The Making of an Indispensable GM, From Aussie Rules to Running Vancouver’s Top Restaurants

James Langford-Smith before service at the award-winning Kissa Tanto in Chinatown

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.

James Langford-Smith is a lucky man. He’s the boss of not one, but two of Vancouver’s most prominent restaurants, Kissa Tanto and Bao Bei, working with award-winning restaurateurs Tannis Ling, Joël Watanabe and Alain Chow. The Australian import recently relayed to Scout his love of hospitality and teamwork; how he ended up living in Montana of all places; and why Vancouver’s lack of cafe culture is an issue for him. Say hello to James…

So where are you from?

I grew up in Perth, Western Australia.

Why did you become a Restaurant Manager?

Probably my ego, I guess. Just kidding. My background is in construction. I started working in nightclubs and bars at a young age mostly just to make friends and meet girls. I had had dreams of being a professional football player (Aussie rules) but when I realized that dream wasn’t going to come true (due to a knee injury), I moved to Montana as an exchange student, where I lived in a town of 800 people on a cattle ranch. This experience inspired me to be a better person as I was bit of shit as a kid. After that, I moved back to Australia and took an apprenticeship as a bricklayer and then moved back to Montana where I eventually landed a job in a restaurant to make some extra money. From there I quickly fell in love with serving tables, selling wine and the whole experience of working in a restaurant. Eventually I worked my way up and they asked me to be the assistant manager. At that stage I was 19. Soon after I moved to California and worked as a manager down there, then it was up to Tofino for four years and now here in Vancouver for the past three.

Where did you learn? Do you have any formal training?

I’d say yes and no. My parents best friend’s owned a cafe back home. I started helping out there at the age of 12 and I would continue that periodically until the age of 19. My passion is in wine and I do have my ISG (International Sommelier Guild) certification. Otherwise, as most have come to before me, the majority of my training has come from on the job experiences.

Did you ever have ambitions to do anything else?

Footie Player was definitely the dream as a kid. I do still love construction and bricklaying. I’m a big fan of the arts and would definitely say there’s some sort of pull in that direction at times, but ultimately, hospitality has always found a way to draw me back in.

What was your first restaurant/bar job and how long did it last?

Coode Street Cafe in Perth. I started working there at the age 12. It was run by this guy name Terry who was good friends with my parents. I started by scraping plates, working the dish pit and buttering toast. A lot of my success I owe to Terry. He taught me a lot.

Ok, now name every restaurant/bar you’ve ever worked in.

Coode Street Cafe; Tony’s Pasta House (A real riot, Tony was great. Taught me a lot about life); That Little Mexican Place; Iza Asia in Montana; Blue Sky Bistro in California; Sobo in Tofino; Kissa Tanto and Bao Bei.

If you could work for a week in one Vancouver restaurant/bar, which one would it be?

Cafe Medina. I go there a lot. Jenna and Robbie have created something super special there. They retain their staff. They treat them well. It’s super busy which I really respect and I am in continued awe of their culture.

“Culture and team atmosphere are important to me. I’m so inspired by the great people I work with as they help make my job a lot easier than it could be. Honestly, I do very little, it’s them who make me look good.”

If you could work for a week in any restaurant/bar outside Vancouver, which one would it be?

I just went to Hong Kong via a layover from my trip home to Perth. I was given a list of options to check out from one of our cooks at Kissa who used to live there. He told me to check out this Dim Sum restaurant which blew me away. You walk up this flight of stairs into this big room which was so big and loud with the most amazing atmosphere. Big round tables. All locals. It was amazing to see how the staff was so happy and enjoying each other. I was mesmerized by the energy. The place is called Lin Heung Tea House. I highly recommend it. It has since helped re-energize my love of hospitality.

What is the single most important lesson you have learned from your current boss?

Attention to detail. Tannis, Alain or Joël expect a lot and each gets on me for different things, but ultimately we all have the same goal and I respect their commitment to maintaining the highest of standards. But yeah, attention to detail is certainly the biggest lesson I’ve taken from them.

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?

Does it need to make money? Probably a 12-20 seat wine bar that is portable. I’d love to do six months in Australia and six months in Canada. It wouldn’t be a brick and mortar type but more of a travelling concept.

What current restaurant trend are you already sick of?

The fact that there is no cafe culture here drives me insane. There are plenty of coffee shops but no cafe service. We’re missing the food program element. There’s very few places where you can find a full english breakfast and read the paper. I miss that.

Do you have any ambition to open a restaurant/bar of your own one day?

I think so. I feel pretty blessed for the opportunity I currently have so who knows where that could lead me. I do like the idea of possibly going into business with a small winemaker.

Are you big into cocktails?

I never used to be, but since I’ve been in Vancouver, I’ve slowly become one. My favourite cocktail currently is the Toronto.

What is your favourite type of wine, beer and spirit to drink?

I’m currently big into drinking Loire Valley wines. A nice Cab Franc is never a bad choice. I go through phases with beer, but I really enjoy a good dark lager, with Hoyne Dark Matter being a common go to. As for spirits, it can be difficult to resist a good Amari. Montenegro springs to mind.

What are your thoughts on the BC restaurant/bar industry?

Overall I think Vancouver is doing a great job. People really care about where their food comes from here. Locals and tourists rave about the food we serve in the city — not just at my restaurants but the greater community at large. But if there was one thing I wish we had more of it would be late-night eating. Getting food after 10pm can be rather difficult.

Name some of your favourite Vancouver restaurants?

St. Lawrence for sure. I’m good friends with Danielle McAlpine, their GM. Mamie Taylor’s, Savio Volpe, Cafe Medina, Uma Sushi and Tocodor are others I frequent often.

Where do you see yourself – career-wise – in five years?

Hopefully be engaged in another spot within this family. Running their restaurants. If I’m in Vancouver, I’ll only be with this team.

Name your all-time favourite three spirits.

Mezcal, vermouth and whisky.

Describe the different challenges you sometimes might face in trying to run both Bao Bei and Kissa Tanto?

The biggest challenge? Let me see. Well, right off the top, they’re completely different. At Bao Bei I’m so fortunate to have the opportunity to work with Peter Lucke (General Manager), Cassandra Mosher (AGM and Wine Director) and Jay Brown (Bar Manager). To have such a strong management team over there makes my job so much easier.

My biggest challenge really between the two I find is, making sure you can be present in both and patient. At the end of the day, Peter, Cass and Jay run Bao Bei. My job over there is mostly to lend support and be a fly on the wall. Kissa is my show. My staff there are the best, (Ronny Borkowski is my Restaurant Manager at KT) and they definitely make my life easier so that I can be available for both whenever needed. I’m only as good as the people who I work with and I’m very lucky to have two outstanding teams to lean on.

What’s your favourite Chef Joël Watanabe story?

Ah man, there’s so many. But if I had to settle on one, him talking about his mom and how she’s such an amazing lady and a really strong woman makes me smile every time. He has this story of some bikers on the street where he was growing up (he grew up in Ottawa) who were revving their bikes and being really noisy and essentially his mom went and told them what’s up. Like she walked down and wagged her finger and told them to pipe down. His mom is French-Canadian and his dad is Japanese but honestly any story about his mom warms my heart.

Got one for Tannis Ling?

Ha, we’ve definitely had some fun nights together. The enRoute awards in Toronto spring to mind as a wild weekend. We were out there with the guys from Savio and just being with her and the team, it really brought us close together.

If you could recommend just one hospitality book for any aspiring Restaurant Manager what would it be?

Easy. Setting the Table by Danny Meyer.

What’s the most rewarding thing about being a Manager these days?

Managing people and managing personalities. Culture and team atmosphere are so important to me. I’m so inspired by the great people I work with as they help make my job a lot easier than it could be. Honestly, I do very little, it’s them who make me look good.

You’ve just clocked out and you’re thirsty. Where are you going and what are you drinking?

Ha! Nowhere. Everything is shut in Vancouver. Ah, I take that back. The Keefer Bar is where you’ll most likely find me after a long shift. The black hole in Chinatown as some might call it. If I’m in the mood for a cocktail, I’ll have a mezcal negroni or I’ll have a Czechvar.

What’s the most enjoyable part of your job?

Managing people. Managing people and seeing their growth and my growth as a manager is my favourite part. Attitude reflects leadership. The attitude of the staff is a reflection of my leadership and so managing people and making sure they are excited for work is something I truly enjoy.

There are 4 comments

  1. A great interview! I learnt so much more about James. To be so humble when he is so essential is commendable!

  2. Congratulations James. Sounds like you have created a happy work place environment. A must in the hospitality industry. A good reflection of management skills.. Typh & Pam

  3. I have known James since back before he was legal to drink and running a tight ship at Blue Skye in California. I’m so proud to call him my friend and these restaurants are lucky to have him in their corner.

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