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The Many Sides of Hector Laguna, Executive Chef at Botanist Restaurant

Hector Laguna, Executive Chef at Botanist Restaurant, is stoked for Spring – the smile that washes over his face when he talks about the bounty of seasonal ingredients is borderline magical.

To be clear, Chef Laguna is hardly the type to be defined solely by his career (albeit a well-respected and an accomplished one) – his passions are varied (and sometimes unexpected) and extend well beyond the kitchen. Read on and you’ll find out that he gets equally excited about soccer, Harry Potter, hiking, his neighbourhood, family, and the successes of his kitchen family, among other things… But for the moment, let’s get back to spring, because this Thursday (April 4th) Chef Laguna and Botanist restaurant are welcoming winemaker Michael Clark, of Clos Du Soleil winery in the Similkameen, for a special six-course wine-paired dinner that you can bet will celebrate the very best of Pacific Northwest Spring ingredients married with the unique terroir of the Similkameen Valley – and there are still some seats available! Can’t make this event? No sweat. Botanist’s menu will keep the Spring vibes alive with a steady influx of fresh, local ingredients rolling in daily.

But, between now and your next opportunity to visit Botanist – whenever that may be (the sooner, the better!) and whatever the occasion – get to know Executive Chef Hector Laguna a little bit more intimately via our recent interview with him below…

Where did you grow up? I was born in a very small town in Hidalgo, Mexico. But my parents have a farm in Veracruz, so I grew up going back in forth between the two.

Three words that would describe you as a child: Trouble, curious, competitive.

Tell us about your first job in a kitchen. I had my first kitchen job at a Vietnamese restaurant in San Francisco called Three Seasons. My job was mostly in receiving, making sure all the orders came in, and that it was good quality; then putting them away in their proper places. Once all the orders were organized, I would go around helping the cooks: cutting vegetables for them, bringing them ingredients, or putting their sauces away. In short, I was the helper. Even though during that period of time I never got to actually cook, it was there that I first started thinking about the possibility of becoming a cook. So that was the most valuable thing I learned during that time.

What was your best staff meal in the past year?Our New Year’s family meal, without a doubt! New Year’s day, we always have brunch at Botanist, no matter the day of the week. Between brunch and dinner services, we get together and sit down to have family meal. This year, we had roast turkey, roasted vegetable, pommes purée, gravy and much more. My sous chef, Tushar, did a lot of the work. It was so good.

As an executive chef, you spend a lot of time on the line; what is it about the hands-on aspect of cooking that speaks to you? The kitchen is where I get my inspiration. Touching the ingredients, their smell, the way they look. It is very important for me to be surrounded by all these elements; it awakens my senses and makes the ideas come easier. It is so much easier to imagine which flavour combinations or cooking techniques would work better when you are immersed in the kitchen.

Your mother’s cooking was also a big inspiration for you, and cooking with family is an important part of the way you live. How interested are your kids in food and/or cooking? Liam, who is the youngest, really likes cooking. He loves to pretend he is my sous chef when we cook together. Lucas helps, but it is more like he is doing his duties as part of the family.

When you’re cooking for your kids at home, what’s on the menu? We cook a little bit of everything. On Mondays, we usually have a big family dinner, where we pick the cuisine of a single country and cook that. While we cook, we listen to said country’s music and read about its history and culture. It is a lot of fun. Big successes and failures there!

What is your favourite view (outside of the kitchen) in Vancouver? The view from Queen Elizabeth Park towards the city. I remember when we came for a vacation back in 2012, my wife and I went there one day, and while we were looking at the city I said, “I would really like to live here.”

Where do you take out-of-town guests to show them what Vancouver is all about? Mostly we do outdoor stuff, lots of hikes. We visit the mountains, Stanley Park, the Capilano suspension bridge – you name it. That is my favourite part about Vancouver: being outside.

What neighbourhood are you living in and why do you like it? We live in Kitsilano – I love how peaceful it is. It amazes me how close to downtown we are and yet, you feel like you live in the suburbs.

What keeps you up at night? Nothing keeps me up at night, haha. I’m the best sleeper in the world. Joelle (my wife) says that I don’t fall asleep, I turn off! My dad always says, “no te preocupes, ocupate.” It translates to something like “don’t worry about problems, fix them.” I do my best to deal with situations as they come, but I understand that sometimes it is better to step back and come back with a fresh prospective.

Where is the oddest place you’ve ever slept? When I was little – maybe 11 or 12 – my dad bought a herd of pigs. There was no car access, so we transferred them back home on foot. It took us two days to get home, so we slept in the wild, surrounded by pigs.

You come from a big family of farmers with a deep respect for the land – how does this inform your cooking style? That plays a big role in the way we cook, and the way approach and respect ingredients here at Botanist. When you understand all the work and dedication that goes into what you are cooking, it makes you think harder about better and more productive ways to utilize the ingredients – whether is meat, vegetables, seafood, spices or whatever else we are cooking with.

How do you maintain a connection to the land, the produce, and the individuals who cultivate the ingredients you work with? I have a very good relationship with the farms around here. We are always in constant communication about what is ready for the next week or weeks ahead, and we plan visits to these farms with both front and back of the house teams. It is very important to me that everybody at Botanist see and understand where things come from, and understand the processes before the ingredients go on the plate.

What’s for breakfast at home? School days are very straight forward: oatmeal or granola, cereal with plain yogurt. Weekends, its a more formal family breakfast, but nothing crazy: sometimes cheese eggs, good sourdough bread, bacon, and waffles or pancakes. And if it is a special occasion, we do chilaquiles!

If you had to live your remaining days inside a world you’ve seen in a movie, which movie would it be? Harry Potter, for sure. I read all the books and watched all the movies.

Photo credit: Mexico National Football Team

Which famous person would you love to cook a meal for or share a meal with, and why? I’m going to go with a soccer player, Rafael Marquez. He is a Mexican former central defender, who played a big part of his career – and his most successful – at FC Barcelona. As a soccer player, he was one of the best in his position. Always at the right place at the right time. Very elegant with the ball on his feet; he had an amazing vision and understanding of the game. But what is most remarkable to me is how he handled all of that at only age 19. Even though the whole world was talking about him, he was always the most calm one on the field, even when he knew he had to defend the best strikers in the world.

Are you a superstitious? Got any good luck charms or rituals? Not at all.

Shoe of choice? Work shoes: Mephisto. Everyday shoes: Vessi.

Last place you traveled? Mexico – I went to visit my family. We try to go at least once a year, but two times is ideal. It is very important for me that my kids have a good relationship with my parents and brothers.

Did you bring anything back? Candy, as usual, haha! That is the only thing I bring back every time.

You have the opportunity to shout out a young up-and-comer working in the local industry – who is it and where do they currently work? I just promoted my senior sous chef, Chef Jayden Kresnyak, to chef de cuisine last month, so it will be him. He is very sharp, very curious, creative, and always there to help and guide the team. I am very proud of the chef he has become, and I feel incredibly lucky to have him here.

Do you have a favourite family photograph? Every year we (my kids and my wife) go to a pumpkin patch. The picture is of the four of us there, with big smiles on our faces. I keep it on my desk. I don’t know what it is, but every time I look at it, I can feel the love.

Your go-to, no-frills place for dinner? Thai Basil. We all love it.

What ingredient/dish would you like to see more customers be brave about trying? I can’t think of a specific dish or ingredient – I just think that people should be more open-minded about food in general.

On a perfect day off, what are the top three things you’d like to see happen? Soccer with my kids; family dinner; quality time with my wife.

Tickets to the Clos du Soleil Collaboration at Botanist restaurant on Thursday, April 4th, are $245 per person and can be purchased here.

Neighbourhood: Downtown
1038 Canada Place

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