When renowned Vancouver chef and restaurateur Robert Belcham opened his first restaurant in the city back in 2006, he pored through “stacks and stacks of resumés.” For restaurants these days? Not so much.
“Every week we’d get 10 or 20 resumés, and nowadays you’re lucky if you can get one after putting an ad up for three weeks,” says Belcham, Vancouver Magazine’s 2009 Chef of the Year and past president of the Chefs’ Table Society of B.C.
At the root of that downward trend are a number of factors that have dogged the industry for years: an outdated and cutthroat—some might say toxic—kitchen culture; a lack of professional development opportunities; razor-thin profit margins; and an entrenched tipping culture that puts servers’ livelihood in the hands of a fickle dining public.
There are several sectors dealing with similar challenges, but one barrier Belcham and the Chefs’ Table Society see as distinct to the restaurant industry is the isolation many cooks and chefs feel and the “lack of nurturing” the industry provides.
That was the main driver behind Cooks Camp, a first-of-its-kind event that will bring together 300 Canadian industry professionals—from award-winning chefs and restaurateurs to line cooks and sommeliers—for one weekend next month at Pemberton’s North Arm Farm. Created by cooks for cooks, the event will touch on virtually every element of the trade. There are practical seminars on things like wild foraging and butchery, alongside more heady sessions like a creativity workshop led by visual artist George Vergette and chef Angus An and a roundtable discussion on how to navigate the future of the industry, all culminating in what has been dubbed “the world’s largest family meal,” with each attendee lending a hand with the feast.
“The No. 1 reason why we wanted to do Cooks Camp this way, this year, is to help empower people coming to the event,” Belcham explained. “Every activation at the event is to help each individual better navigate the hospitality industry as a whole and become a better leader within that, and hopefully pass that knowledge on to the people they’re training and working with.”
Part of the goal of Cooks Camp is to shift the perception of the industry as nothing more than a stepping stone to something bigger and better.
“That idea is to its own detriment,” Belcham said. “There are always opportunities for people like that in our industry, whether it be a porter or dishwasher, something unskilled. But for those people who are skilled labourers, they need to have recognition for that skilled labour and that comes from proper pay and wages, and then also advancement in the company they’re working in.”
That kind of culture shift doesn’t end in the kitchen, either. Both owners and customers have a role to play moving forward, and in Belcham’s mind as well as many other industry veterans, that’s going to mean doing away with a tipping system that is so deeply enmeshed into restaurant culture in this part of the world.
“Customers need to understand that to get the best you deserve for the money you’re putting down, you need to be able to pay professionals—and you do that in every other aspect of your life, whether you’re buying a really nice pair of shoes, you’re getting your car fixed or your house built,” he said. “People always talk about waiters getting tons of money in tips, but look at it from the perspective of a businessperson: You’re leaving the waiters’ wage up to the whims of a customer. You should have enough respect for that waiter as a professional to pay them what they’re worth, and then tips are on top of that.”
Along with helping foster connections and pave a new path forward in the industry, Cooks Camp is designed to raise awareness and help fund a new culinary centre the Chefs’ Table Society envisions opening in the Lower Mainland within the next five years. The centre would ideally be an event space, a storehouse for reference materials like menus and cookbooks, and would house a show kitchen.
“We’re a bunch of chefs and cooks trying to build a library. It’s sort of out of our wheelhouse,” Belcham said with a laugh. “We can build dishes and menus and restaurants all day long, but building a library is a whole other thing. And we need a ton of public support to make it happen.”
Registration for Cooks Camp is still open. Open to any and all industry professionals, tickets are available at cookscamp.ca.