By Catherine Dunwoody
Locally born and raised, Chef Alistair Veen worked his way up from dishwasher to Red Seal chef. To get to where he is now at Tap Restaurant in Surrey, BC, his message is simple and humble: It’s about hard work.
Where were you born?
Alistair Veen: I was born in Langley, BC, many, many moons ago. The rest of my family still lives there.
What was food like in your growing up household?
Veen: Both my parents worked, so dinner was a lot more function than form. They shared cooking responsibilities, which was pretty unique among my friends. My dad was a make-up-your-own-pasta kind of chef where my mum was more of a cookbook test kitchen. She had recipe cards that were tried tested and true, and she never deviated from them. Once she found a recipe she liked, she stuck with it, and there’s something to be said for consistency! Even now if I go to their place for dinner and I have a chicken cacciatore, I know that it will be the same one I had as a teenager.
Where did you study culinary and when?
Veen: I started washing dishes at the local pub when I was 15. I liked that they served me a beer after my shift despite my age. There was a real sense of teamwork and you saw the big picture for how a brigade works. I started cooking full time in 2000 after a failed stint at UBC and finished my culinary Red Seal seven years later. My formal training was through the apprenticeship program at VCC [Vancouver Community College] but the real training came in the trenches of a half dozen restaurants throughout Vancouver.
Most rewarding experience in your earlier days? Any mentors?
Veen: The most important figure in my culinary life is Thomas Keller. I used to sleep with a copy of the French Laundry Cookbook under my pillow. Although lots of chefs have contributed to where I am now, he is undoubtedly the most important. I have eaten at his restaurants before but never met the man. It is only a matter of time.
Are you involved with any new projects or collaborations at the restaurant or elsewhere?
Veen: I don’t have any new projects currently, but I am open to something where there is a strong partnership. I don’t think I would ever go it alone on a restaurant, and it seems unbelievable to me that my current partner and I have made it as far as we have. Most of the classes I teach, believe it or not, have to do with wine more than food. I am an advanced sommelier with the court of masters, and I am eligible to write the Master Somm Diploma next July. That exam looms heavily over everything I do right now and I don’t think it leaves much time for anything besides family, work and study. There’s no way I could possibly start a new project until that’s finished.
Tell me about your favourite dishes at Tap?
Veen: We have a signature style that focuses on skill and simplicity and it is on display with every part of our cuisine. We have some consistent preparations; for instance, we will always serve a roasted rack of lamb, we will always confit a duck leg and there will always be a butter poached lobster. The accompaniments or flavour profiles will change frequently, but the core techniques stay the same. I would confidently put our confit duck leg against the best in the world.
What style of cuisine do you serve at the restaurant?
Veen: Contemporary. French fundamentals. And then who knows what we call it from there. Pacific North West? I try not to describe it as anything other than contemporary since once you say something, people often have different expectations. One thing I can tell you we are not is fine dining. I hate it when people say we are a fine dining restaurant. I want to be able to execute at a fine dining level of detail for sure, but there are a lot of unnecessary expectations out there once you label yourself as fine dining. We want to put our efforts into our brand of hospitality, not into ironing tablecloths every day and passing around silver trays with silver gravy boats.
What were your biggest challenges as a chef?
Veen: Any chef struggles with their identity. Once you find your style, you are able to decide what interests you and what you can ignore. I know that I continue to learn and that is important to me, but there are a lot of cuisines out there that I am simply not interested in pursuing. I just want to make really great food that may surprise you, but won’t leave anything to the imagination. My current struggle is always hiring. It is difficult to hire people from other restaurants, but that is where the best people already are. We hire out of culinary schools and by word of mouth. Our staff have always been trained at a super-high level of expectations so they are very difficult to replace.
Any advice for young people who aspire to be chefs or restaurateurs?
Veen: Stop watching the Food Network and go out there and work. Then go out to great restaurants and eat the food. A lot of people fall in love with this romantic idea of being a cook and that is crazy to me. That’s like falling in love with the idea of being an elevator technician. You aren’t going to get better at something without putting in the hours and figuring out if you like it or not. So forget about getting hired as this brilliant armchair-home-cooking-celebrity-chef, It isn’t going to happen. You are going to have to wash dishes and learn fundamentals, and you are going to have to be really good at it. You can’t build a skyscraper without digging a really big hole first, so you had better be prepared to put in the time. That sounds a bit harsh but I think all the great chefs out there are nodding their heads in agreement.
101-15350 34th Avenue, Surrey BC