Interview with Will Lew

Vancouver is home to some of the best chefs in the world, many have worked for the top chefs and restaurants around the world as well as around the city. Dishing with the Chefs is a series of Interviews with some of the top chefs in and around Vancouver.

Chef William Lew began his career working in the restaurant industry by washing dishes at Glowbal in 2005. Wearing his best suit, the UBC animal-biology student went in to simply drop off his résumé, and the chef asked if he could start right then and there and he then washed dishes for two years while finishing his university degree. Over the years since, he has worked as a Sous Chef at the Fairmont Pacific Rim Hotel, then the Chef de Cuisine at Notch8 at Fairmont Hotel Vancouver. He was Chef de Cuisine at Black & Blue, before becoming the Executive Chef for Ocean Wise. Earlier this year he was the Executive Chef of Nootka Marine Adventures, before joining the Versante Hotel as their Executive Chef in the summer of 2021. Here he is the Executive Chef for Bruno Restaurant, he’s also responsible for banquets and room service; and he also oversees Club Versante and those restaurants which includes newly opened Cask and others which they will be opening soon.

You can follow Chef Will Lew on Instagram @chefwilliamlew

What were your steps in your cooking career, did you go to culinary school? What was your first job?  Was it after high school, or during high school that was food related or cooking related?

I think it all started as I said to a lot of people is from my grandfather because that’s my earliest memory is cooking with my family. Every weekend everyone always playing something and I was always in the kitchen. How’d you make this? What’s in here and tasting things and trying things and like just seeing that seeing a transformation happen with what is considered mundane, you had to eat all the time. But no, it’s not mundane. If you actually realize the effort that goes behind it, and what the ingredients stand for and all those things that at an early age taught me artistry because then after eating we would do drawing and painting and everything else together. I get my inspiration from that. You quickly forget because you grow up. You know I’m gonna be a musician or I’m going to be an artist or I’m gonna go and. do some other random things that you find cool at the moment in time and then always went back to food. In high school I remember Home Economics like everyone else would be a group of us a bunch of us wannabe tough kids in high school. We would want to go and everyone like oh let’s go and do some punk things. I would say no we’re going to bake some cookies, we learned how to make cookies today in Home-Economics and then we learn how to make like tacos. And then we made some sort of like cupcake things. And then a group of us boys would go to each other’s houses to bake and to cook and that was the next experience. Realizing, ok, you know what?  Cooking is fun, and then you’d go home and just create random dishes.

I went to university, became a paid musician for a bit, played in musicals around the city with my violin. Eventually I found a job in Yaletown lucky enough to be given a job not knowing anything about it, I tell the story about my suit and ruining it because I got thrown into a dish pit which is still sore, part of me wishes I had that suit back but it changed a trajectory of my career forever. As I say all the time that my chef and career life flashed before my eyes that day because I saw the best and the worst of everything I thought would be in the industry and I told myself from that day forward; if I I’m lucky enough to become a chef, what kind of human would I want to be? What kind of integrity would I want to work with. How would I want to translate food into a way of communication? I didn’t really know that until I started doing it.  And then the other most transformative moment of the evolution of my career was art history at university. I did go to university for animal biology. But the course that I loved the most was art history, and the word that I learned there the only word that ever mattered was significance. What is the significance of this piece? When it comes down to the pieces of art that we put on our plate, we have to have a significance.

Now that the hotel has been open a few months, and Bruno restaurant has been open since. What has been your most your most interesting challenge that you’ve had to go through since opening into now?

I think it’s not really a challenge, but it’s more so. You know, as an artist, I played in musical theatre all the time. So how do you one up your last performance, you know? Or when I was playing recitals with my violin, how did you become better than your last performance? Because every performance is to be better than the last and so now that we already started off with so many theatrics, you know Tableside torching like the Iberico Tree that goes to your table, we got something. that looks like driftwood like the shore coming in out of it with your oysters, like how do you top that? That’s the difficult part like. But the best part is, every time you give a new idea out to the universe. I do believe like you make room for their next idea and that next idea that’s the challenge. How do we wind up? The last thing that we did?

1st dish:

Iberico Tree

hand carved cinco jotas iberico ham

wild berry neufchatel tartlets

foie gras rougie

fall orchard fruits candied

hazelnut soil

What was the inspiration behind the Iberico Tree?

The branches from Cortes Island. I always wanted to put things on branches but never found the right branch, after my visit to Cortes Island, these were the branches to use for this dish. I get the inspiration for food. I never think about food is food and how does the story translate into food and how does the food then integrate into the story. I never see the food first, ever. I see the story first.

2nd dish:

Scroll Loaf

rosemary

pecorino

brûlée foie gras butter

How did the Scroll Loaf come up?

It looks like a cinnamon bun, and it looks like a croissant cinnamon bun; it’s a locally made laminated dough. That’s done with a fois gras butter that’s swirled in throughout. A herb garlic fois gras butter, Pecorino Parmesan blend through it. Then the hardest part is just making sure we do the right temperature and the proofing and keeping it. We’re not necessarily pastry chefs or bread makers. This has been a journey for us to learn as well, which I hope you enjoyed tasting it today.

What are your must have ingredients in your restaurant kitchen?

Kelp. Number one being a huge proponent of Oceanwise and sustainability, but you have to understand its significance to our planet like one of the fastest growing organisms on Earth, like takes carbon more than a lot of probably more than anything else on Earth and knowing so many species provide habitation for other species around us, like this fish and shellfish and bivalves. For a planet or oceans in general. Since we live beside the ocean lucky enough, being Vancouverites and now Richmondites I guess.

Have you ever wanted to open your own restaurant?

Uh, before, not necessarily now. When you have a synergy with those who you work with, you work for and you collaborate with and they they believe in your messaging and they believe in your art and they’re believing the collective effort of your team. Then we’re lucky enough to be able to play with that. Privilege to then share that creativity and that passion with our guest. If it was my own, I’d probably be too nitpicky about anything I do, and then not do anything at all.

What do you look for your team members in the kitchen to provide you in in your profession?

I look for individualism and diversity. Because if I don’t have a spectrum of minds around us, we only have one Direction we can go. And when there’s so much more in this world to sort of share, like. Honestly, like sounds silly, and maybe I shouldn’t say this, but I barely ever read a resume. I just want to meet the person and if we but I can see that they work. They have a good work ethic if I can feel that they have integrity as a human being, you know, like anything with cooking, just like myself, we’re still learning all the time, so why don’t we learn from each other?

3rd dish:

The Aerials Grotto

Oysters

microgreens

edible flowers

What is the oysters on the wood dish called?

The Aerials Grotto.

How do we tell individual stories with each oyster, how do we put it back in its environment, right? Cultivated beach oysters. They get their hard shell and they get their look as they’re being tumbled all the time back and forth from the tide. You’re able to pick the oysters off of this thing.

Would a dish like this be able to be done throughout the year or is it specifically seasonal?

That is a great question, shellfish is one of the most sustainable products that we have out there so we can get oysters throughout the year and what better way to showcase the best of BC.

Did you know that Chef Jenna Marcotte was growing edible flowers before she joined your kitchen staff?

I reconnected with her because I saw her Edible flowers and micro green products and then when we started talking it was a passion point for both of us to find some way to work. If you can just like clear cut something your way onto but to take care to cut each one individually at its optimum. That’s something that she is a huge gardener even when back in the day when we were going through. She was an apprentice at the Fairmont, but we worked at different Fairmonts and she took her talents and translated them into even more artistic formats, so it’s a perfect synergy. As Jenna said there are seven restaurants around the city using her edible flowers and micro greens, and this has turned into a great personal business for her on the side of working with us.

I don’t see chicken on your menu at Bruno, is that correct?

We just added fried chicken so it’s like a flame torched version, it is fried chicken thighs. Buttermilk always marinated but like a bunch of spice mixes. We toss it with our collaboration chili crunch which is like our version of XO sauce, but done with Italian chilies inside. Then we toss that with our herb butter and then finish up with a green peppercorn aioli that we torch on top then drizzle some Maple syrup, then re toss everything together.

Adding fried chicken to your menu was that an idea that came from you guys or from you? Or did it come from driven by your customers asking?

The only poultry or bird product that we had was duck, which is still one of the top selling this year, we’re really lucky that the community is embracing it. For $23 as a menu item we include a beer and soft serve as well.  

Outside of cooking what do you like to do?

I love to play basketball.

4th dish:

Kurobuta Pork Belly

black garlic

balsamic glaze

peppercorn

lime aioli

The Kurobuta Pork belly dish, can you explain that?

It is a long process, we marinate the pork for a long time with our gluten free soy sauce, Maple syrup, black garlic, all the different aromatics, we add ginger, garlic, shallots, onions, and that’s marinated for about 24 hours. And then we sous-vide for another 24 hours cooking it right in the bag, we compress all the flavor. Then once that is done we cut it up into pieces, the bigger piece, the better and not necessarily the same. After that we deep fry it with a starch mixture that we sort of have found a perfect ratio for. With a few different starches, and when it comes out as it’s still crackling then we pour reduced balsamic black garlic. It’s almost like molasses over top. And it gets soaked into the crispy parts. And then you finish with a little bit of lime juice and like again the herb mix with like 4 different like effervescent herbs and then this time around, I smoked it for you with a little cherry wood it’s more for the essence of it, than it’s to penetrate the meat.

How do you keep the momentum going from one restaurant to another restaurant and then you know as they complete the project here without burning yourself out?

I think passion also runs on adrenaline and adrenaline runs on passion so. it’s the mission of ours to put something forward that we’re proud of, right? We’re lucky enough to have the space to have a platform for a voice of food. We’re all of us, all the cooks, all the people who work here. We’re all invested into like putting that forward in the pride for ourselves and for the integrity of our work.

And that will keep driving us because the next idea has a different concept and each concept is exciting in its own format and so the more we can inject. Its our passion. It’s your artistry. Is there way to express like the love of what you do and share that with the world around you.

Many restaurants are having a tough time hiring staff right now around Vancouver, but I look in your kitchen and I see a lot of staff. How? What’s the secret to finding staff who come and work with you? .

There is zero secret. The whole thing is work with integrity. And work with those who have integrity. And have a passion to teach each other, not just like shut. We’re teaching and learning from each other all the time, and we’re on this collective mission.

If people can feel that they can see it they can enjoy that and they see value in it they want to. They’re finding you just as much as you’re finding them so that you can share this universe together to push forward some being both believe in and that’s lucky enough like that’s.

Most restaurants or hotels will have an HR department, but in this case for cooking, are you looking around to find other fellow chefs that you’ve known for over many years to come and work with you with these various outlets? Or is that the job of the hotel today?

No, I’m lucky enough that we have our team curate our team and I’m very grateful for that. It’s hard to find a a startup place where you start from beginning and you’re opening 5-6 restaurants. Plus whatever future project there on the island, two other hotels showing up plus restaurants as well that. if you can’t create your own team. That’s when you lose the homogeny, right? That’s when you lose a connection to the people yourself included, like myself included. Like I said, I don’t even read the resumes half the time, if not ever. It’s interesting because I just want to know the people like who they are, because you can sense, at least for me and again. I’m kind of hippyish. That sense, I feel like you can just sense passion when you talk to people for the first few seconds, and if you.

5th dish:

Braised Lamb Gnocchi

heirloom winter squash

whipped mascarpone

charred shallots

sunchoke chips

mint gremolata

Can you tell me about your new Gnocchi dish?

I think one thing you know about me is I like to cook with theatrics and when it comes down to a dish, here’s your pasta in the bowl or something you know, like I don’t. Is not necessarily in my most exciting moment in time, but for some reason this is one of my most favorite dishes right now. I think because it reminds me and so many people have fall and they get into the Christmas season and like it looks almost festive. You know, the wild lingonberries marinade with local Birch syrup The squash gnocchi which we have the squash from our farm, roasted into it if we’re lucky we still can get a little bit of things like eventually we’re going to have to source something more. The squash gnocchi we make ourselves, braised Opal Valley lamb Shank, nice mushrooms from Oyster and King, which we get from a local forager who picks the mushrooms himself.  A little Herb Gremolata on top. Crispy sunchoke chips and then the sauce is the lamb brasie red wine, cream, butter, mascarpone cheese a little bit through it all and you got a little bit of herb garlic. It’s just like I don’t know fall in the bowl.

From other restaurants that I’ve dined at where you had been at the helm Table-side experiences have always been your number one thing. How have you been able to incorporate those here at Bruno?

I think the big thing is to be creative within the space that surrounds you and if you know life throws you lemons, you can make lemonade or you know the design of the room dictates how you see it, you have to remember that each table itself is also it’s own micro world. The only way to transform and transport you there is if we make it interactive and immersive within this table space.

Can you explain what Club Versante is?

As we keep growing our collections we have all the spaces ready but we open them consecutively so that we can do them properly. It is our hospitality entity where we’re doing restaurants and, eventually there will be a concierge service as well where we can create unique experiences like because we have that whiskey bar we have all these. We have our own farm on Cortez Island where we can custom create experiences just like any concierge

Many varieties of spaces and restaurants that have such diversity within the food and the drink, and the hospitality associated with it that. It’s like a one stop shop.

When you actually have time to dine out, which you don’t right now, What are your favorite restaurants outside of where you work?

I don’t even know their names. they’re all Chinese restaurants. And I probably can’t speak it well, so I’ll just be embarrassing myself. But I love hot pot Chinese like Hong Kong style hot pot. I just seek my cultures food because I’ve been so detached from it since I ever started and I told you the story before. I never valued Chinese food or my own culture as much when I was growing up ’cause it was this everyday commonplace when I got a job working in the industry for the first time and then I started losing all my weekends, missing out on all the family dinners and friend dinners and everything else and then and I forgot like how delicious my own cultural food was.

My favorite restaurants are ones I don’t even know the name of. I just want to go there and and just like. Immerse myself in a world that I missed so much within this almost 2 decades of cooking.  that is my escape from this, like my transportation and time back in time. That is my back to the future moment.

When did your fascination with Disney begin?

It became an obsession when I went to Disneyland the first time in Grade 3, and I’ll tell you the exact ride that changed my life forever, it was Pirates of the Caribbean. I never realized how to be transported into a world that wasn’t reality. This was this fantasy world and I thought the pirates were real, I couldn’t believe that as a kid. am I actually surrounded by real pirates and then this world where like how come I’m so mesmerized right now. Every time I go in there, I’m still nervous. What I learned from that situation growing up, especially later ’cause I always wanted to work for Disney. That is my dream, I don’t have an engineering degree, have a biology degree, I want to be one of those people who can create immersive experiences and tell stories through that immersiveness, and that is my dream.

If you ask me what is my dream job? I want to work for a place where I can transport people into a world of fantasy into a world of dreams and turn those into reality for them, even if it’s for that brief moment in time.

That’s where the obsession began because it’s I’m not saying I’m the biggest fan of Mickey Mouse, so I don’t have a favorite Disney character. I’m a fan of their ability to like how you put yourself into a world of fantasy without realizing everyone? A fairy tale actually is? And I’m just just been so immersed and obsessed. Not the feeling I know I get when I go to Disneyland or Disney World. That it just made me such a huge fan of storytelling in general, and the vesicle which we can tell stories within our career is food. So if I can use that to tell a story in some format, that’s what brings me joy. ’cause I remember the time that brought me so much.

Stay tuned for the next chef in the Dishing with the Chef series.

By: Richard Wolak