Ten years ago, Rob Feenie earned national props as the first Canadian cook to triumph in the Iron Chef kitchen. A few years later, he signed on as executive chef and "food concept architect" at Cactus Club, the hugely popular Vancouver-born casual dining chain that opens its long-awaited Toronto location in the city's financial district this week. Here, Feenie shares some of the secrets to his success, including why it can actually be okay to overcook a roast (as long as you like it that way).
Cool heads get there just as quickly as hot ones
Growing up, I was very close to my mom and my dad and one thing that has really influenced me is the way my dad was always very supportive of everything we did, but he wasn't pushy. There was never any pressure on me, he was an easygoing guy and he wanted to make sure that his kids were happy. He was always at our soccer games, at track and field. When I would lose, my dad would always say, don't worry, if you put your mind to it, you'll get there. I think that has had an influence on my own style of leadership. I'm not saying that I didn't have my days of being a hothead, especially when I was a younger chef, but I think I've definitely become more patient and learned that you catch more flies with honey. That's not to say a more aggressive form of leadership doesn't work, but there are many ways to get to the same result and I find that being more relaxed and nimble is the better way.
The simple perfection of simplicity
I'm very interested in learning about what's new in the industry and keeping up with the latest restaurants and techniques and everything else. I am always reading magazines, I probably have a thousand cookbooks and I find it very inspiring. In terms of my own food and my own style, though, I find that getting too caught up in the trends of the moment is dangerous. It's so important to stay true to your own style and identity. One of my mentors was Santi Santamaria, one of Spain's greatest chefs. He told me, "Never let your kitchen become a laboratory," meaning it's not about who can do the craziest thing or the most extreme thing. I love that! I have always been passionate about great quality, local ingredients and then just letting the food and flavours shine through. I guess that's become a popular thing now, which is great.
Cook like nobody's watching
When I go to people's homes, they will get this idea that they're cooking for a chef and they need to be really impressive, even though that's not what I want. What I really want to eat is the food that they enjoy making and that they eat regularly. I always tell people – when you're hosting a dinner party for a group, cook what you're comfortable with and you'll never fail. It's great to experiment and try new things, but it's also so great that every person has their own rotation of regular meals that they make a certain way. I love how you can tell a lot about a person by what they eat. My mom is a great example. She was notorious for overcooking her roast beef and when I was older I would try to tell her how to fix it and she said, "Robert, just get out of my kitchen. I'm going to cook my roast the way I cook my roast."
Celebrity isn't a free pass
The Food Network has gotten people excited about food and that's a great thing – I don't think there's anything wrong with having the desire to be on television and be part of that world. What I always say is that the whole celebrity-chef thing doesn't change the fact that you have to learn your basics. The industry is self-correcting in that way because you get to a certain level and if you don't have the foundation, there is no way to fake it.
Don't let the price tag fool you
One of the questions I get a lot from young, aspiring chefs is about education – whether they should be trying to go to one of the big-name culinary schools in the United States, whether it's worth the money. I'm not saying those schools aren't great. What I do think, though, is that schooling isn't about the price tag, but about the instruction you get, and it's not always the most expensive schools that offer the best education. A school like George Brown [College, in Toronto] has an amazing program.
This interview has been condensed and edited by Courtney Shea.