On the blazing hot afternoon of Aug. 2, chef Chris Irving showed a crowd of eager gourmands at the Frog Food Festival how to elevate a tomato salad to gourmet fare.
Irving had flown in from Bangkok, where he is executive outlet chef for the Marriot Hotel Group, for the festival.
He was also here to visit family and friends, of course, for the 32-year-old chef with the dazzling resume and the modest demeanor is a Yukon boy, born and raised in Whitehorse.
His family owns Irving Collision Repair. Until he discovered the kitchen, Irving just assumed he’d end up in the automotive business. “I’ve always liked driving,” he said. “Especially fast.”
Instead, here he was, a celebrity chef visiting his hometown, demonstrating how to cook in the spirit of the latest farm-to-table trend in fine dining, by using the best local ingredients and letting the food speak for itself.
So: take heirloom tomatoes and fresh basil from the Circle D Ranch greenhouse, add chunks of Lendrum-Ross chevre, drizzle with Aurora Mountain Farm spruce tip marmalade, a dash of Bluebell Gardens sweet and hot vinegar and some great olive oil, toss gently, pile on a slice of grilled Alpine Bakery baguette and finish with nasturtium leaves for a peppery bite.
And there it is: uber-local, fresh and delicious. It’s the kind of appetizer you’d be thrilled to find on a menu in downtown Vancouver.
Or in central London, where Irving first developed the salad beside chef, business magnate and infamous grouch Gordon Ramsay, as a showcase item for a group of disadvantaged young people who were competing on national TV for a coveted kitchen job. By that point, Irving had become a trusted Ramsay right-hand man.
The path to Ramsay’s kitchen started in Calgary, when Irving was 19 and working in a nightclub whose kitchen staff “sort of evaporated.” Irving stepped up and was soon running the kitchens in all three of the company’s locations.
From there he leaped to the Wickaninnish Inn in Tofino, where a Yukon friend worked as sommelier. “That was my first introduction to fine dining and proper cuisine. I just fell in love,” said Irving, chatting in the Tadpole Tent during some downtime at the Frog Food Festival.
“Thank God,” he said, with the fervor of a chef who’s found his calling.
After three years at Wickaninnish Inn’s The Pointe Restaurant, Irving polished his skills at Dubrulle Culinary Arts in Vancouver, and worked full time at West Restaurant under chef David Hawksworth.
“He was the one who started my proverbial ass-kicking, I guess.” In retrospect, said Irving, Hawksworth must have seen something in him. He worked Irving hard at West, and then advised him to go to London for the classic, trial-by-fire experience in the kitchen of a difficult and brilliant chef.
Irving showed up at the back door of Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, Ramsay’s 3-starred London flagship eatery, and said, “Let me talk to the chef.” When Ramsay’s head chef came out Irving said, “Well, here I am, I’ve got my knives and my two-year visa and I’m ready to work.” He started the next day, under acclaimed chef Marcus Wareing, at Ramsay’s other Michelin-starred restaurant, Petrus.
Getting a job in Ramsay’s kitchen was easy; staying for two years of verbal and physical abuse was not. “It was incredibly tough. No word of a lie, it was like boot camp.”
Irving learned to take the intensified ass-kicking in stride; it was “all in the name of cooking good food.” He was part of the team that earned Petrus its second Michelin star, an exhilarating moment for the young chef and one that increased the heat in the kitchen to searing.
But Irving was determined to succeed. Just before he left Canada, Hawksworth had told him, “to be perfectly honest with you, I don’t think you’re going to be able to handle this.” “I guess I wanted to prove him wrong,” said Irving.
When Irving’s two-year visa ran out, he returned to Vancouver and went to see Hawksworth. The shift in Hawksworth’s attitude was momentous. “He just basically said, ‘Here’s the kitchen, start putting some specials together.’ It was an incredible honour.”
From that moment, Irving’s resume became a constellation of star turns: two years at West; two years as co-proprietor and chef of Pourhouse in Vancouver; a return to Europe as chef on a luxury yacht cruising the Mediterranean, a role as chef consultant for the Spanish royal family.
In 2011 he rejoined the Gordon Ramsay Group as executive group senior sous chef, where he oversaw the organization’s London kitchens, and acted as David and Victoria Beckham’s private chef.
But then it was time “to get out of the Ramsay shadow,” focus on his own culinary and working style, pass on what he has learned to younger, less experienced chefs, and keep exploring new ideas.
That’s where the Marriott gig comes in – a chance to shepherd District Grill and the other four restaurants under his command at the Bangkok Marriott Hotel to five-star excellence.
Now he’s looking south towards Sydney, Australia. Marriot is sending him there this month, on an exploration tour.
It’s a dream job: Marriot wants to develop a farm-to-table restaurant with a daily-changing menu in a location right next to the Sydney Opera House. You sense that Chris Irving’s resume is about to get a bit more dazzling.
For Irving, the cooking life “is always about the exploration and the adventure; learning about new things and possibilities and flavours and combinations and techniques. Seeing what’s coming out of the ground and what people are producing.”
So, what about the Yukon culinary scene? Irving is careful with his response. “People in the Yukon are – how should I put it – a bit behind in their food culture. It’s kind of a Boston Pizza/Earl’s kind of culture.”
But, he added, “I think it’s getting better.” The new restaurants opening up in the Yukon are a great step, as are events like the Frog Food Festival and the Yukon Culinary Festival, with “chefs coming in and showing people what they can do with tomatoes or blueberries,” food that’s “right underneath your nose. You don’t have to eat steak and potatoes every day,” he said. “There’s so much more.”
Irving grew up eating raspberries and wild strawberries at his family’s cabin on Marsh Lake. Eventually, he’d like to come back here, or somewhere in B.C., to set up a small B&B on a farm.
“My dream would be to make my own cheese, have my own pigs and cows and have a fully sustainable farm-style restaurant. Something small, maybe 15 seats.”
In the meantime, he was off to have supper with his mom at G&P, offering a couple of tips to home cooks as he went. “Taste everything. And don’t be afraid to experiment. That’s the beauty part of cooking: being able to freestyle.”
Michele Genest is the author of two books on northern cooking: the award-winning The Boreal Gourmet, and most recently, The Boreal Feast, released by Harbour Publishing on June 21. She lives in Whitehorse.