As the sign over the kitchen reads, “Life is Better at the Beach.”
After nearly three decades in the kitchen, Chef John Kavanagh could not be more pleased to ply his trade in what he has dubbed the Hamptons of Vancouver. While not all that far from the bustle of the GVRD, nestled seaside in Crescent Beach, he and his wife Francina have created a culinary enclave at Seahorse Grill that both defies expectations – and keeps the locals coming back for more.
“It’s a little gem,” says Kavanagh. “Everyone says, ‘Don’t tell anyone else,’ but the word gets out. We have about 480,000 visitors each year who have come to explore Crescent Beach now, and there is a lot to love here. Not too long ago, our business had a definite seasonality, but as of last year, things have never slowed down.”
Five years ago, the couple opened a second spot beachside, less than 500 metres away at the Hooked Fish Bar. Without a doubt, life is good for the Kavanaghs.
“We couldn’t be happier, which is good because it is a definite life choice to open a restaurant in a small community,” says Chef Kavanagh with a grin.
“It will be my 50th birthday this weekend and I can appreciate things differently. Francina has been my pillar of strength from the start. We married young, raised three great kids and have managed that balancing act that is so important. It’s not a life for the weak and it can be humbling, but the freedom is the best thing.”
That freedom – guided by a passionate professionalism as tempered as the 23-year old pans in his kitchen – is something that Kavanagh has pursued ever since graduating from New Westminster Secondary School in 1982 and working his way into the trade at Des Gitans. As refined a restaurant as might have been found in New Westminster at the time, the experience forever anchored the ethos that has buoyed him since.
“Everything was made from scratch and everyday at 3 p.m. we would sit down for a staff meal of veal, kidneys, sweatbreads, you name it. Plus, only French and Swiss was spoken, so it was like walking into Europe everyday,” he recollects while thumbing through a well-worn book of recipes. “That kind of experience sticks with you. Everything possible, from the two-day veal stock to my family’s soda bread recipe from the 1800s, we do from scratch here too. The prep is the real work. The cooking is fun.”
Moving from Des Gitans to become chef at Wolfie’s in White Rock in 1996, Kavanagh purchased Wolfie’s outright a little over two years later, before selling in 2005 to relocate to Crescent Beach. That guiding edible ethos has remained unflagging, forever fuelled by the changing seasons.
“Right now, it’s all about the fresh morels, sea asparagus and B.C. spot prawns, but that is constantly changing,” says Kavanagh. “Seasonal cooking is what keeps me driven, finding the best of what’s fresh and then waiting 10 months for it to come around again. That’s missed too often in our art.”
Where that art comes alive is in every aspect of the experience at Seahorse Grill – from the brilliantly hued art of local painter Anne Walsh on the walls to the friendly kitchen banter about the Seahorse Grill’s menu – but it’s most obvious on the menu. Kavanagh’s lobster pot pie, pork schnitzel, liver and onions and a whole fish special for two have caught on with locals hook, line and sinker.
Needless to say, the Kavanaghs sell far more than seashells by the seashore.
In fact, most nights at Seahorse Grill, as many dishes might emerge from the imagination and fresh ingredients at play in the kitchen as off of the actual menu – which rest assured, does include the aforementioned seashells a la oven baked oysters and plump mussels accompanied by hand-cut pomme frites.
Kavanagh admits, “A lot of people don’t even order off the menu anymore. ‘What’s cooking tonight John?’ and we don’t discourage it at all. We want this to be fun for people—and for us.
“So many times I thought, ‘What am I doing here? Why don’t I move back to Vancouver?’, but those thoughts changed. At the start you are trying to prove yourself, but as the years go on you realize that every customer is as important as the dishes you create,” says Kavanagh.
“Turning 50, that view has changed from presenting the plates to sharing the experience and creating memories. Now I look at it as creating that big city experience from wherever we are – and we like it here a lot.”