At 21 years old, I’m still just a kid and relatively new to working in restaurants, but I grew up umbilically tied to the hospitality industry. My father was a food writer, and my mother is a photographer. Their careers meant that most of my early years were spent in kitchens and dining rooms instead of on playgrounds and soccer fields; consequently, I learned my table manners before I could count past one hundred.
Most importantly, though, my early exposure to hospitality culture fostered my immense respect for the people pouring their hard work and love into Vancouver’s restaurant industry. The chefs, servers, line cooks, bartenders, and restaurateurs in my world were warm, proud, interesting and enthusiastic people. I looked up to them and saw nobility in the business of restaurants. However, there came a point when I realized that not everyone saw it this way. Many people viewed taking a restaurant job as something you did while biding time – a means to an end, rather than a career.
During my beginnings as a server, diners often asked me, “Are you in school?” and, “What do you actually want to do?” I’m still not sure whether, at the time, I was offended by this presumptuous line of questioning or complicit in perpetuating the notion that serving was not a satisfying and worthy ambition in-and-of itself — probably a bit of both.
My loyalties shifted seismically two years ago when The Acorn restaurant took me on as an extra set of hands — polishing glasses, folding napkins, pouring water, and the like — during the rush of patio season. At first, my goal was to save up a little money for university, and I attached only passing significance to my work. But the more shifts I pulled, the more I fell in love with the job, and the less committed I felt to academia. It was while eating my staff meal, sitting on the curb outside The Acorn’s kitchen, that it first occurred to me that this, working in hospitality, was what I actually want to do.
That epiphany might not have come so easily had I been working at another restaurant. Don’t get me wrong: I have unquestionable reverence for the trench-like camaraderie of an old-school kitchen. But, when I stepped into The Acorn’s back-of-house, the culture was refreshingly nurturing and respectful. I would show up before pre-shift, entering through the kitchen side door to see the team excitedly huddled around a crate of the season’s first tomatoes. Their passion was palpable. Unfailingly, they’d take the time to explain in detail what it was about these specific tomatoes that made them so special and inspiring – whether it was the varietal, how they were grown, or the farmer who grew them. And I, in turn, had the privilege of conveying some of this magic to our guests when serving those very same tomatoes on the menu later that evening. But that magic wasn’t just confined to a singular experience, nor to tomatoes in particular. The Acorn team’s reverence for produce was constant, genuine, and infectious.
Every night, service would start with our collective stoke-tank running on full. I was lucky to get a gig serving food made by a crew profoundly invested in their craft. When you love food and are working somewhere that’s preparing the best of it, it’s easy to love representing it. The kitchen staff’s enthusiasm spilled over into how proud I was to bring the menu into the dining room, hoping to inspire the same reverence for the vegetables on the plate in our diners. I wanted to share the knowledge with every guest that this easily recognizable (and ignorable) roadside weed is called ‘lovage’ and it actually tastes like celery. I wanted everyone to be as excited as I was to learn that the garnishing rose petals are indigenous to BC…because that is fucking rad and worth celebrating, don’t you think?
I’ll admit, slowing down and taking the time to actually appreciate our food doesn’t come naturally or easily to everyone — plus, truth be told, not all food deserves it. But at The Acorn, the possibility for that pause is more likely because it starts in the kitchen. Behind the scenes, the equivalent of a part-time job’s worth of hours is spent on responding to what local farmers deliver on nature’s schedule. (Yes, even in a place like BC, where the climate fortunately provides a *relatively persistent stream of local produce in-season, some game-planning is required in order to maintain a dynamic menu with a truly local ethos.)
The level of forethought and year-long menu drafting under these circumstances is kinda nuts. For instance, I learned that if there’s any hope of doing a pasta special in February, you need to start thinking about it when receiving the tomatoes for your sauce eight months in advance, in June. And if you need to make a dessert in winter but you used all your berries in the fall? Tough break, kiddo; maybe next year! Does your vision for a new menu item call for lemon zest? Good luck finding a local, sustainable lemon farm producing restaurant-level quantities of lemons — there aren’t any. However, with some ingenuity and talent, we might be able to extract some lemony notes from local spruce tips. And we’ve definitely got those handy, because we put them away last spring in anticipation of this very moment.
To accommodate their dedication to ingredient preparedness, the back-of-house storage area at The Acorn resembles an apothecary more than a pantry. It encompasses an impressive assortment of pickles, preserved fruits, jams, jellies, oils, extracts, salts, sauces, and syrups. In a city where square footage doesn’t come cheap, the fact that this team gives so much of it over to this purpose is indicative of their year-round dedication to eating local.
Caring to notice The Acorn’s exceptional attention and devotion to locality isn’t in the average diner’s training, though, because historically the classic fine dining experience is incumbent on the suspension of disbelief. From steam-ironed uniforms to the shine on your wine glass, every element of that style of service is dedicated to perpetuating the fantasy, coalescing in a ballet-like performance choreographed to distance the guest from reality. Diners aren’t doing the dishes or grocery shopping. Their relationship to what is on the plate begins when it is presented at the table, and involvement in the process remains passive until picking up the fork. The Acorn, however, interprets the “fine” part of “fine dining” as an experience enhanced by backstory, and an opportunity to connect with and celebrate BC produce.
The concept of ‘eating local’ has been overused and abused as a catchphrase thanks, in large part, to its inaccurate application in the hands of marketing people charged with promoting restaurant chains. But at its core, it is still a concept that should be the foundation of our collective dining philosophy. At The Acorn I learned that eating locally is a real thing you can and should be doing (whenever possible) because you care about people. Don’t fall for greenwashing verbiage on menus whose kitchens draw only on pre-manufactured ingredients entombed in plastic containers, and don’t eat local because you saw a preachy tweet from a liposuctioned wellness influencer. Fuck, don’t eat local because I told you to! Take pains to learn, think about what’s on your plate, ask questions, pay attention, get involved, and then try NOT to give a shit. Eat food from people with names and faces, and soil caked in the creases of their hands because, if nothing else, giving a shit is all we really have.
“Eat local because you give a shit.” That is what I learned from the Acorn.
I would like to extend my personal thanks to Chefs Devon Latte and Lucas Johnson, who ran the kitchen during my time at The Acorn, for their patience and willingness to share their knowledge with me. I find it hard to believe that my “oh shit, this is what I want to do with my life” moment would have come had it not been for their principles in the kitchen. Moreover, I’d like to thank The Acorn’s co-owners, Shira Blustein and Scott Lewis, for taking a chance on hiring me.