Celebrity chef, acclaimed author, and Vancouver Sun columnist Karen Barnaby is at a crossroads in her culinary career. After seventeen years as Executive Chef of Vancouver’s Fish House in Stanley Park, Chef Karen Barnaby is excited to be moving into a new corporate role. Under the umbrella of Gordon Food Service, she has moved into the position of Product and Business Development Chef for Albion Fisheries, Intercity Packers, and Fresh Start Produce. Chef Barnaby sat down with us to talk about her culinary roots, her years at the helm of The Fish House, and what’s in store for the future.
How old were you when you first started cooking?
I was around eight. I have always been fascinated by flavours and textures in food. My mother and grandmother got me off to a good start.
Any particular chefs or people who inspired you to translate your love cooking into a career?
Graham Kerr [The Galloping Gourmet], then Julia Child and Jaques Pepin in my teens. The career part was accidental; I got a job in a restaurant and just happened to be really good at cooking in a restaurant setting.
What is it about West Coast cuisine that made you specialize in it? Why not, say, Italian or French cuisine?
Because I’ve only worked in West Coast-style restaurants! In my cooking life outside of work, I made it a priority to learn about Italian, Indian, Middle Eastern, Japanese, and Thai food. I’m currently learning all that I can about Korean food. I’ve had some great friends from these countries and I love learning about their food.
You are pretty active in the community, supporting various foundations and the such. Which do you hold particularly close to your heart and why?
I love Community Kitchens/Fresh Choice Kitchens. Groups of people getting together, sharing knowledge and cooking together is a wonderful thing.
The Fish House in Stanley Park recently celebrated its 20th and you were its Executive Chef from 1994 to 2012. What is it about The Fish House that has allowed it to become the landmark restaurant it is today?
We were able to please most of the people most of the time. Trends come and go but easily identifiable and comfortable food will always be fashionable.
On Friday, April 16th, you worked your last day at The Fish House in Stanley Park. What about “The Fish” will you miss most, Chef Barnaby?
The people I’ve worked with for a long time and the suppliers. I’ve built great relationships with some of the local food suppliers and even got their foot in the door at other restaurants.
Congratulations on your new gig! Can you tell us a bit about the new opportunity you are moving on to? What are you most excited about in your new role?
My new position is Product and Business Development Chef for Albion Fisheries,Intercity Packers, and Fresh Start Produce under the umbrella of Gordon Food Service. I’m most excited about learning about another level of the food chain, creating new things and figuring out how to make them work in different applications and circumstances.
In the more corporate setting, will you still have an outlet for your creativity as a Chef?
I’ll have even more of an outlet because I’m working for three companies. And, writing for the Vancouver Sun on a regular basis has always been a great outlet.
A little bird told us that some people – staff and patrons – claim that The Fish House is haunted. What do you think?
I saw a ghost for a split second in the concession one day. He was wearing an old-fashioned waiter’s uniform – short black jacket, bow tie and white apron – so I guess it’s true!
Are there any particular dishes (current menu items or not) at The Fish House that you are particularly proud of?
The [Crispy Prawn] Spring Rolls, Tuna Diane, and the Halibut and “Chips.”
What do you feel is the toughest thing about being a chef?
Getting everyone on the same page. And, realizing that not everyone has the same depth of passion that you do.
In your experience, what is the biggest challenge when hiring culinary positions within a restaurant?
Finding people who are driven to learn and develop skills to match the drive. Even though there are a lot of people going into food, there are few who really excel.
If you had to offer an aspiring chef one bit of advice, what would say?
If you love cooking, do something that you like to make money and use the rest of your time to cook and explore food. Nowadays, being a chef has a lot of different aspects to it that are not about loving food but purely about business.
You are on the selection committee for the Vancouver food program along with other notable Vancouver chefs such as Vikram Vij. What was that experience like and what do you consider most important when evaluating a food truck license application?
I can tell as I’m reading [the application] how sincere and well thought out the concept is. So, I look for sincerity and thoroughness.
You have authored a number of very successful cookbooks Passions Cookbook, Screamingly Good Food,The Passionate Cook, The Low-Carb Gourmet) and have edited/contributed to others (Halibut: The Cookbook andShellfish: The Cookbook). Are you currently writing, or do you plan to write, any more?
I keep on threatening to turn the Vancouver Sun columns into a book. Maybe one day…
You’re going out to dinner this evening in Vancouver with, say, charming hospitality recruiting website owner who’s footing the bill. Where is it you end up and what do you have?
At Le Crocodile and I’ll be ordering lots of foie gras so be prepared. (laughs)