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
Making People the Priority in the Kitchen
After studying business, criminology and psychology at the University of Fraser Valley, Chef Jason Harper made his culinary debut in an unlikely place: the local prison. After this unique challenge, he continued his culinary work with Great Canadian Casinos (Chef de Cuisine, Cactus Club (Sous Chef) and Blau in Associates (Executive Chef)).
Then, in the middle of a pandemic during which typical in-person events became only virtually existent, Chef Harper found himself working as the Culinary Director for Vancouver’s corporate-facing Cocktails and Canapes, a top catering and events company.
We visited C&C HQ to learn more about the challenges of catering in lockdown and where he’s taking the company from here.
The past year and a half was a challenge, to say the least, for catering with events all but extinct. What did you do to change and pivot to stay afloat? Which changes made do you think you might keep?
During the lockdowns, we offered packaged meals and did some crazy gala-level deliveries. For BC Cancer alone, for example, we delivered 300 three-course boxed meals within two hours.
We also offered six-course dinner boxes for individual sale with bottles of wine. There were also themed boxes like Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day and Thanksgiving Day boxes.
Our business also offered virtual events where I’d host cooking classes online with multiple events every single day. Additionally, we hosted a chef's table dinner series with the Polygon, one of our venues, paired with a winery from the Okanagan. It was a ticketed event and as soon as these dinners were done, people would be buying right away for the next one.
Cocktails and Canapes was once strictly corporate, catering to Microsoft, Apple, Lululemon, Porsche, etc. With services like Culinary Capers gone, who were once rumored to be $16M in catering a year, I realistically want us to be cooking for the top 1%, being very selective in the catering we take while also transitioning us to include weddings as well.
Thankfully, the market shop box program gave me a chance to hire all of the cooks I wanted to work with, as over-qualified as they were to just be building sandwiches while sitting at home. But, as the events started to take off, I was able to just hire other people for the sandwiches while bringing the rockstars onto the team for everything else.
A major offering you do is custom catering. Walk us through how that works with a client. How much of what you put together is fully custom, as opposed to mix and match?
Right now, 70% of inquiries want something done custom. We've re-written the entire menu online. I think I had 110 canapes when I started with the company and now I've got it down to less than 55. I swear I'm writing custom menus three times a week for different inquiries.
It's fun, but there's a charge for it as we're bringing in products we don't already have on hand, leading to less cross-utilization. There are also times someone will ask for something very specific and it's not something I would be proud of, so I'll let them know, "sorry, this is out of our scope and we won't be able to accommodate."
Let's talk about inventory. With such a vast offering, how do you manage the needs and demand with your suppliers, especially with high-ticket ingredients?
I have a great relationship with a lot of my suppliers, most of them are just a text message away to get the product the next day, which is very helpful. We use Two Rivers Specialty Meats, Klipper's Organics, Zaklan Farms for produce.
We also put a disclaimer on the menu since we took over saying that ingredients will be subject to change based on availability. We don't get everything just from GFS or Sysco, sometimes it depends on what I can get from the mentioned suppliers.
We did a dinner with Hawksworth a couple of weeks ago and he wanted to put wagyu on the menu so I brought in $1400 of wagyu so now I've written that into a few menus to use that up.
For something smaller, like if we have a wedding tasting, my sous and I will just go to Granville Island, grab ingredients, hit happy hour at Popina and come back.
What has been the hero dish that you know resonates with guests and does best for your margins?
I do this Braised Duck Corndog that's always a banger. We bring in Fraser Valley ducks through Two Rivers and do a braised reduction of the sauce with Club House's Chinese 5 Spice. Then, the cornbread batter is made with a skewer, a Kewpie mayo garnish, pickled mustard seeds and an umami sauce.
I also do a Puffed Beef Tendon. We take beef tendons, braise them, roll them tight, freeze and slice them. They're then dehydrated and fried, making them puff up and crispy. There’s also a Foie Gras Mousse, which is dusted with pistachio powder, a gewurztraminer and my pickled rhubarb.
How did you find inspiration for your dish today while using Club House® Roasted Garlic and Peppers Seasoning? Anything that would be helpful for other chefs or operators to know about it?
This was my first time using it and I enjoyed how it was surprisingly acidic. There was a lot of sweetness and citric acid, which is super helpful for acidity. I incorporated it into my orange braise in the chicken to bring out the natural citrus sweetness. It was quite pleasant. Texture-wise, it's also nice to finish with. I would use it as a finish on some of our canapes after having tried it.
This particular recipe is literally a tostada, super interchangeable. It doesn't have to be chicken on there. You could season steak with it, grill it, carve it and put it on the tostada.
It's a decent bite of flavour you could use on anything, a tostada is just a fun vessel for it.
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?
It's sad to see how many restaurants and chefs I know are struggling with people. People have been the most important part of my entire career. That's the only reason I've been able to be successful. I still get text messages from people I've worked with when I was eighteen.
In every restaurant I've opened, I've had so many staff, many I'd worked with before; some had literally relocated to do so. As much as I'm obsessed with ingredients and seasonality, in order to truly be successful, people are the number one most important part. Nourish and foster your relationships.
Building relationships is so important. Personally, I come in first every day, go around and say hi to everyone as they come in, ask about their night before and I ask because I genuinely care. These people are what make us successful.
• Braised Chicken TostadaBraised Chicken Tostada
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