dairy, whether it’s cheese, meat, fish, that is what this country has always had. Now we’ve got all these great chefs that can showcase it. So I believe we can compete with any chefs around the world, including some of the ones on the American series.
You’ve previously competed back in 2005—what did your time in the Iron Chef America stadium taking on chef Morimoto teach you that you brought to the show?
Wayne Harris, who was one of my sous-chefs at Lumiere, is one of my main chefs here. I’ve been working with him for eight or nine years. He did the original Iron Chef America with me. I got to come back to do the show with Wayne. The great thing about having that relationship with Wayne is that we were able to go through our experiences there and talk about it. I remember we were in the second episode that filmed. Like any new show, the chef that was competing before didn’t finish all of his plates, he only finished two. So, we were unbelievably stressed. What I learned was it takes a lot of effort to do five dishes in one hour. The main focus going into Iron Chef Canada was to just make sure you plan your time accordingly to make sure you get the dishes right. When those cameras roll it really is a true hour. They don’t stop and re-roll. You’re either ready or you’re not.
How did you prepare for this competition as an Iron Chef?
It’s a tough one but in each of the shows, I didn’t know who the competitor was until I was on the floor. At the end of the day, you just have to know what you’re doing and stick to your plan. It’s about sticking to what you’re comfortable with and what you know.
Can you walk us through what happens when you find out the secret ingredient and your process for creating an Iron Chef Canada menu?
I panic. Most people, when they watch the show, they always think we’re capable of doing a lot of things, but what I try to do is to stick with the game plan of what we know. My repertoire is French, Japanese and Italian and then keeping it simple. As long as we stick with those three parameters I’m comfortable.
Is there any chef, living or not who you would love to take on in the Iron Chef Canada Kitchen Stadium?
Bobby Flay for sure. He is No. 1 on my list. I had a chance to meet him in New York while he was filming and I was in a battle with him not that long ago on one of his shows. I thought I won but I didn’t, so I would like to go up against him again. And then also just because we’re the same age, David Hawksworth. I’d like to take him down. Can I be any more honest than that?
If you could pick one secret ingredient for your fellow Iron Chefs, what would you choose?
Potatoes. There are a lot of great things you can do with potatoes. And not just potatoes, but potatoes, sweet potatoes and yams. There are a lot of really cool things you can do with them, especially the way people are eating these days.
What would you make?
There’s a dish in my first cookbook, I blanch a red potato in mushroom stock, but in the stock is a whole truffle. So the potatoes are porous and when you slowly cook the potato in the stock it tastes like a truffle. I’d do that and serve it with a very soft potato puree underneath and then shave more truffles on top of that.
Watch Iron Chef Canada Wednesdays at 10 PM E/P