Thanks to the Communications department at NAIT (and particularly to Diane Begin), I had the opportunity to sit down with Chef Rob Feenie last week during his whirlwind three days as the NAIT Culinary School of Hospitality’s first ever Chef in Residence. He will be back in the spring to open an Edmonton branch of Cactus Club Cafe in West Edmonton Mall around April 24.
I arrived about an hour and a half prior to our scheduled interview time, and was able to watch Chef Feenie conduct a few cooking demonstrations with a group of pastry students. In between starting recipes for an apple galette, white chocolate creme brulee, and ice cream, he actively sought out questions from students. In my opinion, it was rather unfortunate that Chef Feenie wasn’t able to choose the recipes he would create, as he made it clear it had been a few years since he had made ice cream. The NAIT instructional team behind him was great, and ensured, as on well-oiled cooking shows, that he had the needed ingredients and tools behind him, as well as finished products ready to dole out.
Putting the galette together
Most of the questions centered around his Iron Chef America win against Chef Morimoto, and Chef Feenie was more than happy to talk about his experience on the show. During his demo, however, he was clearly flustered, and continued to reference how much more stressful this was than his Iron Chef experience. Still, he was able to impart several nuggets of information to the rapt crowd in front of him – that the students must love cooking, the customer is always right, minimize wastage. Throughout the session as well, he mentioned the names of so many other chefs that it made my head spin – I hope the students knew who he was referring to.
Chef Feenie’s constant media circus
At the end of the demonstration, the students were given some apple galette and creme brulee to taste, and Chef Feenie made sure to point out the texture they were to look for. He also handed out $20 Cactus Club gift cards to all of the students, and offered to give any of them a tour of the kitchen if they were to drop by in April.
Handing out gift cards
As is standard for me, I recorded my interview with Chef Feenie. I thought about putting it together in a coherent article, but as the majority of my readers likely already know his backstory, I thought it better to let his words speak for themselves.
On competing with Edmonton’s chain-happy market:
“The effort that we put into Cactus the last few years has been great. If you look at our design – how our restaurants look, the food, the service, the vibe in our room, it’s not any one particular thing. In regards to how we see coming into this particular market, I know I don’t know Edmonton that well, but in regards to Cactus and what we do – we do what we do well, and people in Edmonton will be surprised and impressed. Our company is about giving a little bit of everything to everyone and creating a great experience. Don’t forget, the company has been around for over twenty years, and over the last twenty years there’s been a long time to think about who we are. We’re feeling really good about being here, and if we didn’t, we wouldn’t have come. We’re not coming with the sense of being overconfident, but we feel good about what we can offer.”
On the failure of Edmonton’s Cactus Club in the 90s:
“In that point in time, a lot happened really quickly. It’s a different thought process now. And the restaurants look completely different now. The restaurants we had ten, fifteen years ago – there’s no comparison. We’re hanging unbelievable artwork in our restaurants. Not just that – the decor looks different, it’s completely revamped in terms of where we were ten, fifteen years ago. A completely different look, completely different feel. For anyone who’s ever been [to the former Edmonton location], they will be shocked and will be in for a different treat.”
On the potential of sourcing ingredients locally:
“With us, when you look at the primary proteins – fish, meat – because of consistency, have to be sourced out through our big supplier. But having said that, yeah, for myself, obviously in our two Calgary locations, we sell a lot of meat. Here, we’ll have to wait and see and look at our sales. Richard [Jaffray, Cactus Club President and Founder] and I talked about this when I started – we’re definitely getting into a scenario where some of the stores may be promoting local product. Right now is obviously not the time of the year for produce [in Edmonton], but when the produce starts in the summer, I’ll be out checking out who’s there because it’s a big part of what I do and a big part of the people I work with in the test kitchen. For example, if there’s a tomato supplier in Edmonton that can supply me with tomatoes for a month, we might do something on the menu that will go on our feature sheet. It’s a big part of what we do and important for us.”
On food bloggers:
“The thing that I’ve loved about the evolution over the last few years of food and wine…something I was telling the students this morning or this afternoon – whether it’s an opinion or a comment about food – it’s subjective. Whether its bloggers or writers, everyone should understand that people have the right to their opinion and the right to talk. The importance of it is getting the voice out, and it’s the extended part of the media of any kind of city. Bloggers in some cases are just giving their two cents worth and sometimes you’ll have bloggers making comments that make more sense than some of the food writers. It’s important for everyone to have an opinion.” [And yes, Chef Feenie does read blogs, courtesy of a media company that supplies him with daily reports.]
On photography in restaurants:
“You’re not going to stop them. If you’re not going to stop them I don’t think you should worry about them. It doesn’t bother me. It’s one of those things you ask…but why, what are you going to do? Go home and copy it?”
On food trends:
“I don’t think anyone is going to look at their prices and downgrade their prices, but I think you are going to see people streamlining things and making menus that are a bit more approachable for people. I think you’re still going to see those high ticket items, but I think you’re not going to see as many of them – more mid-price range. It gets back to Cactus – this is what we do. We really offer a wide-range of products – I’d like to think that we are leading that.”
And an abridged Culinary Q & A –
What did you eat today?
“I ate here. Cioppino for lunch. Ice cream for dessert. Three pieces of my galette, which I shouldn’t have. Three little chunks. And tonight, we’re going to Hardware Grill.”
What do you never eat?
“Things that are moving before you put them in your mouth. There has been the odd things that I’ve had. I won’t be specific, but I eat what I’m familiar with, and what I’m not familiar with I try to avoid.”
Where have you dined out in Edmonton?
“Sorrentino’s, which I thought was good; that was last time I was here. Hardware Grill tonight. I would imagine that between now and the end of April I will have gone to every single restaurant that I’ve been told to try out. I’ve been asking everyone to get an idea. I’ll definitely be getting to know the restaurants.”
Complete this sentence: In my fridge, you will always find:
“Wine. Mushrooms. Lettuces – romaine, red leaf, green leaf, iceberg – tomatoes, cucumbers. Free range eggs. We shop almost every day so we don’t keep a lot of stuff in there. That’s the bulk of what we keep, nothing overly exciting.”
What is your family’s favourite dish that you prepare?
“Carbonara and roast chicken.”
What is the one ingredient you cannot live without?
“Olive oil. Good for you – but only a tablespoon a day.”
My small photoset from the day is here. You can be sure that as soon as CCC opens, I’ll be there.