Josh Stel has an affinity for pilsner, comically small hats, belts made from cling film and the thrill of a busy kitchen. The veteran Vancouver pan jockey and recently appointed Chef de Cuisine at The Mackenzie Room possesses a disposition that’s firmly rooted in the BOH subculture that Bourdain revered.
Stel is a debaucherous kitchen denizen with an unwavering commitment to show up, improve and make it nice – attributes harder and harder to come by these days, so I saw it fitting to reach out and see what makes him tick.
What got you into the kitchen? How long has it been?
I started dishwashing when I was 15. I had a lot of expensive hobbies when I was young: I played the drums, rode mountain bikes, and painted a lot, and I also wanted a Macbook to start DJ-ing and making music. My parents told my ass to get a job. My old man drove me around town to drop off resumes at every place that was hiring – one of them being a dishwashing gig at a restaurant called Salty’s Beach House – and they were the first to call back. Salty’s is a huge tourist restaurant right on the Okanagan Beach in Penticton that had, at the time, recently been bought out by Earl’s. They moved me onto the pans section after about two months of part time dishwashing. That would have been around 13 years ago.
What is it about this line of work that’s managed to captivate so much of your attention?
Honestly I think it’s just the people. I love service. I love getting absolutely rinsed on a 100 cover service with four cooks. I love that visceral moment mid-service when someone’s voice cracks, “I need hands!” I love saying to the team, after first seating, “Fuck, that was SPICY! Reload and let’s DO IT AGAIN.” Something about being in the trenches with some solid cooks really forms a bond. All the friends I have made after moving to Vancouver are in the hospitality industry, and my “normie” friends who live in Vancouver probably just think I’m losing touch with reality (they are right). I feel comfortable with cooks; there is always lively conversation, restaurant gossip, or a legendary war story that never fails to get a laugh.
How are your motivations different now from when you were getting started in the industry?
Working in a huge corporate restaurant when I was younger, I loved the structure and climbing the ladder. I was never one for team sports in school – not for a lack of trying, but because I was a bit of an angry, weird kid that didn’t get along with others. I was pretty much six feet tall when I entered high school, so I tried my best at volleyball and basketball, but it never took. Cooking was different, though. By the time I was 16 I was working with a group of 20-30-year-old misfits, and found acceptance solely in the fact that I could cook gnarly services with a smile on my face. Back then it was all about checking boxes and moving up to the next position. Now, my motivations are keeping myself and others happy. My priorities are less about moving up the ranks and, rather, making sure service is efficient and well executed. I also love making a wicked staff meal that sets the tone for a big night. I think letting go of the title-chasing and focusing on what is best for the restaurant and the staff landed me where I am now.
Can you tell me about the transitional period from just working a job to pursuing a career? What precipitated it?
This is kind of a tough question because I feel like my whole career has been a string of random events that led me to the fine dining aspect of cooking. I was supposed to transfer to an Earl’s when I moved to Vancouver, but that fell through. At that time of my life I wanted, most of all, to be a graffiti writer. I was pretty good, but I lived in a small town. One night, about a month-and-a-half after moving to Vancouver – still jobless – I got chased out of a train yard in Stratchcona. I was new to the city and I only knew one restaurant in the neighbourhood because a close friend was working the bar there. I sat down for a beer, and very quickly I was being introduced to the kitchen and shaking hands with the chef. That restaurant was called Campagnolo Roma, and I was working there maybe a week later. I thought cooking was by the book, set in stone, a machine – but Roma had a heartbeat. Chef Jessie wrote me a list of restaurants to eat at in the city and I went to all of them; I was hooked. I moved on to work at Campagnolo, The Mackenzie Room, and then St. Lawrence. I thought I was hot shit at that point, but I got my ass absolutely handed to me. I loved it. Thankfully, the Mackenzie room took me back when I parted ways with St.Lawrence
How have things changed now that you are in charge of your own kitchen? Is there anything that you miss about having less responsibility?
It’s too early to tell. I’ve been in the Chef de Cuisine position for only a month. We are short staffed, and I’m still pulling shifts on pans. I’m now doing admin on top of training cooks and dishwashers, prepping and cooking two sections, menu development and costing…I kinda just feel like it’s piling on. I love it, though. I feel fulfilled. It’s been a lot of work, but I am very happy with the work the team puts forward and I think the food has been good. It has always been nice cooking other people’s food and making it the best it can possibly be, but now I guess the struggle is creating dishes that the cooks can be excited about and execute to the best of their abilities. It is daunting, but I am more than excited for it.
What are your long term goals, career-wise?
Hahaha, I don’t know. I’m taking it one step at a time. I have always thought of moving back to Penticton to open a restaurant. The idea changes constantly. It was originally a diner, then a French bistro, then a fried chicken shop. But the current idea is a natural wine and pasta bar. Something similar to Autostrada or Oca, offering a tasting menu with a couple of mainstays – kinda similar to The Mackenzie Room. Serve local produce and wine that we serve in Vancouver that comes from the Naramata Bench and the Okanagan Valley. I don’t know why no one is doing it back home, but I think the population might be ready for it in a couple years’ time. Penticton feels different every year I go back to visit. It’s getting younger and “trendier”. I don’t know, I gotta pay off my credit card first.
What advice do you have for all the young cooks out there?
S H O O T I T !