CHEF C'HAT – FELIX ZHOU
Chef Kanthi gets into Big Trouble in Vancouver with executive chef Felix Zhou
(Photos: Julia Claxton)
May 2015, Terre à Terre, Brighton
Earlier this year I received an invitation from the Brighton and Hove Food & Drink Festival to attend one of their International Chef Exchange events. A 27-year-old chef from Vancouver called Felix Zhou was taking over the kitchen of one of my favourite restaurants, Terre à Terre in Brighton, and delivering a seven-course vegetarian menu of his own. As a chef who loves vegetables as much as meat, I was curious to see what would come out of the kitchen that evening.
The moment the first course was placed on the table, the whole dining hall fell silent. The presentation of the dish was so beautiful that people were too wrapped up in taking photos to eat it, at least for a while. It was the same story with the next course, and the next. Colours, flavours, textures… all in perfect balance. Each dish played with the senses – totally different to the previous one yet laying a clear path to the next. Without doubt this was the best vegetarian meal I’ve ever eaten, I recall thinking at the time.
When the Vancouver chef exchange team came to eat at Curry Leaf Cafe the next evening, I had the chance to tell him so. At the end of the meal Felix and I promised to keep in touch by email and social media.
August 2015, Big Trouble restaurant, Vancouver
Fast forward a few months and it was my turn to visit his restaurant Big Trouble in Vancouver, Canada. When I turned up at the restaurant for a bite to eat and a chat, I was shocked to find him preparing food in a 2-foot by 2-foot space at the end of the bar. Was this really his kitchen, I asked? Apparently so.
As I ate the ten-course meal he prepared from that tiny working space – each dish better than the last – I promised never again to moan about my kitchen at Curry Leaf Cafe being too small. I also decided there and then that he’d be the perfect person to feature on my Chef’s C’hat blog page. He agreed to show me round Granville Island Market and talk to me over lunch at one of his favourite Chinese restaurants, Shao Lin Noodles…
Kanthi Thamma: Tell me a little bit about your childhood and family background?
Felix Zhou: I come from Hunan province in China, which has a great culinary history dating back thousands of years. I lived there till I was ten and then migrated to Canada with my mom. I can still remember all the amazing food I ate as a small child.
Who inspired your love of food?
My grandmother – she’s a very strong lady. She taught me how important it is to cook fresh food everyday and to make the most of every scrap. Nothing was wasted in her kitchen, and I apply the same techniques at Big Trouble. I learned so many important things from her, not just about food but life in general.
Is she the one who made you want to become a chef?
I never wanted to be a chef. My dream was actually to become a car mechanic. To pass out of high school here in British Columbia you need a certain number of credits, and by the time I came to final year I’d earned enough to take half the year off. My mom told me to get out of the house and find something to do in school. Buy then the only course still available was cookery. I signed up but wasn’t at all excited about it.
I’ve always loved eating, and found it was fun being around all those ingredients. I volunteered at the school canteen and ended up with a scholarship to go to Vancouver Community College to study Culinary Sciences. That was a crossroads for me. Should I go for automobile engineering or culinary school? The scholarship was already in place, so in the end it was an easy decision.
Where did you get your first break?
After graduating I was offered a two-week apprenticeship at the renowned West Restaurant in Vancouver. After the apprenticeship the head chef David Hawksworth – then Canada’s most famous chef – asked if I’d like a job as a commis. That time with him laid the foundations of my fine dining style of cooking.
Eventually David left West to open up his own restaurant and was replaced by Chef Warren Geraghty, who was executive head chef at Galvins in Vancouver at the time. I was just 18 at that point, but he said that if I could handle working for him for a year then he’d send me to London to work at Galvin. Chef Warren made me what I am today. I still seek his opinion before I making any career decisions.
So, a year later you packed your bags and moved to London?
It took a bit longer than that in the end – two and a half years. Apart from meeting my wife Lisa, moving to London is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. Shortly after arriving I had the chance to cook at Roganic with chef Simon Rogan, one of the UK’s most accomplished chefs, before taking the job at Galvins under chef Warren. I didn’t get much time to enjoy the London social life while I was there, but I learned a lot about life, respect and communication.
What brought you back to Vancouver?
My VISA expired. When I returned I felt a bit like a stranger to be honest. I joined Hard Rock Casino for a while, then moved to the beautiful Nita Lake Lodge in the Whistler Mountains where my friend had taken over as head chef. I enjoyed the experience but was on the lookout for something more challenging. That’s when Big Trouble – then called The Parker – offered me the job of head chef.
That kitchen has to be the smallest kitchen I’ve ever seen
Yes, planning the menu there was – and still is – a big challenge given the space restrictions and limited amount of equipment I have at my disposal. But I loved the idea of taking on a meat-free menu with a zero wastage policy; every single thing in there is made from recycled material, even the toilet paper.
What do you look for when planning your menu?
Seasonal produce, especially when it comes to fish and vegetables. I follow the rule of taking a classic recipe and tweaking it to my personal tastes. I think it’s important to be honest about where and from whom you got your inspiration.
I’m with you on that. Your aubergine-stuffed dumplings in Thai curry sauce with pine nuts is definitely something I’ll be taking inspiration from. Changing the subject, is your wife Lisa in the catering business?
I met her at cookery school, where she was studying front-of-house management. That’s her career now. She’s very much the head chef at home though, and likes sending me photos of what we’re eating for dinner while I’m at a work. She often makes Hunanese dishes that she’s learned from my mother and given her own little twist.
What do you do when you’re not cooking?
London taught me a lot about beer, so I like to relax on my day off with some good craft beers – especially in summer when you can hang out in the garden with friends and my dog, preferably over the BBQ. The city also left me with an addiction to Indian food. And I have to say that the curry I ate at your restaurant is the best I’ve ever had. I love how you balance the spices in your dishes. Keep up the good work, chef.