Recently appointed as Chef de Cuisine at St. Lawrence, Colin Johnson is a by-product of the great British food revolution of the 80s and 90s. Having spent his formative years in grand, countryside hotel kitchens, at the world-renowned Bibendum, and snacking on Fergus Henderson’s bone marrow at St. John, it’s safe to say that he’s as experienced as they come.
However, despite being well into his third decade in the kitchen, Johnson remains a “cook’s cook”: a humble, head-down type of guy, focused on expanding his technical repertoire, and as hell-bent on being the best version of himself as he is on making you a tasty meal. He’s also most certainly not afraid to discuss the difficult parts of our industry that come along with all the aspects that we love so much.
I recently met with Chef Johnson to catch up over fish n’chips and a couple of pints. This is what he had to say:
Where did you grow up? I grew up in Nottingham, UK.
What inspired you to get into the kitchen/hospitality industry? From a young age, I always had a love of food. I was constantly hungry and had a perpetual inquisitiveness about how things are made. I’m a hands-on person, and love the tactile nature of cooking – it just drew me in.
The cult of celebrity had not fully kicked into the restaurant world when I was starting out. It still had this fringe aspect to it, and a social outlier, counter culture vibe which appealed to me as a rebellious 16-year-old.
Tell me about some of the kitchens you worked in, in the UK. As I understand it, you came up through a brigade style of kitchen culture that bordered on militant (focused, lots of yelling, and an emphasis on discipline, with very little mentoring). Are there any aspects of that culture that you respect and have retained? I worked in quite a few of those luxury country manor house hotels in England in the 90’s. It was a great environment to learn techniques and skills, and you were very isolated from distractions, in remote locations in rural areas (the hotels provided accommodation for the staff on the grounds). So it was very focused. When I was not in the kitchen, my head was in all those great chef cookbooks that came out around that time, like White Heat – I was two years into my career when that was published. Pierre Koffmann’s Memories of Gascony came out the year before. Hard not to be inspired to cook great things with those two books hot off the press.
Which pieces of this system do you think are better left in the past? Some of the kitchens I worked in were very disciplined in that old school way. There was mentoring but possibly not how young cooks these days would recognize it. A lot of it was learning the hard way. Some of those kitchens got a bit rough. I certainly wouldn’t tolerate that culture now. Teams bonded so tightly, the camaraderie was so strong. We were traumatized but tightly knit. Saying that, don’t be fooled into thinking that this phenomenon is specific to that time and place. I’m sure there are toxic kitchens here now, too.
There were a lot of driven, enthusiastic, passionate cooks back then, which is a great thing for the industry. But when put into the pressure cooker of a high class professional kitchen with a lack of people management training and some substance abuse dusted in there – the recipe was never going to end well for the weakest links in the chain. It was a very unpleasant but very effective motivator to never be the weakest link.
Bibendum was refreshingly free of ego and drama, just all about the quality of your work, the ingredients and recipes. It was hard and focused, but without the bullshit. You certainly knew if you missed the standard, but in a way that did not destroy your soul.
What year did you come to Canada? 2002.
What was your first job here? I want to say Bishop’s, but it was not really a job – it was a once a week stage for several months while I was waiting for citizenship and Immigration Canada to get back to me about my permanent resident application (which took a year). I helped out with butchering cases of ducks and any other mise en place that was needed. I was paid in glasses of beer at the end of the night. Met some great people, really nice folks. John was a legend even back then, and this was 20 years ago. Dennis Green was running the kitchen and Jeff Van Geest was the sous chef. Looking back, it was a great introduction to Vancouver restaurants. I was very fortunate. Salute to John and all the crew back then. Thanks so much for having me.
I think I needed that time to decompress after years of living and working in London. The pace of life, the pace of the work…to then assimilate somewhat successfully into the west coast culture, a year off to try and smooth out those rough English kitchen culture edges.
My first full time job was at Parkside – I think it had opened like a month before. I met Chris Stewart (part owner) while I was staging at Bishop’s. He was the sommelier there at the time. Early days Parkside was kinda cool, this was a Vancouver pre-Chambar. Crazy to imagine that now! A very different culinary landscape to what we now enjoy, it was definitely a fledgling scene, the seeds were being sown for what was to come.
How have things in the kitchen evolved since you started cooking here? Is there anything about ‘the good old days’ that you miss? Bibendum was 80 for lunch 120 covers a night. No Rational ovens, no sous vide, no thermo-circulators. No instant read digital thermometers. No reverse sear, no timers and certainly no tweezers. Apart from the braises and other occasional slow cooks, all the proteins were cooked to order (damn, some were even cut to order), including the dishes served for two people like the Whole Roast Poulet de Bresse, Côte de Veau, Pyrenean Milk Fed Lamb Leg , Côte de Boeuf or whole racks of lamb, etc, etc. We went into battle every service armed only with an analogue clock above the kitchen door, a basting spoon, a meat fork and our wits. You were either good at cooking or you weren’t. A Rational oven setting or a bunch of apps on your phone wouldn’t save you. Quite perversely, I really miss that.
Looking back to the Vancouver restaurant scene circa 2002, that time seems crazy. There was Lumiere and Ouest, Bishop’s, Il Giardino, Le Crocodile, and a bunch of fine dining places in hotels downtown (like Diva at the Met), and some hold-overs from the 90’s. And if it wasn’t fine dining, it was small plates, which was such a weird part of our culinary past. Tapas but not really tapas. There was a huge missing middle to the restaurant scene here in 2002 – like a nice, casual independent chef-driven place with great cooking and service, that didn’t break the bank. A lack of places to bridge the gap between the cedar plank salmon with balsamic drizzle joints and the fine dining rooms. Dare I say too that there was a lack of cool places, restaurants where you actually wanted to hang out in. I guess that changed with Chambar.
The quality now is so much higher than back then, and not just in Vancouver’s top ranked restaurants. The standard of ordinariness is better too. Burgers, beer, pizza, fried chicken, donuts, noodles and tacos are all a million times better now. And you could see this happening incrementally year after year, sweeping through the city. Okay, we could do with another upgrade on tacos. Respect to Chancho though.
Geographically the restaurant scene was also so different. Gastown had the Irish Heather in the OG spot, where L’Abattoir is now, and that was it. You didn’t go to Gastown unless you had to, or wanted a pint of Guinness. I remember when Jeff van Geest opened Aurora Bistro on Main & Broadway around 2003 – everybody thought it was madness to open a restaurant there. Look at that neighbourhood now! Basically restaurants were Downtown, Yaletown, West End and Westside. The migration east started slowly around that time and a few years after, with Wild Rice, Salt, Boneta, Campagnolo, etc., each one pushing the literal boundaries of where people would “dare” to go for dinner.
We discussed the ubiquitous, yet seldom talked about issue of imposter syndrome in the kitchen. Could you explain what it means to you and how it affects you? To me it means that no matter how much I understand intellectually that I have the correct and relevant professional experience, expertise and skill set to be in the roles that I have been given, there is a part of my brain or my thought process that tells me that I’m just here filling in until the real experts get here, or that one day everyone is going to realize that I’m a fraud, and the bubble will burst.
How do you make the jump between feeling like a charlatan and being a proud, talented cook? I am still trying to find the answer to that.
Do you have any advice for anyone else who’s battling imposter syndrome or self doubt? I am very grateful to the people around me who help me out: my family, my friends, and the team at St. Lawrence. Having a good bunch of people in your corner helps a lot. Being able to talk it through, share what’s really on your mind. You know, phones down, real talk. There are lots of places to get help now. Mind the Bar is an amazing resource for people in the service industry here in Vancouver.
You’ve become an authority on pâté during your tenure at St.Lawrence. Where do you find your pâté inspiration? Thank you. Inspiration comes in many forms. Sometimes it’s the hard reality of needing to make good of the trimmings and off-cuts the kitchen generates, which pleases me to no end. I like the silk purse / sow’s ear challenge and the balancing of kitchen economics. Or sometimes it’s the function following the form, like when fabulous raw produce comes in from our suppliers that gets me thinking about pâté (I’m always thinking about pâté, btw). I also keep a close eye to what other pâté makers are doing around the world. One of the great things about social media is bringing kindred spirits together. There is a tight knit group of like minded pâté making souls who bounce ideas around and get inspiration from one another. But my inspiration is first and foremost that I want it to be delicious and I want our guests to love it as much as I do.
It’s time for an OPP (“Other People’s Pâté”) shout out… Where can we find some pâté around town that has the Colin J. stamp of approval? I love popping into the Magnet for some great beers and tasty pork and duck rillette, and occasionally there is a pâté en croûte in amongst all those lovely pork pies. Also, the terrine of foie gras at L’Abattoir is very delicious spread on warm toasted brioche. Chef Roger Ma occasionally bakes pâté en croûte for the menu at Boulevard and it’s worth checking out when he does.
Although Les Amis Du Fromage are better known as master cheese purveyors, take a look into their charcuterie selection too. You will find a nice selection of house-made and specially selected pâtés in amongst all the hams and salami. And whenever I get a banh mi, I always like to ask for an extra smear of pâté – it can be that simple to amp up your lunch.
Also, further afield in Victoria, Paul Van Trigt does some great things for Fol Epi and Agrius. And if you are ever in Seattle, you simply must get some pâté from Kevin Smith at his wonderful butcher shop, Beast and Cleaver, in Ballard.