Working in the Hakka Chinese food space since 1987, Joanna Liu’s family created a flavourful home away from home for newcomers in Toronto, at Yueh Tung Restaurant.Read Bio
Born and Raising Flavour in Vancouver
A red-seal certified graduate of Vancouver Community College, Chef Alvin Pillay continued to grow his culinary skills and résumé in his own BC community. Skilled in food, beverage, catering and business management, Chef Pillay earned his stripes behind the lines of notable Vancouver businesses including Donnelly Group, Edible Canada and Hubbub.
Now back under the Donnelly umbrella, Chef Pillay continues to take his team and dishes to new heights as the Culinary Director.
We recently visited Chef Pillay to find out what it’s taken to keep the group moving upward in the pandemic while keeping dishes fresh, partnerships well-perked and teams together.
Donnelly Group has a large portfolio inclusive of a lot of menus to manage. How do you and the culinary team approach development, load management and diversity across all properties?
I've been with the company for eight years now and it's been an upward trajectory in terms of openings, the progression of menus and going from bangers and mash to all kinds of vegetable-focused dishes. I've seen everything change. We once benefited from everything being super unique but fast forward a bit and now we're seeing the benefits of consistency in menu design.
We're currently utilizing a commissary here in Vancouver to streamline production and make the food from locations one, two and three to be exactly the same. We've done this sort of thing previously but I think now, given the pandemic scenario, we're leaning into it. Our food is still creative and unique but now we're making it more efficient and consistent across the board as well.
Vancouver comes with deep food culture influences. How do you draw on these when developing your dishes?
It comes naturally to me because I was born and raised here and I'm so used to going to places like Phnom-Phen and eating their take on delicious Vietnamese-Cambodian food or going on Main Street for Indian takeout. I've grown up with all this stuff.
Right now, we have a ton of Asian influence on our menu plus odes to pub food as well. At the end of the day, no cuisine is out of bounds, it just has to be delicious.
After over a year of unique challenges not experienced in our industry on such a mass scale before, how have you managed to keep your team motivated and the doors open where they can be?
It's been very challenging. At the end of the day, what has benefitted us when it comes to our chef team and hourly employees is how our culture was going into it. I lost one chef out of ten here in Vancouver, the rest have been rehired. We took any opportunity where we could keep people working or return them to work. We also have historically treated people really well.
The majority of us have worked together for up to seven years so it's not just a head chef and a venue chef [in here]. I can go talk to Alvin or I can go talk to Jeff, go for beer or coffee with them and there's a level of friendship and respect that transcends working. There's a bond being built over time.
Rolling into a once-in-a-lifetime-style pandemic, it was a two-way street. They were able to keep working or choose to go do other things. How we treated people before this helped us out.
Before the madness, you’d done some collaborations with well-known chefs both on and off the menu. How does your current collab program benefit the business and keep guests engaged?
[Chef] Mike Robins has always been a good friend of ours, we love his places and there is a ton of mutual respect there. He loves the pubs as well so we saw an opportunity coming out of the pandemic to work on things together and we hit the ground running.
We started at Brass Fish with some dishes and it's taken some iterations to get [the collab program] to a place where he's happy with what he's putting on our menus and we're happy with the cohesiveness of the menus. It's been a really great partnership.
We've done this kind of stuff before and it can be hard but with Mike, it's very natural. It's also beneficial to the business because you're bringing two separate lanes together. Mike's got his camp and followers, we've got our pub people. They might go to his for an anniversary or birthday dinner but now you can get a Mike Robins burger or bolognese in a pub at a fair value.
What has been the hero dish that you know resonates with guests and does best for your margins?
My hero dish is a Chicken Liver mousse. I've got the proportions of everything in it dialled. If you like that kind of thing, it's so delicious, you just want to keep eating it. We're doing a rendition of it at Clough Club right now where we swap the liver for foie gras and cover it with apple jelly. That's definitely the dish I would hang my hat on.
How did you find inspiration for your dish today while using French’s® Dijon Mustard?
Dijon is interesting, it doesn't take a backseat but it can. It becomes such an anchor ingredient whether it is in a dressing or a marinade. Dijon is not typically the loudest character in a dish but it's what's giving you depth, salt, acidity and spiciness. In the kitchen, Dijon is a workhorse ingredient.
The inspiration for the squash dish was my love for roasted squash going into fall, all bound with brown butter dijon dressing and whipped ricotta. It hits all the texture and flavour points for a nice, cozy fall day.
Any message you’d like to pass on to your fellow restaurateurs from coast to coast as they too navigate Canada’s ever-changing foodservice landscape this summer?
Business-wise, we've always had to be good with money. If you're spending a dollar, or if a dollar is coming in, where's it exiting? Now, more than ever, that is paramount because there's far less money coming in, in many cases. You can't be spending the same right now.
There are challenges for chefs to be in the middle, understanding your business and your finance while also being creative and able to cook really well. You just need to find the sweet spot where you understand both. You don't have to be the greatest at one or the other but for the business side, you have to understand a little bit and that's more important than ever.
Staffing-wise, you have to listen and not be dismissive of people and their concerns. I don't think that was ever okay but it was far easier to be like that when the restaurants were packed and you've got three hundred resumes available. Nowadays, that won't fly.
Show people that there is a level of respect. One thing that's carried through with myself and my crews is doing the best to show a high level of respect. Everybody is going through something, whether you know it or not. Just be aware of that.
• Fall Squashes and Whipped Ricotta with Dijon Brown Butter Vinaigrette
2021 Edition of Coast to Coast
Club House for Chefs uncovers the behind-the-line tactics and bounce back of chefs and operators across Canada as restaurants navigate not only reopenings but re-inspiration. Explore more