On the Plate: Trevor Bird's farm-to-table Fable
As regular readers may remember (and food wonks/lovers most probably are still lamenting), Refuel shut its doors at 1944 West 4th a month and a half ago. I’m still a little sore, but there are two silver linings assuaging the loss. First, the restaurant’s former chef, Ted Anderson, together with the owners, Tom Doughty and Robert Belcham, have banded together and opened another eatery, The Fat Dragon (the Chinese BBQ joint on the DTES that I reviewed positively a couple of weeks ago). Second, the address will very soon welcome another restaurant, the first from Trevor Bird, who is a competitor on the current season of the Food Network show Top Chef Canada.
If all goes well, it should open the day after this goes to print. As Bird tells it, his restaurant won’t be that much of a departure from what he and a co-competitor came up with for the show’s “restaurant wars” episode. Tasked with nailing a restaurant brand and theme for the judges, the pair decided on a farm-to-table concept called “Fable”.
The focus will be updated versions of the comfort foods that many of us grew up with. Think pulled pork pogos with house-made mustard, “exploding meatballs” (a Top Chef Canada dish), fried chicken, potato skins with smoked bacon and Golden Ears cheddar, et cetera. The former Shangri-La chef de partie promises lots of vegetarian dishes, too, quoting food philosopher Michael Pollan’s dictum of “Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.” That he’ll be leaning on local, organic and sustainable suppliers goes without saying. When asked which local restaurant he’d liken Fable to, the former Montrealer singled out Kitsilano’s Oakwood Canadian Bistro, where they give old-school Canadiana modern twists. “I love what they’re doing there,” he says.
Though still very much a construction site during my walk-through last week, the 62-seat room had nevertheless undergone a remarkable transformation. The old, weirdly wiry centerpiece chandelier was down and soon to be replaced by another made of mason jars. The dining room was wrapped in brick veneer, and dividing the brick into sections were wooden panels salvaged from the defunct Cecil strip club. The dark, wooden chairs were recently bought at auction, but Refuel customers will recognise the tables (now with a burnt treatment for added rusticity) and the bar top/kitchen pass as original. The walls that haven’t been clad in brick have been given a thick lick of burgundy paint, except for the feature wall at the rear of the dining room, which will retain its chalk farm drawing and three light box picture frames (albeit with new pictures within). Two wooden cabinets, one at the front and rear, will hold canned preserves and wines respectively, and small wagon wheels will be hung in the front window, from which Bird will decoratively string freshly made pastas and such. For staff uniforms, I overheard mention of jeans and plaid shirts (no word on whether they’ll be required to chew on straw, too).
The room’s turnaround has been as quick as Bird’s rise, though both haven’t come without drama. To many in the trade, the 28-year-old came across as a bit of a rookie in a recent press interview that had him complaining of how slow his career was advancing in Vancouver. “This city’s been just so hard to make it in,“ he said, adding how it was “insane” and “ridiculous” that he was still just a line cook after three years of living here. He then ruffled not a few more industry feathers by publicly embarrassing the exiting cooks of Refuel for not leaving behind a pristine workplace. In a blog post on his personal website (TrevorBird.com), he wrote of how he would be embarrassed to work “in a such a dirty open kitchen,” and then went on to “call out” his predecessors for their lack of kitchen pride. This hasn’t gone over well. A line cook calling out chefs Robert Belcham and Jane Cornborough is a little like Cody Hodgson complaining to the Sedins that they don’t pass enough.
But never mind that. Personally, I’ve always seen arrogance and ambition as indicators of good health in a chef. I’ve certainly known many who’ve been burdened with substantial egos, but seldom have I ever tasted cause to doubt their self-assuredness. In this instance — because I’ve neither tasted a bite of Bird’s food nor watched a single episode of Top Chef Canada — I’m completely in the dark. I’m told he has plenty of game by people I trust, so I have faith that he’s the real deal. To date, he has survived elimination on the program, and that’s a good sign, as is the fact that he’s opening a restaurant.
Though he can’t tell anyone whether he has won the title of Top Chef Canada, the move is a bit of a giveaway (Dale Mackay won last year, and he’s since opened two successful restaurants in prohibitively expensive downtown). It’s a very rare thing indeed to find a chef de partie opening a high-rent restaurant without any executive experience, and rarer still to find one with willing business partners (which Bird has). They all must be aware of the stakes. The location has a nasty habit of spitting out restaurants, so if Bird doesn’t win, his talent, such as it is, might not be enough to pack diners in. It certainly wasn’t enough for the crew at Refuel, and they were drenched in critical praise.
If, however, he does win, the notoriety should give him a good cushion upon which to rest, and I trust the $100,000 in prize money won’t hurt. Either way, Kitsilano (and Vancouver in general) could always use new efforts from hungry, first time independents, so despite not caring for cable, I’ll definitely be rooting for the guy.