Walking towards Fable Kitchen on West 4th Avenue, a flurry of activity is visible from the street.
A team of sous chefs stand behind the chef’s table, slicing, dicing and chopping in preparation for the night’s dinner service. Hands constantly reach into the cardboard boxes of local and fresh produce, which obscure the left side view of the table, grabbing the items that will be served up to customers in just a few hours.
In the midst of it all is chef Trevor Bird, wearing a look of pure concentration that many fans of Food Network’s culinary competition, Top Chef Canada, will remember from his time as a contestant and runner-up.
Because of that focus, it takes a few seconds for Bird, completely absorbed in the food and the preparation, to look up and notice a visitor.
The restaurant is empty for now, but soon it will be packed with hungry customers, eager to sample the local and seasonal dishes Bird is becoming known for.
He offers a seat and asks for a few moments so he can finish up. It’s no small task. It’s plain to see there is lots of food to prepare for tonight’s dinner service, which, thanks to rave reviews in Vancouver’s daily newspapers and exposure from the television series, will be a busy one, as it has been since opening in late March of this year.
Tall and tattooed, Bird sits down at the table, which is covered with scorch marks.
“Yeah, they were done with a blowtorch. My ex-girlfriend, God bless her, she did them.”
The rustic – and slightly badass – design is all a part of Bird’s vision and a representation of his personality. The walls feature exposed brick, there are exposed beams reclaimed from the historic Cecil Hotel, hand-built wine and preserve shelves and the back wall is covered in chalk art depicting a farm scene. Light bulbs encased in mason jars provide the light and, throughout the restaurant the word Fable is branded in the wood.
It’s a big step for the Vancouver transplant. Born in Montreal, Que., 29 years ago, Bird has been in love with food since a young age, working in dozens of restaurants – and a camp in Peru – before moving to Vancouver, where he worked as chef de partie at the Shangri-La Hotel before leaving the position to participate on Top Chef Canada.
“I’ve only had one job. I’ve only cooked. I’ve never done anything else,” Bird says. “When I was younger, I worked with a chef – an actual chef, and he showed me what you could do with food, just like making it fancy and taking the time and attention to make it nice, and it just went from there.”
Those who watched the reality show know that Bird has no problem making “nice” food. In fact, his dishes and perseverance took him to the final stage of Top Chef Canada, before losing the title to B.C.-born chef Carl Heinrich.
But sitting in his fi rst-ever restaurant, which has received outstanding customer reviews online, it’s hard to think of Bird as a loser.
When asked about his intentions for going on the show, Bird is blunt and to the point.
“It was just to help propel me to the next level. I never thought I would get that far. Before, I was just in such a rut. I had no creative output. So it was nice to get back into my own cooking. It was like, oh yeah, I am a creative cook and I’m not just a machine pumping out recipes from a recipe book.”
The boost wasn’t the only thing Bird left the show with. During the popular Restaurant Wars episode, where contestants are split into two teams and given the task of creating a restaurant concept and menu, Trevor’s team decided on the farm-to-table concept. While brainstorming for a name, Bird shouted out the first thing he could think of.
“I said ‘Fable’ as an idea, and everyone thought it was pretty cool. I think it’s a bit corny, to be honest, it’s a bit cheesy, like hey, farm-to-table… fable. But everyone liked it. (Judge) Mark McEwan said he was going to steal the name and register it, and I was like uh, no. So I called and registered it.”
Now, as the owner and chef of his own Kitsilano restaurant, the Algonquin College grad is serving up flavours that feature B.C.’s bounty in simple dishes packed with flavour.
“When I was in Ottawa, after school, that was when I started to get into where my food was coming from, and just getting to know the farmers. I was working on this one farm there called Mariposa, and I would just… do whatever they needed me to do. But they had this really cool organic farm that was totally horse-powered, and that was when I was about 19 or 20, and I always held it really close to myself. I always tried to find restaurants that really sourced their ingredients properly and had good relationships with their farmers.”
While working at Sooke Harbour House on Vancouver Island, Bird found that, although the location wasn’t ideal for him, the food philosophy was a perfect fit to his criteria.
“They handle all their ingredients from beginning to end, and that’s how you make a good chef: working long hours, handling your ingredients from beginning to end and making it yourself. You don’t just do half a job and pass it on to somebody else. You would have a better product if you could grow it yourself, pick it yourself and cook it yourself but unfortunately, we’re not machines. But you gain so much respect for the food and for the industry when you see how much they work for it, how hard they work for it. It’s not just a hand-off of the ingredient. It closes that gap between where your food comes from and where it goes.
“Basically, you have the farmer working…growing the stuff. He picks it, he brings it to the chefs, who are going to… cook it and give it directly to the customer. Everyone at this restaurant, we work stupid hard, stupid hours, and we do it because we like it. It’s not for the money, and it’s not for the women.”
So, no Top Chef groupies? “Even if there were, we have no time,” Bird laughs.
Although he has an extremely talented team – which includes fellow contestant and “mad scientist” Curtis Luk, whom he met on the show – maintaining the standards he has set out is an arduous task but one that Bird is clearly willing to suffer for.
“I personally have a lot of beliefs in food ethics and where food should come from and where food should go. I’m not one to push it into somebody’s face like religion. We’re a farm-to-table restaurant and that’s great, but I don’t like giving a giant huge novel of a menu stating where each ingredient is from.
“It’s a very simple menu and if people are interested and they want to know more, just ask about it and we can talk for hours. But a lot of diners, unfortunately, don’t really care about where their food is coming from. And I want to try and gear them into a direction where they’re actually eating ethical, and good choices, without knowing it.
“Hopefully as a chef, I can infl uence the way people are eating and in a direction we can take in our future.”
Looking at the menu at Fable Kitchen, it’s easy to see why people are so eager to sample the dishes that transform local ingredients into exotic and enticing dishes. For example, the play on canned tuna: fresh albacore tuna, mixed with lemon confit, baby potatoes and olive oil, so soft it can be spread on crackers or bread, all packed into a mason jar.
It’s all about going with the concept of under-promise, over-deliver, Bird explains.
“That way, expectations are met. Everything on the menu is what it is, it just has a lot more technique and a lot more drive behind it than what it might say.”
While he admits fi nding top-quality produce in B.C. takes minimal effort, taking those ingredients and putting them together for his menu was another story. Right until the last few days of the opening, Bird was scribbling concepts and ideas on paper, working on creating the perfect menu.
“I had no idea what I was doing. It was actually only three or four days before the opening. This process has been the most stressful thing I’ve done in my life. And I just wanted to cook. But when you’re opening a restaurant, that’s the last thing on your mind. You have to worry about walls, and electricians and people showing up on time and what you are going to do with everything and the lights. But it turned out. Everything works out in the end, you just have to wait for it.”
Now that he has put his own concept in motion, Bird has no intention of giving it up. Part chef, part businessman, he knows the fickle nature of critics and customers alike and hopes to propel Fable past being the “hot, trendy new thing” and creating a brand that has longevity and presence in Vancouver – a difficult feat first season Top Chef winner Dale MacKay can attest to. The celebrated chef closed both his restaurants, Ensemble and Ensemble Tap, in late August.
“This is like the life goal of mine, and to just have it die off… you can’t be stagnant. You have to embrace opportunities and continue to do anything that anyone throws at you and search for it. You have to create a sustainable business as opposed to just running a restaurant that is going to open and shut its doors in a few years because it’s the hot, new thing, which I’m pretty nervous about. A lot of restaurants open up and they’re super trendy and everyone loves them and then the next year, they’re done because everybody abandons them for whatever reason. And I don’t know it yet, but I can only hope it doesn’t happen here.”
For now, Bird has taken the determination and creativity that got him to the finale of Top Chef Canada and is pouring it into Fable. But, he admits, there may be a few more challenges he will partake in.
“The more you push your threshold, the more you can take. There will definitely be a few more competitions in my future.”