Six Questions With Chef Robert Belcham

Cooks Camp is an overnight adventure including two full days of meals, workshops, talks, activities and get-togethers around the firepit, facilitated by a group of passionate local cooks for their peers in the industry. And it shows: the campout itinerary touches on nuances of industry life from practical kitchen skills to career planning and mental health.

Leading up to the inaugural in-person Cooks Camp event (September 13-14, 2022 at Pemberton’s North Arm Farm) we caught up with and posed some of our most pressing industry related questions to local chef and proprietor (Popina Canteen, Popina Cantina), and camp organizer, Robert Belcham. Here’s what he had to say…

How long have you been in the industry? 28 years.

What was your first job? Line cook at Rebar Modern Food in Victoria, BC.

What was the motivation for starting Cooks Camp? There were two reasons. First, to raise money and awareness of the Chefs Table Society of BC’s project of building a brick and mortar Culinary Center for the hospitality industry. Secondly, to help empower the hospitality professional to better navigate the industry, fostering change and spearheading the sustainability of the industry itself.

What do you want the outcome to be? For individuals to make new friends and contacts; to show that we are a lot more alike than not; for people to feel like they can be the catalyst for positive change; and, finally, for all the attendees to recharge and refresh on a beautiful farm, while having a shitload of fun.

Tell us about a time in your career when the hospitality industry had your back? This is a very interesting question. I have been a chef for a very long time, and came up in kitchens where the attitudes of the leaders were, “sink or swim”. You had to prove yourself before you got any support of any kind. It has taken me a long time to understand that this method is one of the most fundamentally toxic ways of teaching. Every person needs something different from their leaders to bring out their personal best. The most successful leaders know this well and those leaders are the ones who become mentors and lifelong friends. So to answer the question, I would say my mentors had my back, but the industry was irrelevant. Now, with that being said, it is time for that to change. We must fundamentally alter the way we lead people if we ever expect to bring the best people to work at our establishments. The job needs to be desirable. We need to show people that owners can offer a balanced and rewarding career that isn’t a grind, where they feel appreciated and like growth is a possibility. The people who have left the industry over the last five years, left because they saw no future in it. This is our fault.

What are the three most significant issues facing the industry today? Wages: Until the hospitality industry pays a fair living wage with corresponding wage growth, our restaurants will continue to see unfilled jobs and high rates of turnover. Other trades have systems that show the progress of an employee’s education and experience, and their wage reflects that. The general public also needs to understand the difference between a fast food employee and a skilled line cook working in a restaurant. It should always cost more when done by a professional.

Tips. The idea of gratuity while on the surface is a very nice thought, it is fraught with misogyny, racism and division. It also leaves an employees wage up to the whims of the guest. A servers role is absolutely integral to the guest experience and for the restaurant to not value that role with proper wages based on experience is antiquated, disrespectful and wrong. I will also add that front of the house staff know that the amount of tips they receive based off of the hours they work compared to the back of house is unbelievably tilted in the servers favour. It causes division and animosity within all foodservice establishments. it is also one of the root causes of attrition within the kitchen. The whole wage system needs to become more transparent and simply follow the labour standards act and leave tipping behind.

Food security: The pandemic and the recent disasters in BC have shown all of us how dependent we are on our fragile local food industry. The general public should demand restaurants utilize local produce and proteins, and put an emphasis on preserving local food producing communities.

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