Behind the line: Vancouver chef Dawn Doucette

The chef's thoughts on cooking, from reality TV to working with one of the biggest restaurant groups

Dawn Doucette Earls chef

Reality television can occasionally -- alright, perhaps regularly -- paint inaccurate pictures of participants. Naturally, the discontinued Top Chef Canada franchise is no exception. When you watch people compete on television, you often think you get an idea of what they're going to be like in real life, whether they win or lose, but in most cases, the truth cannot be more different.

Meet Dawn Doucette, a chef who is kind and warm, but still confidently commands a room. You can tell she works hard at what she does and takes her job seriously, just as seriously as any cliche, like the bearded, tattooed hipster chef serving up Noma-style cuisine to patrons who would "never really understand".

Doucette is at the forefront of helping the Earls restaurant company stay fresh with its Chef Collective program that came to be in the summer of 2014. Always a mainstay in the Canadian restaurant scene, the company has notably become more in-tune with the changing seasons to offer diners a better-crafted experience tailored to the location; local, if you will, despite its reach, practically spanning the country and moving into the United States with locations in major cities, like Colorado and Boston. 

Being a corporate chef, or a Culinary Development Chef, as they're titled at this restaurant group's homebase in Vancouver, Doucette needs to be able to appreciate what a diner wants and balance that out with her creative mind when she's creating new dishes that will eventually be enjoyed from coast to coast.

Here's a little glimpse into Doucette's career as a development chef and her life in general.

A lot of people have heard of corporate or development chefs, but may not really know what that entails. So, how would you explain your day-to-day?

Really, when we talk about a week’s day, Monday is about organizing our week’s end--answering emails, cleaning up recipes we’re working on. And the latter part of the week is researching recipes--innovations on spring, summer, fall, winter. We also look at current menus, look over sections at a time, deciding on which items may need to be revitalized or changed based on different factors. We’re always looking at our current menu and thinking about what we can do to elevate it, whether that means plating, adjusting a technique to creating brand new techniques to follow season trends, that kind of thing.

In terms of trends you look to, are there specific cities you keep an eye on?

I really do think Vancouver is pretty hip, and Calgary, too. We used to always just look at Toronto, but places like here and Calgary, have all of these great independant restaurants. These days, I think chefs everywhere seem to be getting back to their roots. It’s creating things that patrons can really familiarize themselves with. Canada is a market where [food culture] is a melting pot. We are a little bit of Asian, a little of Mexican, a litte Italian. So, when we look at Earls as a whole, we use words like "global skillet," giving people a little comfort like they’d find at home, but elevating it to a nice level.

That’s where I think our Chef Collective is pretty unique. We generally work on our menu a year in advance. We’ll be doing our final testings for the summer dishes in December and they won’t even start hitting flagship locations until the following spring.

As a development chef, how much of your research is dependent on travel?

It depends. This year has been really busy because we just had a big media tour across Canada. I love to travel--eating at different restaurants to see what chefs are doing--and travelling is also about getting a feel for the city you’re in and what the city is all about. Where would I go to eat if I lived there? That answer is not always high end, you know. We go to casual restaurants, but the hole-in-the-walls. Frankly, I like those spots. People don’t always know about places like that, but you can have some of the best meals of a trip at a spot like that.

When it comes to developing a particular dish, how do you decide between something that could be really trendy or flash-in-the-pan and something that might stick?

Personally, I think you see a lot of food trends that come and go quite quickly, but some hold on for quite awhile. I do a series of research, between looking on the Internet, a lot of travel whether it’s domestic or places like California or New York City. You look at a presentation trend like glass mason jars that really caught on and then you see everyone doing their own sort of spin on it. You see "deconstructed" and what not, but now it’s really coming back to basics--things people can really relate to, you know? Just good flavours.

It’s also looking through cookbooks and having a conversation with other chefs. Shelley Robinson and I talk quite a bit.

Is it tough to balance work in Vancouver, travelling and raising a family?

Well, the other month, I was reading to my daughter before bed. I was leaving for Boston the next morning for five days and she said, “You always have to go away.”

That definitely pulled on the heart strings a bit. It’s hard sometimes, but in order to do my due diligence to [my career], it’s something I need to do.

People can now find Earls in cities like Colorado, Miami and Boston. Do you have to adjust or create unique menu items for particular destinations?

Absolutely! We opened our first location in Miami last spring, so we started looking for some fish that were indigenous to Miami waters and we found the cobia, which we now use there. Everyone serves key lime pie in Miami, so if we’re going to serve one there, we had to make sure it was a pretty damn good one!

We just opened our first spot in Boston this past fall and our chef there was very adamant that we didn’t serve Pacific fish in an Atlantic state, which obviously makes sense. I mean, we can’t serve prawns in our lobster roll; it’s Boston! So, we re-conceived our roll, they start at $22 as long we provided a fresh product there (which is on-par with a lot of restaurants in the city). Apparently, we also have one of the best clam chowders in Boston, or so I’ve heard, which is pretty exciting. 

Have you eaten anywhere in Canada that's really surprised you (in a good way) recently?

Well, I was just in Winnipeg, but unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to dine around. I really wish I had because I’ve heard great things. I ate at Vittorio’s spot in Toronto recently and had a great experience, but I will be honest, I probably do a lot more dining here in Vancouver! I have my favourites that I tend to repeat, for sure.

Even though the show is no longer, what came out of Top Chef Canada for you, career-wise?

More media. One of the things I mentioned when I was asked why I applied was the fact that it wasn’t the money for me. It was just me stepping outside of a comfort zone, where I was more behind-the-scenes. Earls has made a very conscious choice with what they’ve done with the Chefs Collective and I’m honoured to now be a part of it, but that just happened in June 2014. So, that definitely came out of the [Top Chef] experience. Another thing I think it did was stir up a little more awareness for women in the kitchen. I've built some great relationships. I’ve seen many of my fellow competitors since the show and they are just all really great individuals.

So, if Top Chef Canada opted for an all-stars season, called you up tomorrow and asked you to come back and compete again, would you?

I think I would. I’d definitely go in there with a different mindset. I was extremely nervous the first time around, that was a little bit of my downfall, But yeah, for sure. Bring it on!