I like Ubunutu Canteen a lot. I like the food, the room, and the people. It’s a comfortable, nourishing and honest place, and there is a lot going on behind the scenes and beneath the surface to make it that way.
Much of that starts with owner and Chef Dave Gunawan. Gunawan is committed to cooking with clean ingredients grown by people he knows, he doesn’t waste food, respects the environment and supports his staff and the larger community. The people around him also prioritize these things. This is a place that thrives on mutual respect, encourages the sharing of knowledge and fosters growth. The meaning of the word Ubuntu, after all, is “people are people through other people.” With Ubuntu Canteen, the name is a philosophy and an approach, not a brand.
As Gunawan explains:
“At Ubuntu, we encourage the chefs that work with us to speak and express what is inherently theirs through their thoughts and culture; to further expose themselves and tell their own version of their story through the food they cook. When we reconnect with ourselves and where we came from, we can connect with everything else around us. We can form friendships and communities that we direly need, especially during the pandemic. With these expressions, we find ways to translate food onto the plate together.”
Case in point: The current menu at Ubuntu at comes from long time team member Alvaro Montes De Oca.
Originally from Monterrey, Mexico, Montes De Oca moved to Canada in 2007 and settled in Vancouver. He worked at Zocalo Mexican Restaurant, then Hapa Izakaya, and spent a few seasons cooking at a fishing lodge in Haida Gwaii before he met Gunawan and started cooking at Grapes & Soda. When Gunawan sold Grapes & Soda and Farmers Apprentice in 2019, Montes De Oca moved with him to Ubuntu.
Montes De Oca introduced tamales onto the menu at Ubuntu during lockdown and, ever since then, they have been making a regular appearance. In fact, the reception was so good that, under his guidance and with Gunawan’s support, the kitchen opted to add more items, like tostadas with marinated celeriac, salsa macha and bean puree; salt baked potato with caramelized whey and huitlacoche; Achiote glazed squash with cashew crema; charcoal grilled pork and a 60 day dry-aged strip loin with chocolate mole.
I recently visited Montes De Oca at Ubuntu to talk about his background, the challenges of making traditional Mexican food using ingredients found in BC, and his experience of working in what appears to be a progressive and supportive kitchen. We covered some good ground in our discussion (full interview to come) but one of the things that impressed me most during our meeting was seeing this chef working with his team.
As Montes De Oca explained, “When you are cooking in a healthy work environment it is reflected in the food that you cook. Makes sense, no? Good energy, good food.”
Makes total sense.
If you feel safe and can swing it, I recommend making a point of getting yourself to Ubuntu over the next few weeks to try Montes De Oca’s menu. Dinner service: Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays 5pm – 10pm (happy hour 4-6pm). Good energy, good food.