My First Chef Retires

February 18th was the retirement party for my first chef. 

David Lau, Executive Chef at Newlands Golf and Country Club in Langley, held that position for over 30 years, and I was delighted to see that he still had lots of energy and didn’t ever lose that sparkle in his eye. 

Being at Newlands brought back many memories for me. It was September 2003, and it was my first real job. I was 17 at the time, keen but nervous. 

At the time, I had already had some work experience at the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver (which I did during my last year of high school), and I had a plan. I was told that if I went to culinary school for a year, then applied to the Fairmont, then I would be signed up for an apprenticeship. Newlands was just going to be a means of saving some money and getting a bit of experience. Then I’ll start working at Hotel Van. 

I started in the Banquet Kitchen, which was quite the production. The Banquet kitchen caters to 5 different ballrooms, over 200 weddings a year, as well as golf tournaments, other corporate events, and a weekly sunday brunch. On the busiest days (Mothers Day), the brunch can bring in well over 1000 guests. 

The food was traditional. Chicken coq au vin, beef bourguignon, and honey mustard salmon. All served buffet style with a carving station at the end, where baron of beef was common. 

The kitchen team was quite big. There were three sous chefs, Michael Lau (David’s son), Mike Guevarra (who was an older brother of a friend of mine, and who taught me how to drive manual), and Quang Mach (this old school Chinese guy who made some of the best Chinese food I have ever eaten). 

They were all warm, friendly, and took the time to teach. 

A month in, Chef offered me an apprenticeship. I guess he saw something?

I thought quite quickly about it, and I thought, “Well then at least I don’t have to go to school for a whole year.” And I said yes. 

That was the first big step that brought my cooking career to life. 

The Kitchen at Mr. A's Patio Restaurant

Mike Lau took me under his wing, and graciously took the time to mentor me. He taught me how to make all the sauces, gave me all the procedures for every single one of the dishes that they made, and he taught me how to make hollandaise, which we did every Sunday for brunch. 

I started working in the a la carte kitchen, in other words the short order kitchen that fed guests of the bar and grill upstairs. Up until this point, I was just doing prep, carving roast beef, and doing a bit of cooking for banquets.

Now I was working on the line. 

It was simple food, nothing fancy, but this is where I learned about the dance. I was taught by C-Bass, a cocky, short, stockily built French guy who came off as intimidating at first, but who taught me a lot, and we became quite good friends. We would go and play pool quite often after work. 

The a la carte kitchen was connected to the Dining Room Kitchen, the kitchen that cooked food for Mr. A’s Patio Restaurant. 

Mr. A’s Patio Restaurant was, and still is, a classic establishment. It’s a buffet restaurant, with seafood buffets on Thursday and Friday, a Prime Rib buffet on Saturdays, and a Continental Buffet on Sundays. 

There was a quirky and well versed Polish man as the Maitre D’, and there was a live band that played every Saturday, a three piece Filipino band playing tunes by Phill Collins, Earth Wind and Fire and the like. A saxophonist would play on Sundays. There was a dance floor and a stage for the band, and the restaurant overlooked the 18th hole of the golf course. 

The restaurant kitchen was just two people: the sous chef and the assistant. In the Christmas time, when it got quite busy with buffets in both the dining room and the pub upstairs, you had a couple runners who would run the food to the buffets. 

The sous chef who was running the restaurant there had just left, and C-Bass was gunning for the job. He had a trial for two weeks, I believe it was. I helped him during that time. Unfortunately, he didn’t get it, a Fijian guy named Hewie did. C-Bass worked with him for a while, but then he left, which gave me the opportunity to assistant Hewie, and I got in and did it. All this time, I was also going to school for my apprenticeship. 

Hewie taught me a lot, and by the time he left, I was ready. After my second year of apprenticeship, I was to become their next Sous Chef, and would run the kitchen at Mr. A’s Patio Restaurant. 

I was severely unprepared.

Mike Lau was still mentoring me. I still remember when he would do the Lunch Buffet on mondays, and I would come in and we would cook together. He would give me assignments to do, and I took the time to do them. 

I took over the restaurant, and largely rotated the dishes that I had learned from Hewie and Mike. I did my own research and came up with a few different things, and it was a really good learning experience. Most important lesson I learned was how not to manage people. 

I was a horrible manager. At 19, I had a temper, a huge ego, and I took on battles that I shouldn’t have, and created conflicts that were unnecessary. 

All this time, Chef continued to believe in me. He provided advice where he needed to, and gave me every opportunity to learn on my own. 

After my apprenticeship was over and I was certified, I got a job offer back at Hotel Van, and so I decided to leave, September 2006. That season of my life was over.

Being at that retirement party brought back a lot of those memories. 

It was really nice to connect with Chef again, to talk about family and about what I’ve done since the last time we talked. And it was really nice to catch up with Mike Lau. The one who helped me get through school, who taught me the different nuances of cooking, and helped me get up to speed. 

He told me that I kept him on his toes, that because of my interest, my many questions, and my willingness to come in on my own time and ask him to teach me something, he was able to continue to teach himself as well. 

It was a humbling perspective. 

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