Chef Rob Feenie is one of Canada’s most illustrious kitchen masters. Over the course of his storied career to date, he made his mark on the Vancouver dining scene with two critically acclaimed restaurants, Lumire and Feenie’s, defeated the seemingly undefeatable Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto in a still-talked about episode of Iron Chef America and has published three cookbooks. In 2008 Feenie joined forces with the Cactus Club Cafe restaurant chain as executive chef, a position he continues to hold, and where his influence is most evident in the select dishes on the Cactus Club menu marked with an “RF” icon. Recently in town on Cactus Club business, we caught up with Chef Feenie at the popular Stephen Avenue location.
You’ve been in the game long enough now to have a greatest hits list. Which dishes would be on that list?
“I always get harassed by other chefs in this country about my ravioli, but it’s one of those things that I make, and it has kind of stuck with me, so I would say the ravioli, the beef carpaccio and the tuna tataki [all on the current Cactus Club Cafe menu]. The carpaccio is very clean, very simple, very refined and that’s my palate. There are other things too, like the crispy chicken sandwich, which is one of the most addictive sandwiches I’ve ever made. The squash soup that we make in house where we roast the squash every day, that’s another example of the simplicity of how I see food.”
As someone who oversees a network of kitchens that have to be consistent in what they put out, mentorship is undoubtedly an important part of what you do. What are some of your philosophies on mentoring other chefs?
“That’s one of the key things here. I’m working with 500 to 600 chefs in this company. We’ve got about 150 Red Seal chefs. I’m a bit of an old guy. I’ve been around a long time. I usually always talk to the guys in the kitchen, a lot of young guys, and they’re usually quite excited about being here. I’ve been doing this for over 30 years and if I can take what I’ve done for 30 years and pass it on to them, that’s one of the greatest things about working for a company like this – I’m not just sharing my experience with a dozen people, I’m sharing it with hundreds of people. It’s important for me to be someone they can look up to. I’m not the bad guy here. I’m the guy that’s the upbeat, happy, motivating person who wants them to feel good about being here everyday. That’s what I do.”
There’s an obvious rock ‘n’ roll influence at play here – the Warhol screenprints on the wall the “Velvet Underground” dessert on the menu – do you listen to music when you cook?
“I’m a food guy, so I’m food first. I don’t listen to music during service, but I do have it on (never during service though) … It’s funny, I’ve been through I-don’t-know-how-many restaurant openings now, and every opening has been special. There’s always something that I can remember the opening by and it’s usually, oddly enough, a song.”
So what was the song for the opening of this location?
“You’re going to laugh. I can’t believe I’m even saying this. But it was Justin Bieber’s “Sorry.”
What are your current food obsessions? What’s the dish of the summer?
“I would probably say the ceviche we do. It’s a take on a dish I used to do at Lumire. Most people think of ceviche with the lime juice being the focus, but this one is a recipe I got in Malaysia so it’s has a nuoc cham flavour. It’s a bit different but my kids love it – whenever my kids love things it works for me. It’s light, it’s simple and the nuoc cham is very addictive. It’s served with taco chips so it’s a fun thing for the summer.”
Over the course of your entire career, what would you say is your biggest food fail?
“I was like 21 years old and I made a dish with lavender, honey and blueberries for a duck sauce. At the time I thought it was really cool but it actually tasted like toothpaste.”