My name is Rhys Amber and I am a cook. I’ve been involved in the hospitality scene in Vancouver for over a decade. I cut my teeth behind the lines and in front of the stoves of many kitchens in this city. My days of working in a restaurant are done, but hanging up my apron does not mean that my love of the craft is done as well. This Scout series is an opportunity to explore the restaurant experience from a whole new vantage point: as a writer. Today, I speak with Chef Devon Latte of The Acorn…
Chef Latte is the archetype of a modern chef worth aspiring to: an incredibly down-to-earth person dedicated to embracing change in the restaurant industry, both on the plate and in the kitchen. Although Latte made his way up by working in kitchens run with iron-fisted mentalities, he has somehow managed to develop an aura of equanimity – an attitude that most certainly contributes to a better working environment for those logging hours in his kitchen.
Equanimity didn’t come cheap. Latte has dealt with the hardships ubiquitous to the job and lived through the inevitable burnout brought about by a combination of low pay, long hours and a centuries-old brigade system known for passing down toxic behaviour, only to emerge with a positive outlook for the future of hospitality.
Now at the helm of the kitchen at The Acorn, Latte and his crew proudly deliver a hyper-local menu with a depth of flavour bold enough to scoff in the face of those who wouldn’t dare visit a vegetarian establishment for a big night out. This guy is the real deal and without a doubt a member of the vanguard pushing ahead for a better future in the restaurant industry. I sat down with “Dev” a few weeks ago to talk about his dedication and embrace for change in both the profession and on the plate. Here is what he had to say…
Tell us about some of the ways you’ve integrated more sustainable working practices into your kitchen and the effects it’s had on staff productivity and/or morale.
In an industry where burnout and both mental and physical health issues are so common, we’ve strived to move forward and make working in a kitchen a more appealing and sustainable career option. I’ve had two real burnouts in my 15+ years in the industry, as a direct response to excessive stress, lack of sleep, and feeling constantly overwhelmed and both physically and mentally exhausted, and I’ll do anything to avoid another.
We started with four-day work weeks, which hasn’t been the easiest transition but one that I find personally very rewarding, although the amount of pushback from cooks has been substantial – people either need to work enough hours to send money back home or flat out pay rent in Vancouver. However, the four-day work week has also provided noticeable results in the kitchen: both energy levels and positive attitudes are at an all-time high. We all get to spend more time with our family and friends, and enjoy nature and the outdoors. As a result, cooks show up mentally refreshed and ready to take on the tasks at hand.
We’re also lucky to have owners who care about their staff’s well-being and offer full benefits, as well as extras (like therapy sessions, free yoga passes, and discounts at other businesses) that really show us they care.
Another thing I think has really helped is creating a space that’s over-staffed. Once in a while, this causes issues with staff, but overall it pays major dividends. Staff feel comfortable calling in sick and are able to take as much time off for vacation as they can afford to. I never want to prevent someone from travelling somewhere or checking something off of their bucket list.
Most importantly, though, we’ve removed all of the “Gordon Ramsay” style rhetoric from our kitchen. Berating cooks is not okay. Cooler heads, mutual respect and love for everyone – both in BOH and FOH – has prevailed and only improved over time at the Acorn.
What is one hard truth about the industry that you’d like to shine a light on?
Restaurants that are sourcing locally, sustainably and transparently face even larger challenges because these products are more expensive, less reliable and harder to get your hands on. I think that many diners don’t have any grasp on all of the hard work and organization that goes into serving them what seems like a simple meal. For instance, that dish of re-hydrated figs on goat’s cheese involves jumping through a lot of hoops: sourcing figs picked at perfect ripeness on the Sunshine Coast, then re-hydrating them mid-winter in an agrodolce made with Delta cranberries, and dressing them with Lilooet honey infused with young spruce cones from Galiano Island (picked last year by myself and chef Luke), Vancouver Island sea salt and organic cold-pressed Canadian canola oil; all served on top of Mt. Lehman chevre from the Fraser Valley.
It’s the most difficult thing about my job, sourcing everything locally and/or Canadian. Staying in touch and having more personal relationships with local purveyors is wonderful, but it also takes a lot of time and effort – hours per week of e-mailing, calling, chatting, ordering off of fresh sheets, etc.
Are there any drawbacks to working locally?
I’d say the only drawbacks would be price and availability. Of course, it’d be a lot easier and cheaper to order everything off of Sysco, for example. But the quality of the flavours? Not comparable.
Not being a vegetarian yourself, how has writing menus for the Acorn changed your ideas about the composition of a meal?
When Chef Brian Luptak first asked me to create a feature for the same night, using the ingredients we had – half of which I had no clue what they were – I nearly shit myself. But over the course of about 3-6 months, and with lots of learning, tasting, studying and testing, I became more comfortable. I’m no longer a chef who’s scared of serving vegetables only. But I was! Now, I find myself focusing on a single vegetable or ingredient for each dish. Larch? Sure. Morels? Oh yeah. Sargassum seaweed? Yes, please!
How have your eating habits changed (if at all) since you began working at Acorn? Do you find yourself eating vegetarian on your own time as well?
I have never been vegetarian nor will I ever be. I tend to eat what’s put in front of me and appreciate it for what it is, wherever it is and whoever cooked it. I think eating sustainably – which is what I care about most – can be attained in many ways. That being said, arriving in Vancouver and finding myself at the Acorn has changed my eating habits considerably. I now eat a mostly vegetarian diet and, if I’m going to eat fish or meat, I look for the most local and sustainable way to do that.
What are the most fulfilling aspects of your position at the Acorn?
I think that fulfilling the dream of using truly local ingredients and Canadian products exclusively is a shift that I’ll forever be proud of. It takes so much work but lends so much joy to both myself and my co-workers. Watching everyone be in awe of a product coming in is so special, and tasting things that were picked that same morning or the prior day is so inspiring. Aside from the food, it’s the human connection – all of the incredible people and lifelong friends you meet along the way, and all of the different music and art forms they share with you – that is why I love working in kitchens!
Tell me about your spoon collection.
My odd spoon collection is a cast of different characters. They all have a use, whether that’s what they’re designed for or not. For example, my “pickle” spoon is actually a perforated Gray Kunz spoon meant for a single poached egg. Most are from thrift stores, are tarnished sliver or have some different use for saucing a plate that I can’t live without!