Look at any Vancouver restaurant critic's 2013 year end highlights and you'll find the Farmer's Apprentice front and centre. Chef David Gunawan and his partner Dara Young are creating daily-changing menus with (as the name suggests) a farmer-driven sensibility. In the first of a two-part interview, David talks with Eater about philosophy, benign dictatorships and leaving Wildebeest at the height of its newly-opened success.
[Photo via Andrew Querner]
When people talk to me about your restaurant, aside from raving about the food, there's an idea that the sensibility of the kitchen is radically different, why is that?
I think that it's a chef's kitchen; it's a chef's restaurant, it's a restaurant based on fundamental philosophy of what the kitchen can do. Intellectually it's a very different kitchen, with a more democratic view on things,
What do you mean?
Every cook will have a different perspective, they all have a different background and experience. I think it's important for us to work together within the parameter of our philosophy - which is all about the integrity of the produce, the integrity of the suppliers. We work very hard to obtain ingredients that we think are suitable for this kitchen based on sustainability, the principals of agriculture, on fishing techniques... I know the word sustainable is over-used and exploited but we really believe in the future of food security. I think we forget sometimes where our food comes from; here we know where the food comes from here, so there's a greater respect for the ingredients. With that perspective we're able to pay more focus on our produce, there is a reverence to that.
Usually kitchens tend to run on a pyramid down kind of pecking order - what shape of yours?
More a circular environment - we have a parameter that we follow based on the rules of our philosophy which drives us.
So you take input from everyone?
Food is subjective - we're able to be more creative because we're forced into this hole from our philosophy - using only what's available in this region and in this season. The ability to trust our farmers more, using what's fresh this week - we don't know; we're not out in the field, we're not growing the vegetables, we don't know what the conditions are right now. What we've done is let them dictate what comes, rather than us requesting what is delivered.
So you have daily meetings to plan menus once the food arrives? You're running a little co-op here.
Well, it's based on many things - what's the weather like? A sense of relevance, weather, emotions - everything. We eat according to our environment; on a rainy day, people want soup and stew, but of course, we don't do a conventional soup and stew, we do a twist on that, our own creative version, but the fundamental goal is to make them feel warmed and welcome. I think when people get here, they sense that time and place, that relevance, emotionally they should be satisfied - that's very important.
What's the timetable of things happening in the kitchen?
Deliveries come every day - right now it's maybe just 11 farmers, in the summer it's about 30. The night before we'll talk about what to do the next day but it's a constant process, our brains are going at 100 miles an hour, what's coming, what do we have?
Is it really a democracy or a benign dictatorship?
Everything has to have my approval - it is a benign dictatorship - but there needs to be leadership in every society.
Your circle is no longer a circle!
It is! we comply by the same philosophy, say someone wants to use a mango and I put my thumb on that and say no, mango is not available here locally. We're trying but we're not there yet. We're still striving for that.
Do you want to be 100% BC?
If possible. I don't think everything here is perfect yet - we need to promote people who can produce at the same standard as, say, in Europe. It's a matter of finding the skill, dedication and passion in suppliers. Right now the demand is lacking which is why there's no supply. People are not willing to pay. I go to a farmer's market and see people with a $4.50 coffee and they're not willing to pay $3 for a bunch of kale. Where is the justice in that? People are complaining about costs of an organic apple but they're willing to pay $200 for a Canucks ticket. What are our priorities here?
I have to ask, why did you leave Wildebeest so soon? (Gunawan left after five months).
It's a meat-centric restaurant, my love of vegetables and seafood has always been there and I really wanted to diversify my cooking. I'd go through, like 900lbs meat a week! It's a lot. I didn't want to be constricted by a theme, per se. I wanted to be able to do what I wanted to do. I think I'm at a level of professionalism where I should be doing what I want to do, so, yeah...
It was a shock to me that someone would walk away from such a success.
Yeah. I think the opportunity to open something of your own without having a boss over your head looming all the time is liberating. Here we don't go through any board of directors, it's just me and my boys and my girlfriend, of course, Dara.