Behind the line: Vancouver chef Shelley Robinson

The chef on how her career has evolved over the last 20 years.

Shelley Robinson Top Chef Canada

There's no question that Vancouver is an exciting city for diners and that 20 years ago, Calgary, or Alberta in general, didn't have as much going in the food scene as it does now. So, what drives one to bounce between the major cities and smaller towns between the two provinces? 

Shelley Robinson, a native Vancouverite, has cooked in many places in British Columbia and Alberta, from city centres like Calgary and Vancouver to smaller towns like Banff and Kamloops. In addition to owning restaurants in Calgary and Banff over the past 20 years, Robinson also competed and won on the first season of Chopped Canada and was one of the top six cheftestants on the fourth and final season of Top Chef Canada.

Proving that there's much more to a chef's career than stints on reality television, the talented chef looks back on her start in the Canadian culinary industry three decades ago, and comments on what Cowtown was like back in the day, how she handled pre-Yelp food reviews, and what she would tell her 18-year-old self.

You are one of the only chefs to have appeared on both Chopped Canada and Top Chef Canada. Which one did you like best?

That is hard to answer; they are completely different. It’s like asking, “What do you like more: apples or grapes?” I like them both! Chopped Canada was very well thought out. You were flown in, you arrived, you knew what to expect the moment you showed up. There were no surprises. So, it was like, "Yeah, let’s do this!"

With Top Chef Canada, I had thought I was well prepared, but there were so many things thrown at you that you just couldn’t possibly have been prepared. It was very different.

You worked in Calgary close to 20 years ago. What was that city like back then?

There wasn’t all that much. There were a few emerging restaurants. Teatro was there, River Cafe, but not a lot else. It was all just starting to happen, even the Hyatt hotel downtown wasn’t completed yet.

You ended up opening your first restaurant, Blonde, in downtown Calgary in the late 1990s. How did that come to be?

I had a few close friends in oil and gas circles and one of my really close friends had a boss who was an investment banker and a super foodie-type guy and he had always had a dream of owning a restaurant. She introduced us and we got along really well, so we got serious and it happened.

It was a really beautiful restaurant. It was a long time ago now, about 15 or 16 years, but at the time, it was ahead of its time, I think. Being called Blonde, in and of itself was a little different, a name that didn’t scream "restaurant". It was really minimalistic inside and the food was pretty avant-garde for Calgary. It was a lot of fun.

What were the first reviews of your restaurant like? How did you handle reviews as a younger chef?

I remember John Gilchrist came in and the first review was not good. He did not enjoy some of the stuff, and fair enough. I had a lot of lessons to learn about food and just cooking in general. Sometimes, when I see new restaurants open up now, I look at the menu and think, "Yeah, I know what that’s all about."

When you’re younger, you want to get all of those flavours out there and all of those styles and techniques and everything on the plate. When you get a little older, you realize that you don’t need to do all of that.

Once Blonde closed its doors, what did you do?

When that ended in 2001--man, it doesn’t feel like that long ago for me, but wow, I guess it is--I stayed in Alberta, but went and did a couple of projects in B.C.

I travelled, doing consulting stints, and then I ended up in Banff and owned my second restaurant. I took over a lease in a pre-existing heritage place, The Baker Creek Bistro. It’s still there and has been there for 60 years, right on the Bow Valley Parkway. I was a mountain girl back then! I had a little 60-seat restaurant in this old log cabin with wood-burning fireplaces. It was cozy. That’s around the time I really got into embracing the local food movement.

Did the critics follow you out to Banff to try your new food?

They did! Glichrist came out and gave me a great review. We actually got a lot of great accolades back then. Avenue magazine gave us [recognition for the] best restaurant in the mountains for a couple of years. We got great feedback from those connections I had made in Calgary earlier in my career.

You stayed out there for six years, what prompted a move back to B.C.?

From there, I also opened up two other businesses in the mountains: one called the L Street Kitchen and a cheese shop called Feast, which really supported the whole local movement. It was all local cheese, only Canadian cheese and focusing on suppliers in Alberta. But, after doing all of that, I felt like I wanted to have a social life again. I mean, it was great. I skied like crazy, I was always outdoors, but I wasn’t making those deep personal connections because mountain life can be so transient. People are there for a season and then move on.

I headed back to my homeland of Vancouver, with a brief stop in Kamloops. On my way back, I did some work with heli-skiing lodges and that was amazing. It was a chef’s dream. Carte blanche on your menus, no real food costs, you get to heli-ski with your time off--that was so great.

Anyway, then I met a girl who lived in Vancouver, so I wound up back here a few years ago.

Now you are the regional executive chef for Coast Hotels. What's it like going from being an owner/boss for so many years to having someone else get the final say?

It’s really tough, after so many years of making decisions for yourself and being accountable for them, right or wrong, you know. You could go home at the end of the night after making a bad decision, put your head on your pillow and go, “Ok, suck it up and deal with it.” When you work for someone else and you make a mistake or a bad decision or want to make a certain decision about something, you carry that with you for a lot longer. You’ll always think, “Well, I would do this” or “This is what I’ve done before.”

It's tough, but it’s also nice to get a regular pay cheque. 

Oh yeah, the other thing about working for someone else: you can’t drink when you’re on the job [laughs]. Joking, but when you work for yourself, it’s all up to you!

How long has it been since you worked in Vancouver?

I only moved here in 2013! It changed a lot when I had lived here years ago, I grew up here. I started my career here and then I moved to Alberta. In those 18 years that I was gone, the food scene obviously changed dramatically. Some of the places I worked at are still here, like Le Crocodile; some of the more iconic Vancouver spots.

Were you always the only female chef in the kitchen back then?

You know what, I wasn’t the only female at Le Crocodile, but there were only two of us and we both worked garde manger. You know who else was working there while I was there? Rob Feenie! It's interesting to see what happened with his career and everything that he's done now.

Skill level being equal, why do you think some chefs rise to great heights while others don't climb the ladder quite as high, so to speak?

There could be a lot of different reasons for that. I think a lot of it really has to do with connections. What is personality like? Are you outgoing? Are you a good handshaker? I think some people are naturally charming, good looking, you know, interesting or interested and some other chefs are just very low key, very reserved and all of that is much more of an effort. Money can have a lot to with it too. Being able to pay for a PR person and get promoted and get you out there, it really does have a lot to do with it.

What’s one ingredient that you loved to use in the late 1990s that would be embarrassing now?

Initially, I thought I knew the answer to this, but I think it’s making a comeback now. Squid ink? It seems to be more and more popular these days. I was really surprised by that. I don’t necessarily feel embarrassed about any of my cooking techniques or dishes. Honestly, I've probably tried some pretty bone-headed molecular techniques that I’m more embarrassed by recently with the whole “I must keep up with this new technology” frame of mind, when really, I don’t need to!

How many chances do you give a restaurant if you don't like it the first time around?

Just once. Man, I work hard for my money! If I have a really, really bad experience, I usually don't give it a second chance and other times, I realize that a certain restaurant just might not be for me. On the otherhand, if I've had a good cocktail, liked the room and vibe, but just didn’t think I ordered the right dish, I would probably go back.

If you could go back in time, what advice would you give the 18-year-old Shelley Robinson when she started cooking?

I was pretty rebellious back then. I was mouthy, I spoke my mind, and got pissed off a lot. I don’t think that was a good way to start off in the industry. So, Shelley, be quiet, keep your mouth shut, keep your head down, develop those knife skills, make sure to perfect everything and then run your mouth off if you want. Ha, ha, ha!