PiDGiN‘s arrival in Gastown in 2013 was no soft landing but seven years later the French-Asian restaurant is finally beginning to feel at home on Carrall Street.
We recently caught up with the restaurant’s owner, Brandon Grossutti, and engaged him in a wide-ranging conversation on life in hospitality…
What was your relationship with food like growing up?
Short of some beautiful moments scattered infrequently, food for me as a child was one of sustenance. I grew up poor and unfortunately the food was never that good. I was raised by my step-grandmother who was an incredibly hard-working and selfless woman. Just getting food on the table was the priority. I didn’t really start to have love and respect for what it takes to make beautiful food until my teens working as a dishwasher and then cook.
What do you think is the most misunderstood aspect of running a restaurant?
It ain’t sexy. It’s a grind and you have to understand that. So what if you had an 18-hour day yesterday and only 6 hours of sleep rolling into service the next — someone chose your restaurant for their anniversary dinner, Sunday meal with family, or a birthday with friends so you’d better be on point. You must do your absolute best to make their decision choosing you over every other restaurant, the right decision. I love the high you get when you give someone a perfect experience. It is a bit of romance when everything you deliver is perfect for them at that moment. Everything you have learned – math, art, people skills, PR, leadership, motivation, fear, insecurity – all are pushed to their edge. You have to be a jack of all trades: plumber, somm, janitor, host, therapist, bar back and dishwasher. You must be good at each and sometimes, in the blur of service, several at the same time.
After so many years in the restaurant industry, how do you stay interested or excited about what you’re doing?
I feel like we’re just getting started. I think the city and our peers in the industry feel that too. Restaurants go through peaks and valleys [that are] dependent on the team you have, where your energy level is at, and the restaurant scene at large. Right now all those things are coming into alignment. We are blessed with amazing people and they are what have always made PiDGiN excel.
Our suppliers are killing it right now; it feels like this city and province are really doing amazing things. We get inspired by how much care goes into their products and, in turn, our ability to express those ingredients on the plate and in a glass.
We feel a responsibility and passion in pushing sake forward in Vancouver. It’s still in its infancy compared to other metropolitan cities and we think we have a significant role to play.
I get excited hosting people in an environment where the sole purpose is to create a connection through breaking bread and communicating face to face. Opportunities for real interaction are in short supply these days.
What is your most memorable dining experience so far?
A hole in the wall trattoria outside Venice on the island of Burano, with my wife. Our waiter was Italian and his wife was Scottish, so his Scottish-Italian accent was one of the strangest I’ve encountered. We ate for 5 hours, paired all the way through. Throughout our trip I’d been holding onto an engagement ring waiting for the right moment. That night, my now wife agreed to marry me. I’ve had more amazing meals from a food, service, or beverage perspective, but sometimes it’s the moment. It was perfect. I’ll never forget it.
“The one thing I wanted out of such a divisive debate was a better outcome for those whose lives depended on it. Thoughtful action through constructive dialogue. Unfortunately that’s not what happened.”
When Pidgin opened in 2013 it experienced some backlash from anti-gentrification advocates and residents of the Downtown Eastside. How did you deal with an experience like that, and what enduring lessons or impact did that early response have on you and your restaurant?
It broke me, personally. I’m not the same person after it. If it weren’t for my wife, kids and the people working with PiDGiN at the time, all supporting and moving in the same direction, and the weight of that responsibility, I wouldn’t have made it through. There were threats to myself, my family, vandalism to the restaurant, constant slanderous articles, a barrage of conflict every day when it was a struggle just to get ready for service; all of it was overwhelming and, in retrospect, a complete blur. All the while, the restaurant and the things we were trying to convey to the dining public were getting lost and the critics of the day didn’t really get us. We weren’t a restaurant anymore, we were a political statement not of our making or choosing. At the time of opening my wife was 8 ½ months pregnant and we had a newborn throughout most of the protest, which lasted 9 months. As any parent knows, it’s rough. Add all that in and I was broken, as was my incredibly patient and resilient wife. We sunk everything we had into this and it looked like it was all going to disappear.
Conversely we found our family in the supportive hospitality industry, friends, neighbourhood residents, and independent restaurants, small shops and bars in the hood who came out and supported us through hell. In many ways they kept the lights on. I can never properly express my gratitude for those who came out and endured something as simple as walking through a door of a restaurant. You all know who you are and I love you.
The one thing I wanted out of such a divisive debate was a better outcome for those whose lives depended on it. Thoughtful action through constructive dialogue. Unfortunately that’s not what happened. The lines drawn were black and white, and in order to create long standing policies that help vulnerable people on the ground we require a shit-tonne of ‘grey’, compromise and compassion. We hope for a better future and for policymakers to make these issues a priority above all else.
The lesson I’ve learned through it all is to be more patient and realize that this game is not a sprint: if you want to truly be content, it’s an ultramarathon, of which we are only a fraction of the way through. We are just recovering to where we hoped to have been in year one. Many other restaurants in the neighbourhood opened before and since were not placed under the same scrutiny and thrived unhindered. In our case we divided the city and, as a result, our ability to succeed, by losing half of our potential patrons. The way the protest was framed via the advocacy groups and media, to an extent, was: if you were for their arguments, you were against PiDGiN and vice versa. Whereas, many of the values and viewpoints expressed by the protest groups were shared by myself and our restaurant philosophy. That said, those parallels were drowned out via the narrative built by forces outside our control.
How is PiDGiN engaging with the DTES today, and how do you think Vancouver restaurants in general can be better at contributing to community building?
We engage everyday through various non-profit and advocacy groups in the neighbourhood, the people on the street, and with the low barrier employment we offer in the roles we can. We work to support just about every business we possibly can in the neighbourhood, especially those that are struggling. Engagement on a grassroots level is painfully slow and incremental when the problems are so vast. As a society we need to continually hold those in power accountable and start calling them out with specific asks. If we don’t, things won’t get better. I try to spend my efforts there, raising awareness, supporting positions in policy that assist people and doing my best to push for better outcomes. Restaurants in general can take a more active role in supporting local everything, because we all feed one another. If we don’t support each other, we don’t survive collectively. We need to get connected to every product or service we can purchase from our neighbour to lift each other up.
Many people associate the DTES with addiction, crime, poverty and sadness, but it can also be a place of beauty, compassion and community. What is the most beautiful thing you’ve seen on the DTES over the past year?
I can harp on the bad things, the sad things we see, the failing of society as whole and its ugly reflection of inaction and complacency, but I try to look at the beauty everywhere: the resilience of people that have nothing, yet give everything for those that need it more than them.
The most beautiful thing in recent memory happened just a few weeks ago. A woman in her early twenties threw down a monitor style speaker, connected a mic and ripped out a few songs in Pigeon Park in front of the Survivors Totem Pole. She had an amazing voice and, in her own words, was “here to work some stuff out”. Watching the neighbourhood all come out from their respective corners, alleys and restaurants, and just watching something beautiful at 1am on the Tuesday after Christmas – it was perfect, if only for a few minutes.
Tell us about your relationship to art. What first inspired you to make the connection between art and food, and why is it so important to you to have local art/artists featured in the concept at PiDGiN?
I know little about art. I appreciate and respect it, but am not as educated as I would like to be. That said I do see parallels in our industries: I see the hardship and difficulty to stand out and succeed in the arts in a city that is putting constant economic pressure on your ability to be creative. Our goal in creating these collaborations was to highlight local artists that are doing amazing work and maybe give them a new angle in which to be viewed, via food collaboration with our chef or a different group of people seeing their work.
Besides visual art, what other sort of unexpected or unusual cultural intersections with food would you like to explore in the future?
We are refocusing in the spring. Our goal is to connect deeper with our local suppliers. Connection and understanding that economic, artistic, and cultural expression are in short supply when we are under such economic constraints. We need to be active in creating a sustainable culture of long term economic prosperity that supports one another. An independent restaurant that supports a local brewery, winery, potter, butcher, farmer, fisher, forager, artist, designer, etc. We are all connected in a city this small: we must push to lift each other up with everything we can.
Imagine a rare occasion in your busy life when you’re given the opportunity for a moment of quiet time to yourself: how do you spend it?
Nowadays it’s going to a local restaurant or cafe that isn’t killing it and should be. Support good people doing good things, get inspired, and mentor/learn.
What is your favourite meal to make for yourself at home?
Things that I can do with my kids on my rare days off. Right now my oldest is obsessed with making fresh pasta. Fast and simple. My 3- and 6-year-old make it for the family from scratch every Sunday. Minimum 2 sauces, served by 6:30pm.
One lesson you’ve learned from your experience in the restaurant industry that you use in your role as a parent?
Time management. Make every moment count at work and at home. You only have so many hours in this life. Try to find balance, appreciate and take advantage of the time you have. You will always be pulled in countless directions and feel like you’re failing. Meet in the middle and appreciate where it lies. Strive to be better but don’t beat yourself up when the pendulum swings too far in any one direction.
You’ve logged a lot of hours at the gym over the past year (and have a history of being in the boxing ring). What is one lesson you have learned from working out that crosses over into your business practice?
Someone is always tougher, stronger, smarter. What makes you succeed is the time you put in to overcome your shortcomings. No matter what, surround yourself with people that are better than you and push you to excel, especially in those areas you need to work on.
PiDGiN has only gotten better with time, and yet we feel it still doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Can you name three local restaurants that similarly don’t get their due?
Thank you for that. Ugly Dumpling, Dosanko, Dachi and every single mom and pop shop family business in the city that isn’t social media friendly or cool. In a time when people are worried about COVID-19, get out to Richmond and support. Our peers in Chinese restaurants are down as much as 80% and they may not make it another month without support from the entire Lower Mainland. There are countless more; it’s a tough gig in a tough city where chains and insane costs grind us all away.
10 days off with no interruptions. Where would you go and what would you do?
The Sahara — black and white desert, to take stock.