How to find your voice as a new chef in Vancouver

Chef Brian Skinner

Brian Skinner still speaks like a young chef. A husband and father in his late ‘30s, in any other industry he might still be called a young gun. But Brian has already made his mark on Vancouver, as the original chef-partner at the Acorn on Main Street, a restaurant that finally reconciled Vancouver’s high-end dining with the city’s vegetarian culture. Brian sold his share of the Acorn four years ago, but his passion for plant-focused food hasn’t flagged. As he prepares his next project in Kelowna, he talks about food and the industry with the passion of an upstart chef chasing his first dream, though maybe tempered by some wisdom gained along the way.

Brian began his career getting fired from McDonald’s. Like so many of Vancouver’s restaurant progeny, he cut his teeth in the big-box restaurant scene, slinging corporate food at Cactus Club. He moved from corporate kitchens to fine dining, working at the award-winning Bin 941. He came up hard, long hours and low wages.

“I lived on one-thousand dollars a month for a long time,” he says of the privation that seems to come standard with an early career in food.

With a name for himself in the Vancouver industry, Brian decided to leave. His first port of call was London where he worked at Michelin-starred Viajante and Sketch. He moved on to Copenhagen where he completed a stage at NOMA, a restaurant that has redefined fine dining and trained some of the most important chefs working today.  

When Brian came back home he saw a city he loved and a place for himself. Vancouver’s cosmopolitan milieu pointed to an open-minded public, and its West-coast ethic and outdoorsy culture told him that the time was ripe for his own brand of plant-focused food.

Brian had lived in Vancouver as a vegetarian for a long time. Though veggie culture abounded in the city, the higher-end dining scene was not celebrating plants the way Brian knew he could.

“I didn’t see a restaurant that my friends and I would want to eat at. So I made it.”  

The Acorn

Brian had a clear vision for the Acorn, making the sort of Vegetarian dining that didn’t feel vegetarian. Satisfying and thoughtful food that unobtrusively puts plants at centre-stage.

That was not an easy vision to execute. Each dish was painstakingly tested again and again until it met his vision. Perseverance became Brian’s watchword.

“My wife could tell whenever I was developing a new dish, just because I would be so grumpy.”

Brian brought his experiences abroad, good and bad, to the culture at the Acorn.

“Once, in London, I asked another cook how he was making a sauce. He literally hissed at me.” Brian recalls. “Copenhagen was the opposite. Everyone would sit over coffee and talk about their ideas. NOMA shared everything for the good of food as a whole.”

Empowering staff became a priority at the Acorn.

“I can write a menu alone,” says Brian, “but my staff will be more engaged in the restaurant if I make them part of that process.”

He and his team avoided falling back on recipe books and tried-and-true methods. They actively sought to break new ground. Skinner still holds that if he can push through his failed attempts and make a dish that meets his vision, he will have expressed his character in a way he can’t with a rote recipe.

A little wiser

“When you move from chef to owner, your attention shifts to the dining room,” Brian says of his move to co-ownership. He had to learn to put aside his chef’s ego and aim to make his guests as happy as possible.

Brian had to think more about how his restaurant felt, seeing his painstakingly crafted dishes as just one part of the trio of ambiance, service, and food that makes or breaks any restaurant.

He developed little rituals every day, adjusting cutlery, setting the right music, taking the superstitious steps needed to stay calm before a service where everything could go wrong.

“You become hyper-aware,” he says of his outlook as a co-owner.

Brian didn’t want to build the sort of bullying kitchen culture he had come up in. Mistakes and conflict were inevitable, but Brian’s approach was to avoid blaming individuals. Instead, he reframed the conversation by asking his staff how their work could make guests happiest.

“The industry is rough enough already.” Skinner says, though he accepts that once in a while yelling does get the job done. “It can’t be your first approach, though,” he insists.

Every night after service, the Acorn’s cooks shared a beer in the kitchen. Brian used the opportunity to talk successes and failures, facilitate a community outside of the chaos of service, and bring his team into the sort of collaborative process he experienced in Copenhagen.

His biggest takeaway from the Acorn was about people. “If you can create food that inspires your team, be a mentor to them, and engage them in the process you’ll build the team you need to make a great restaurant.”

The view from Kelowna

Brian has left Vancouver, at least for now. Walking away from the Acorn and moving to the Okanagan has given him time to think about Vancouver’s scene.

That open dining landscape he saw when he opened the Acorn in 2012 isn’t there anymore. Fast-rising cost of living has put the crunch on the city’s restaurants. Rents are skyrocketing and customers don’t have the disposable income to meet the rising prices of dishes.

“Salad costs sixteen dollars now, and that’s the sad reality.”

Staffing shortages are a problem too. “Ninety-nine percent of restaurants in Vancouver are understaffed,” says Brian. People simply can’t afford to live on a cook’s or server’s wage in the city.

The challenge, in Brian’s eyes, is for restauranteurs to keep delivering great experiences, while paying big rent and a living wage for their staff.

Holding onto staff, in Brian’s view, takes two of three key factors: money, community, and fulfilling work. If you can offer community and fulfillment, even if you can’t pay great money, you’ll provide the sense of purpose that so many young people are seeking in their careers.

“I love that millennials are rejecting the culture, hours, and bad pay I had to put up with as a cook.” Says skinner.

The big-box dining Brian started in will continue to flourish in the city, simply because they have access to capital that independent restaurants don’t.

Nevertheless, Brian still sees space for creativity. Smaller groups like Kitchen Table, the owners of Ask for Luigi, St. Lawrence, and five other Vancouver spots, are still breaking new ground in Vancouver dining.

Opening your own restaurant, without some kind of corporate partnership, is a tough ask in today’s Vancouver.

“It’s going to be expensive to be an independent restaurateur in the city.” Says Brian “You’re going to have to be in this game for a reason other than money”

Finding a voice

Brian still wants to express himself in every dish he creates. That goal still drives him to think and work, like a young chef.

In a world of Instagram, as taste plays second fiddle to photogeneity, Brian thinks it’s harder than ever for a chef to define themselves through their food. Doing so takes a huge commitment.

Since leaving the Acorn he’s realized he put too much of himself in that restaurant. A sustainable career in kitchens, in Brian’s view, is about self-respect and putting yourself before the business.

“Like most chefs’ first restaurants, I didn’t practice self-respect at the Acorn. Now I’m trying to strike that balance.”

Brian, though, still loves a chef’s first restaurant.

“I find genuine pleasure in walking in somewhere and saying, somebody has lost their mind for a good part of the last year to make this place work.”

For all his hard-won wisdom, Brian still wants to put his whole self into something. He’s still a young chef.