THE NEW BREED | ‘St. Lawrence’ Chef Ashley Kurtz On Mangling Hands & Loving Old Diners

May 15, 2017.

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We often hear the same names of Vancouver hospitality titans in local media. They do very well to represent and have done so for years. We work up thirsts and appetites following their exploits and look forward to trying whatever it is they come up with next, but we seldom consider the individuals who toil in relative anonymity alongside them, and we’re often late in introducing those destined to join them in their starry pantheon. This series of short interviews looks to introduce our readers to this new breed, one blossoming talent at a time.

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by Jamie Mah | A native of Burnaby, Ashley’s foray into the world of culinary excellence started much the same way a lot of kitchen careers do, at a Cactus Club. From there – with some Red Seal training up at VCC – he would eventually end up working in Michelin-starred restaurants across the pond, where long shifts under exacting eyes would refine his skills and grow his appetite for excellence. Back in Vancouver, he and a few industry friends would launch a local chef’s collective called Elementa. With ten pop-up dinners now under their belts, Elementa has allowed the group – Ashley included – to experiment with fantasy menus and help wash away the boredom often associated with, as he puts it, the “banging of heads against the wall” realities of day-to-day restaurant cooking.

With all this accrued experience, the 32 year old has found himself a home under the mentorship of chef/restaurateur J.C. Poirier. With time spent at Ask For Luigi and now Gastown’s Pourhouse, Ashley – whose mother is of French-Canadian descent – will soon helm the kitchen at J.C.’s newest venture, the Quebec-inspired St. Lawrence in Railtown. Below is a bit of what he had to say about why he became a cook, who some of his mentors are, and why you might find him having late night pints up at the old Bayside Lounge. Say hello to…

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Why did you become a cook? I grew up playing team sports, so being part of a brigade I think is something that always worked for me.

Did you ever have ambitions of doing anything else? I wanted to be a professional hockey player until I was 18.

Where did you learn? Do you have any formal training? I completed the Red Seal program at Vancouver Community College, but I guess my real training started when I worked abroad. I think working long days in top notch kitchens is where a young cook is really tested; aside from technical skill, you gain an understanding for all the moving pieces that keep a restaurant going. It’s not always pretty; sometimes it’s dark; the salary is almost always shit but if you can work through that you come out of it a much better cook.

What was your first kitchen job and how long did it last? Cactus Club Café for about a year and a half, and I loved it. I met a few solid people that I still consider to be my best friends.

Okay, now name every kitchen you’ve ever worked in. Cactus Club Café, The William Tell, Delta Hotels, CinCin, Maze, Viajante, Wildebeest, In De Wulf, Savoury Chef, Perch, Ask For Luigi and Pourhouse.

If you could stage for a week in one Vancouver restaurant, which one would it be? Peaceful. I gotta figure out how to make those Dan Dan noodles!

If you could stage for a week in any restaurant outside Vancouver, which one would it be? L’Arpege in Paris. Alain Passard is the man.

Kitchen slang word at your restaurant that you’ve never heard anywhere else? “The landing”. It describes the garnish on a plate, as if the protein has taken on the miracle of flight and is fast approaching that cauliflower fucking tarmac.

Which local restaurant kitchen do you envy the most on account of its space, equipment, layout, et cetera? Cinara’s. It’s a well thought out and energy-efficient kitchen.

What is the single most important lesson you have learned from your current boss? Take the time to make sure something is right, test recipes until you find the best one and make sure it tastes good.

What word, cliché, or saying does your boss overuse the most during service? “Primo”.

Who have been some of your most impactful mentors? Leandro Carreira (Viajante). He is what cooks would refer to as a ‘slayer’. A great guy in and out of the kitchen. He leads by example and sets the standard high. You didn’t want to let him down. And he knows how to party. And Kobe Desramaults (In De Wulf). He is incredibly driven. He opened his own restaurant when he was 23, which went on to gain a Michelin star after the first two years of being open. He became a good friend and mentor.

Open kitchen or closed kitchen, which suits your personality best? Open. For me the more interaction you have with guests the better.

Describe the knife that you’re most sentimental about. Where did you get it? What’s the story? Knives are pretty utilitarian for me; I tend to only buy a knife when I need one. A good, mid-range Japanese carbon steel blade works for me.

Do you have any ambition to open a restaurant of your own one-day? Yes, but not too sure what it will be yet; could be a multi-course tasting menu kind of place, or a sandwich shop.

What is your favourite type of cuisine to cook? Indian. I love how spices develop in flavour the longer they are cooked. Flavour town.

What is your favourite type of cuisine to eat? Chinese or Japanese. Anything Asian, really.

What’s the one dreaded kitchen task that you’d be glad to staff out to someone else so you never have to do it again? Inventory.

Let’s say you had an unlimited budget to open the restaurant of your dreams. Really, the sky’s the limit. What would the concept be? I really like old diners; the horseshoe bar with swivel chairs, booth seating and linoleum countertops, the idea of making haute cuisine in that setting excites me.

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A local restaurant that is no longer around and you miss dearly? Wazzubee. When I was coming of age that was pretty much the only place in town that had a microbrew list before microbrews really took off. The music was always different. It wasn’t always what you were into, but the place always had a good energy.

What current food trend are you already sick of? Poke.

If money was no object and you had the night off, where would you take your kitchen co-workers for dinner tonight? Savio Volpe; great room great food.

What is Vancouver missing in terms of cuisine? Since we are such a young city, we don’t really have a culinary identity. The food scene here is more influenced by other cultures and local ingredients. Therefore we should use these ingredients to their full potential. For example, we live next to the largest ocean on the planet, yet it is difficult to find fresh fish with the exception of salmon, tuna, or halibut. People tend to be afraid of things they haven’t tried, and as a result there’s no market for the hundred or so other species of fish off our coast. That and decent kebabs.

Where do you see yourself?—?career-wise?—?in five years? Working towards opening something amazing with a couple of other like-minded people.

How did you last burn yourself? I don’t use tongs. I hate tongs and tweezers. I tend to cook with my hands a lot, so they are always pretty mangled.

In five words or less, explain why there are never enough cooks. Lack of work ethic.

Name your all-time favourite three ingredients. Salt, butter, vinegar.

What do you find yourself cooking the most at home? Pasta. It’s all my girlfriend ever wants to eat.

If you could recommend just one cookbook for any aspiring young chef, what would it be? The French Laundry cookbook. Reading it gives a young cook an honest perspective of what it’s like to work in fine dining.

What’s the most rewarding thing for you in the kitchen these days? Finishing a day with minimal hiccups and being proud of everything that left the kitchen.

You’ve just clocked out and you’re starving. Where are you going and what are you eating? Usually I don’t like to eat late, but if I’m feeling dandy I make the trip to Damso. The food’s great, and it’s a good excuse to head to the Bayside Lounge afterwards for a couple of stiff drinks before bed.

Outside of cooking, what are some of your other passions? Motorcycles, foraging, and hanging out with my amazing girlfriend.

If you take the next step and become an executive chef, what do you think is going to be the most challenging part of your job? I think finding a style of managing without being a total asshole. I can be condescending, but some people don’t react well to that. There needs to be a bit of fear at times; it helps give cooks that sense of urgency that is so important. That being said, I think most chefs go over to the dark side from time to time. It’s much easier to lash out at someone than it is to find a constructive resolution.

What about the most enjoyable part of the job? I love meeting new people and learning from them. Everyone has taken a completely different path in their careers and is filled with knowledge. To me that’s better than any cookbook you can buy.

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