Ten years in the restaurant industry is no small achievement, even when dealing with an ideal set of circumstances – but add a pandemic and an address in a neighbourhood that is struggling with homelessness, addiction and a mental health crisis worse than anywhere else in the country, and ten years is a milestone that deserves pause.
For readers who may not recall, when PiDGiN opened its Carrall Street doors in 2013, it was simultaneously highly anticipated for what it promised to bring to the food scene and deeply resented as a symbol of gentrification in the neighbourhood. Those who viewed it as a harbinger of gentrification picketed hard outside the new restaurant for months. There seemed to be little middle ground: people were on one side or the other of a complex and emotionally charged issue. Instead of enjoying the early days of the launch of their restaurant (where the most significant obstacles are typically malfunctioning equipment or typos on menus), the PiDGin crew was catapulted into a hurricane of news headlines and angry crowds.
Chatting about those early days with owner Brandon Grossutti recently, he reflected: “I was in way over my head. Forget that I didn’t understand the business of restaurants yet – I had zero understanding of the complicated layers of issues in the DTES. I was forced into a deep learning curve on both fronts. I educated myself on a lot of things that I didn’t want to admit about the neighbourhood. It was hard, but – in many good ways – I’m a better person because of that experience and this neighbourhood.”
I’ve watched Grossutti over the years. His ‘education’ was not for optics. He kept listening, learning and engaging long after the picketing stopped.
Although he’s not interested in discussing numbers – of dollars raised to help support charities in the neighbourhood, meals provided to vulnerable residents, or the hours he has spent at council meetings and talking to MLAs on behalf of both businesses and people of the neighbourhood – I am confident that his advocacy efforts were – and continue to be – well above the norm. One number he will share is how many times he has administered NARCAN (120). I’m not going to make assumptions about the average Gastown business owner’s experience in this area, but I don’t live too far away from PiDGiN myself, and I know I’ve never administered NARCAN. For me, the fact that Grossutti quietly steps up in all of these ways – over and over again – is humbling.
But, back to the restaurant…
Ten years ago, when PiDGiN first started to land on the lists of the ‘better restaurants’ in Vancouver, there were many factors that helped; notably the design (Craig Stanghetta and his team at Ste. Marie, with several showcased art pieces by Ricky Alvarez), and of course the food, the domain opening chef and former Canadian Culinary Champion winner, Makoto Ono, with an assist from Chef Daniel McGee (later Au Comptoir).
Following Ono’s departure in 2016 (he went on to open Kitsilano’s 28-seat Mak N Ming), the restaurant saw some great chefs come through the kitchen. Still, when Executive Chef Wesley Young (Wildebeest, C Restaurant, West) landed at PiDGiN in 2017, it was like seeing two friends you love, and respect meet and get together. Suddenly, you can’t imagine it any other way. It’s like they’ve always been together, always should have been together. Wes understood Ono’s concept and the talent necessary to do it justice. To date, the menu has been under his hand longer than any other chef’s (seven years), and while he has continued to honour the foundation that he inherited, he has also expanded on it and made it his own. Says Brandon: “I couldn’t do any of this without Wes. He’s so focused. So talented. He’s family.”
Last night, friends, family, staff and many long time supporters of PiDGiN came together for an evening of celebration (see pictures in the gallery below). A brigade of chefs served a menu of (past and present) favourites and wine was flowing. Speeches were made, hugs were exchanged, and there were at least a few tears, mine included. There was a lot of gratitude and appreciation in the room. Glasses clinked in agreement as Grossutti stood up to toast the room: “Restaurants, we don’t do it for the money. We don’t do it for the balance it brings to our personal lives. We do it because this is important (pointing to the packed room). We do it because sharing food connects people, and connection is what matters.”
Ten years in, it’s still hard for me to separate the social and political implications of PiDGiN’s locale from its identity as a restaurant; but I think it’s the why that has changed. Today, it’s due to the fact that Brandon doesn’t try to compartmentalize. He cares about people. He wants people to connect. Whether he’s doing that in the dining room or on the street, connection is what motivates him.
Thank you for ten years of hard work, integrity and community building!