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Who is Neil Hillbrandt?

Neil Hillbrandt and Rhys Amber ‘Digging In’ to Phở at Bun Cha Ca Hoang Yen | Photo by Rubén Nava @runamen for Scout Magazine

My name is Rhys Amber and I am a cook. I’ve been involved in the hospitality scene in Vancouver for over a decade. I cut my teeth behind the lines and in front of the stoves of many kitchens in this city. My days of working in a restaurant are done, but hanging up my apron does not mean that my love of the craft is also done. This Scout series is an opportunity to explore the restaurant experience from a whole new vantage point: as a writer. Today, I speak with Neil Hillbrandt of Bar Gobo.

Neil Hillbrandt left a desk job in telecom in his late 20s to become a chef. I’m sure some people thought this was a crazy move, but  sometimes I think that “crazy” is the glue holding the hospitality industry together…so by my estimation, Neil fits right in.

At first glance, Neil is a friendly, unassuming guy – a guy who’s probably more interested in talking about hockey or where to find the best bowl of Phở in Vancouver than he is in discussing Rene Redzepi’s current reindeer appendage project or what Chef ‘XYZ’ has done to land themselves in the Bain-marie this time.

Those (like myself) who know him, though, appreciate that beneath his unassuming exterior lies a different story. On top of the fact that he is quietly driven, thoughtful, and precise, Hillbrandt is armed with a serious ‘bag of tricks’ that includes every move a good chef picks up along the way (and a few extras that could only have come from years of working under the venerable chef Andrea Carlson). In many ways, I would say his cooking aligns with his personality: interesting and honest on the plate, without the need to point out the many layers of complexity required to get the plate to the table in front of you.

I first came to know Neil and his thirst for knowledge (also beer) some time ago when he hounded my partners (Colin Staus, Doug Stephen, David Bowkett) and I for an opportunity to help out with our project, Big Day BBQ. Although he was keen to learn about live-fire cooking, he was also willing to march around waving at crowds while wearing a full-body hotdog suit…in the middle of the summer. Not a conventional metric of determination, but it spoke to me. I was happy to tell him everything I know about the dark art of salt and smoke.

A few years and one eternal plague later, Neil had opened Bar Gobo (along with co-owners chef Andrea Carlson and Kevin Bismanis, and frontman/sommelier Peter Van de Reep), survived lockdown closures, and was now finally able to crack open that bag of tricks and get heavy on the proverbial loud pedal. It seemed like a perfect time to take a trip to Gobo for dinner.

As I sat across the bar from Neil, watching him assemble plates and tasting my way through his menu, I was reminded of just how clever he is. Now, “clever” is a ubiquitous term and not one I commonly reach for when discussing the virtues of a chef, but it is appropriate here, and the ridiculously small size of Gobo’s kitchen illuminates it in spades. With almost no infrastructure to work with (a couple of inductions, a countertop oven, and a small amount of cold storage), his food maintains a complete poker face: it’s slick, well thought out, and if you didn’t know better, you’d probably think he’s got all the bells ’n whistles hiding in a secret kitchen out back.

Since it had been quite some time since we last saw each other, I was eager to hear about life on the line, opening a restaurant during the pandemic, and how he’s managed to build a food program out of what feels like a kitchenette – so we got together for a bowl of Phở. Here’s what he had to say…

Neil Hillbrandt and Rhys Amber at Bun Cha Ca Hoang Yen | Photo by Rubén Nava @runamen for Scout Magazine

What inspired you to get out of the office and into the kitchen? When I decided I no longer wanted to work in telecom, I don’t think I knew what I wanted to do, just that I didn’t want to do that anymore. My big plan was to quit my job, travel for a year, and then maybe settle in the UK. My friend got me a part-time job cooking at a pub in Gastown at night, so I could save some extra money before leaving. I enjoyed it, and I thought, well, this is alright, and I don’t want to get another office job, so let’s give it a go. I decided that after my travels I would go to culinary school. I ended up coming back to Vancouver for school because the UK was too expensive, and I had spent all of the money I had (and a lot of money I didn’t have) on loafing around the planet for a year. I was on a waiting list for VCC for close to a year when I came back, so I think I turned 30 in school, which probably sounds crazy to most chefs who have been cooking their whole lives. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Many chefs spend their formative years ‘growing up’ in a restaurant environment. When you came into the kitchen, you arrived with a different set of skills from a vastly different work environment. Do you feel your background allowed you to approach the demands of kitchen culture uniquely? My old job was so unbelievably boring, I didn’t feel any sense of purpose. If I didn’t show up for work one day, nothing changed. I felt like it didn’t matter if I was there or not. So I guess the biggest takeaway I have from that was to appreciate that you are needed in the kitchen, that you are creating things, and (hopefully) people are really excited to eat those things. Also, no one ever screamed at me, so that probably helped.

Working in such a limited environment must be pretty challenging. Can you take us through some of your creative processes and explain the considerations that help you produce such well-composed food under such tight restrictions? Oh man, I don’t know. I come up with most of my ideas either walking home from work or in the shower after work, sometimes I think about dishes and forget whether I’ve washed my hair. I think the first thing I always consider is can I cook this in the half convection or can it be hot held in a circulator. If the answer is no, I have to scrap that and move on. I couldn’t run pasta in the winter because the humidity from the pot was so bad, the walls were dripping.

We are very fortunate to be connected to Harvest Community Foods and Burdock and Co; without them I don’t think Gobo could function the way it does. Harvest does a weekly CSA which is a curated collection of fresh produce from farms all over the lower mainland. I can add on to those CSA orders and get five pounds of this, three pounds of that, and get great products from all different farms. Gobo is so small that without Harvest, I would not be able to make the minimum order from one farm, let alone multiple farms. Harvest also has a freezer (Gobo doesn’t), and we share a lot of kitchen gear like a Vitamix, Robot-Coupe, etc. I’m also able to add on to various Burdock orders and they’re kind enough to do things like confit duck, braise meats, deep fry stuff for garnish, and other different things that I am unable to do because we are so small. Shoutout to the Burdock kitchen crew!

Have these limitations served as a beneficial exercise in the creative process? Are there any nagging frustrations in working with a small kitchen that you haven’t found a satisfactory workaround for (any equipment you’d like to be able to integrate but can’t because of space/logistics?) Being so limited has made me think outside of the box a bit; you can’t rely on all your old tricks when you can’t sauté, grill, smoke, deep-fry, etc. So yes, I think it has benefited me in a way. In terms of equipment it really comes down to hood vents; not having extraction really limits what you can do. If I had to choose only one thing I could add to the kitchen, it would 100% be a deep fryer, and as soon I got it, Chef Andrea’s fried chicken would be on the menu and never leave.

Talk to us about the reality of being a cook opening a small restaurant during the onset of a global pandemic: were there ever any “what the fuck are we doing” moments? What got you through? When we opened in August 2020 it seemed like Covid was on the way out. Boy, were we wrong! There were some dark times, especially in that first Winter. Peter and I spent a lot of time alone in the restaurant together. Luckily, I think we are pretty similar people and share many of the same interests, so I was very grateful for his company. I’m not sure I could have done that with a lot of other people.

You are someone who prioritizes personal life. How have you maintained a balance between life and career? Has it been a struggle? My wife has been self-employed for almost my entire cooking career, so she can adjust her schedule to match my days off most of the time, which is a huge help. Even with that, it has been a struggle sometimes; not being home 12-15 hours a day, five days a week can wear you down (and it can wear your relationships down too). I have definitely chosen a few jobs based on schedule/hours over career advancement. It’s a tough balance for sure. We are only open Wednesday to Saturday at Gobo and having that extra day off every week helps. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to go back to a five day week again.

I’m taking this opportunity to ask you to publicly embarrass yourself by telling us what was the biggest kitchen blunder of your career? The biggest blunder I can remember actually happened in my own kitchen and it wasn’t that long ago. When Covid shut down Gobo in March ’21 I was making hot sauce in my house and selling jars to my friends. I was doing a pretty big batch and instead of splitting it in two I decided to fill my Vitamix to the brim, so full I couldn’t even put the lid on. It was all going swell for about 45 seconds until it ‘hiccuped’ and exploded bright orange fermented carrot hot sauce all over me, the kitchen cabinets, counter, and floor. I think I started laughing uncontrollably and then called Linds into the kitchen to take pictures before I cleaned up. Ask me to see them next time we hang out.

“Not a conventional metric of determination, but it spoke to me.” Rhys Amber on Chef Neil Hillbrandt giving it his all in a hotdog suit. Photo by Michelle Sproule for Scout Magazine

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