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The Story of Food: An Interview with Chef Jeff Van Geest

Large windows inside Miradoro Restaurant at Tinhorn Creek showcase the Oliver valley’s colourful autumn vineyards before night sets in. Tables, casually set with glassware, and silver inside narrow paper bags, lay in wait for the people who will soon bring life to the room with stories and laughter and the clinking of glasses over good food.

The kitchen is energetically lit as four chefs bustle and maneuver around one another, working as a team to pull off this night’s theme, Super Mario, a blend of Italian and Japanese flavour and culture.

A tall robust man, with a bald head and forearms adorned with ink, pushes through the swinging kitchen door and greets me with twinkling blue eyes.

He is award-winning chef Jeff Van Geest, a celebrated chef in BC who is not just passionate about creating beautiful and mouth-watering works of delectable art that inspire smiles among guests. He also enjoys being the conduit between the suppliers, makers, growers, and foragers of the ingredients that he works with.

I was there to photograph this night’s Short Table Dinner, a COVID-friendly version of the popular communal long table dinners that you may see in Europe.

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Chef Jeff Van Geest (2nd from left)

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The Story of Food

The Short Table Dinners are essentially about the story of food and how it inspires people and culture to come together. For example, the “Super Mario” theme was inspired by the American GI’s being stationed in Japan.

Chef Jeff explains, “Italian food was very trendy in America post-WWII so they (American GI’s) knew all these dishes. They wanted to eat spaghetti and meatballs so they had their Japanese cooks make it. The Japanese cooks learned the dishes and then took them home to their restaurants and made their own Japanese interpretations of them. It evolved into this whole style of cooking that happened organically.”

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DSC_8270Chef Jeff Van Geest (right) and Chef Ian Stilborn (left) introducing the theme to guests

An Interview with Chef Jeff

After seeing Jeff and his team in action, I was excited to sit down with him and dig into his past a little bit. Here’s what he had to say!

When did you first know that you wanted to be a chef?

I had a friend who was a chef when I was in my late teens in Ontario. It seemed kind of cool but at the time the economy was tanking. It was during the 90’s recession. The town I was in was an auto town and everyone was laid off. A seventeen to eighteen-year-old kid was not getting any good jobs at that point.

I gave up on it and came to BC and got a job at Edelweiss Deli in Metrotown Food Court in Burnaby making Philly cheesesteak sandwiches.

It’s not exactly the most glamorous beginning but I enjoyed it. I enjoyed interacting with the customers and the day-to-day, and how dynamic it was.

From there, I decided to go to culinary school (Vancouver Community College in 1994). I went from being a lousy student in high school to honors in culinary school because I was so interested in it.

What’s your first memory of your love for cooking?

For me it was the ingredients. One set (of grandparents) were market gardeners and the other set were farmers and had an orchard, strawberries, and whatnot in Southern Ontario.

My grandmothers and my mom and my aunts would always be making homey rustic things but beautiful tasty things in the kitchen. I just always loved that. I’d hang out in the kitchen tasting things. It’s just a place I liked to be.

What’s the funniest thing that’s happened in your kitchen?

That I can talk about? ‘Cause, there have been some things! (Jeff laughs) I won’t say where I was working or who it was but it was in a resort town.

One of the big-name chefs in the town was on a sabbatical. He was getting a little restless and asked if he could come work with us.

Our chef was like, “Okay you guys. This guy’s a big deal. Call him a chef, show him respect.”

We were a bunch of young snowboarding partying yahoos and he just wanted us to be a little more respectful than we normally were. We took that seriously. I mean he was a big deal to us.

On his first day in the kitchen, we had a big charcoal grill with a rotisserie behind it. He pulled out the rotisserie and the drip tray. (The drip tray) which was full of grease, spilled into the charcoal grill which went up in flames and set off the fire suppression system. This was on a Friday night in a resort town with four hundred people reserved. So, the fire suppression system goes off and everything gets covered in chemicals, the gas is shut off, and our boss was like, “You still have to do service.”

So we had to figure out a way to do that but it’s just kind of funny. And honestly, it taught us all to be humble. He was very humble. He never came in said that he was a big deal. It was kind of a lesson too.

Have you ever thrown anything in the kitchen?

Yes, but never at anybody. I think I may have thrown a pizza earlier this year when I was frustrated by somebody who had been shown something many times and just didn’t care and wasn’t really listening. The same mistakes were being made over and over.

I definitely did not throw it at them or near them. It was more at the wall out of pure frustration. It’s a side of myself I know I have. I’m generally very even-keeled, try and be patient and kind, and respectful. But yeah, never at anyone. Thrown at me, yes. Those were different times.

What do you love most about your job?

Being the conduit between the suppliers of the ingredients. Not just the suppliers but the actual makers of the ingredients, the growers, the foragers of the ingredients to the customer.

Also interpreting and making something that’s already beautiful and delicious and making it into something really special but at the same time respecting the ingredients and letting the ingredients speak for themselves.

What’s your favorite dish to create?

I really enjoy making handmade pasta, stuffed pasta, and whatnot. It’s something so simple but so easy to mess up at the same time. Anybody can make pasta but to make it ethereal and on another level takes a fair amount of skill. It’s something that I take a lot of pride in. It’s something I really really enjoy.

I also really like (working with) wild mushrooms. I love getting in 20 to 30 pounds of them and just cleaning them up and handling each one, brushing it off, scraping off dirt with my knife, and stuff like that.

What four ingredients are necessary in your kitchen?

Olive oil, garlic, chili’s, and lemon juice.

If you could prepare a meal for anyone, who would it be and what would you make them?

I would cook for John Bishop who owned the restaurant Bishops where I apprenticed.

I learned a lot there and it set my philosophy a bit too. I learned a lot about being a gracious restauranteur and being a host but also working with local ingredients, farm-to-table cooking, and whatnot.

I don’t know what I’d cook for him. A simple thoughtful meal using local ingredients as a way of saying thanks and showing appreciation for what I got from working there.

What’s your style of cooking in three words?

Rustic yet refined, letting the ingredients speak for themselves but also using really strong techniques.

What are you most proud of in your career?

I’ve always tried to cook with integrity. I’ve been doing this for over 25 years now and I continue to learn. I continue to progress but I always stayed true to the style I like to cook and to be honest in how I cook.

I try to be transparent. I have run multiple successful kitchens that have made money. I can talk about the ephemeral side of it but there’s also the practical side which is money. I’ve been a part of that time after time after time.

You’ve won awards?

I have. Yeah, that’s cool. That’s a kind of bonus to me.

It’s more about the customers leaving happy and ‘getting’ what I’m doing. (It’s about) bringing joy to people and something pleasurable to their lives. That’s probably the thing I’m most proud of, all of the people that I made smile.

Who’s your biggest supporter?

My wife.

What would you want to have as your last meal?

I’ve always wanted to go to Japan and sit at an eight-person sushi bar and do a sixteen-course Omakase menu at one of those tiny little Michelin star sushi restaurants there. That would be pretty incredible!

Are there any foods that you don’t like?

Ingredients-wise, not really. I’ve had a lot of things and I think the only thing I’ve ever eaten that I felt a little squeamish eating is brains and testicles.

I could sound like a snob and say fast food but I do enjoy an A & W burger once in a while, but yeah probably brains. It’s too rich. It’s too much.

What is the most challenging ingredient to work with?

I think that fish-cooking shows a lot of finesse in the kitchen. I see a lot of fish cooked poorly so I think fish is very reflective of the skill of the kitchen.

I also feel the same way about pasta though. Pasta is not difficult to work with and pull off in a mediocre way but to do it in an elevated way certainly takes a lot of skill.

Is it difficult to work with? I don’t know. There’s not much that intimidates me at this point.

Do you do the cooking at home?

Not normally. Once or twice a week, but because I work in the evenings my wife does most of the cooking. She gets our boys (nine and fourteen) involved a little bit too.

I make breakfast in the morning (three to five days per week) and do one or two meals on the weekend. But not a lot. We usually have a hot breakfast. We eat like normal people. Nothing too fancy, smoothies and toast, scrambled eggs.

What’s your favorite kitchen equipment or gadget?

You’re nothing without sharp knives, good quality sharp knives.

Gadget-wise, everything serves a purpose. I like to have a lot of different things. I like the modern stuff like my thermal circulator but I also like my charcoal smoker/grill outside too.

I think the most important thing is sharp knives.

If you had just one wish what would it be?

I wish I could do this, run a successful kitchen and restaurant, and only work 30 hours a week instead of 60 plus hours a week.

At this time of the year, a short day is 10 hours. Right now we’re trying to save labour because it’s quiet. I could have an extra cook on but I need to be here to make us financially successful.

Short days happen if my last table is at seven o’clock and it’s a really quiet night. Then I get to go home early. I could take shorter days but I’m a partner in this business and I don’t want to pay someone else to be here when I can be here. This is how we’ve stayed in business for ten years. This is how we survived lockdown.

We run a tight ship and everyone is very much hands-on. Today, I’ve got one cook in there and then me and my sous chef. We’ll let that cook go after he’s done five or six hours, and me and my sous chef will finish up. We’re on a salary rate so it doesn’t cost extra money for us to be here.

It’s just how you do it. It’s just how you survive the ups and downs of a seasonal restaurant. You go from one challenge to a totally different challenge within a month. It takes hard work and dedication.

Are you working on any big projects right now?

In addition to Short Table Dinners and Mussels and Fries, we’re thinking about New Year’s Eve. Christmas Group Menus are available for people.

It’s a little different because of COVID, but we can still do small groups. We can even do a larger group of up to fifty and split it up into tables of six.

That’s it, and then we shut down in January and February. We’re winding things down a little bit.

What kind of passions do you have outside of work?

Mountain biking. I love to ride my bike. Fly fishing, snowboarding, music, collecting vinyl records.

How do you feel you’ve changed from the first day on the job until now?

I think I’ve learned a lot about managing people. I think I’ve gotten a lot better at that because it’s seasonal. You’re always trying to retain staff but because of seasonality, it’s not always easy. I think I’ve become a smarter and better people manager.

The days of having things thrown at you is not acceptable anymore. We were motivated by fear as young cooks but we were also motivated by passion. I think now you have to get to know each cook because everyone is motivated by different things. (You need to) figure them out individually to get the most out of them yet make sure that they are happy and fulfilled. It’s challenging but I try to get better at it all the time.

Tell me three things that you consider to be your cooking strengths

I’m a really good line cook. I can handle really busy days. I’m mentally organized. I can step in, sort things out, and get people out of the weeds.

I think my palette is really strong and refined.

I think the relationship side of things with suppliers and farmers (is good). Research. Looking for new ingredients and new farms, keeping things interesting for our customers by doing that work on the back end.

About Miradoro Restaurant at Tinhorn Creek

Next time you’re in Oliver or the South Okanagan be sure to check out Miradoro Restaurant located at Tinhorn Creek Winery. Go for a wine tasting while you’re at it!

At Miradoro, you’ll not only enjoy delicious cuisine inspired by Italy, Spain, and Portugal prepared by award-winning Chef Jeff Van Geest, but you’ll also enjoy one of the best views that Oliver has to offer from anywhere you sit inside the restaurant. All ingredients are sourced locally.

This season you can enjoy Short Table Dinners on Tuesday evenings and Mussels and Fries from November 25th to November 29th. View the Christmas Menu and the New Year’s Eve Menu too! Reservations are required for a maximum of six people per table. Call 250-498-3742 or email info@miradoro.ca.

View Flickr Gallery to see more photos from the Short Table Dinner experience!

Tania is the new Content Marketing Specialist at Oliver Tourism. She is passionate about lifestyle photography and writing. She also designs websites.

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