The Four Culinary Masterminds Behind BC’s Hottest New Restaurant Concept

July 05 2019

If you’ve ever dined at British Columbia’s best restaurants, you’ve likely heard of Robert Belcham and his line of foodservice operations: Campagnolo and Monarch Burger. Now, he’s partnered up with three other top Canadian chefs for the ultimate 4-in-1 concept in the Vancouver peninsula of Granville Island, Popina Canteen.

We sat down to catch up with our old friend Chef Belcham to learn about his latest endeavour, and how combining four chef styles can be successfully.

You own and operate some of Vancouver’s top restaurants: Campagnolo and Monarch Burger. What made you want to continue your legacy in Vancouver through your newest endeavor, Popina Canteen?

I'm a businessman, entrepreneur, and chef and just wanted to an interesting new project. When the opportunity arose with three really great people and good friends, it was a no-brainer. 

As you mentioned, you teamed up with some of Vancouver’s top chefs – Joel Watanabe, Angus An and Hamid Salimian – to run and operate Popina Canteen. Share with us how this dynamic partnership came to be and what each of you brings to the table to make Popina Canteen a success.

Angus is a very well-known chef here in Vancouver and has, in my opinion, the best Thai restaurant citywide, if not in all of Canada, by far. He brought us all together for a cafeteria-style project that was included four different concepts in one space. The more we talked and collaborated, the more it became what Popina is today; only we all operate on one menu.

So, what did each of you add to Popina Canteen’s menu?

You'd be surprised who does what on the menu; it's actually quite interesting. You would think, for example, that Hamid would do the falafel because he's Persian but it's actually Joel. I'm known for burgers so that’s obviously mine but I also contributed the vegan salad with the green goddess dressing! 

The common thread for all of us is that we are all trained in French fine dining and refer back to that when we're cooking together. Then, we put our own spins on cuisines that we love and are part of our heritages.

As you mentioned, each of your business partners brings something unique to the tables of Popina Canteen. How does this impact the menu development process and the ingredients sourced/used in each of the dishes?

Because we all have different backgrounds in various restaurants, we each have farmers we have gone to and fishermen we have gone to. So, we had to look for the most consistent supply of the highest quality ingredients for the best price. Whoever among us had that better supplier, that's who we went with; we didn't play favourites. 

Popina Canteen is inspired by the shipping container style of restaurant which is a new concept to Vancouver. What have been the biggest challenges and rewards in opening this style of restaurant?

The reward is definitely making people happy, that's why we open restaurants. Fundamentally, as chefs, that's what we try to do every day. We want them happy and to have a good time eating good food. Plus, there's the partnership; working with people who have become really good friends. That's been super rewarding as well.

Opening a business in Vancouver can be challenging because the city isn’t friendly to small businesses. Winter on Granville Island is a complete ghost town so that's hard as well. Also, meeting customers' expectations is always a challenge no matter what type of restaurant you open. 

Popina Canteen is basically the fanciest concession stand you've ever seen and with our backgrounds, meeting expectations can be difficult but it's always about the quality of the food. 

The goal of Granville Island is to establish a market district and amplifying high-quality food offerings by 2040, how are you and your business partners helping to achieve this with Popina?

I'd love to be involved in as many different operations as possible. I think Popina Canteen and the partnering chefs have a lot to offer not just with this restaurant but also with putting multiple restaurants on the Granville Island. Also, we can help curate other chefs to come onto the Granville Island who we think would be a great fit for it, chefs who champion local cuisine and have a hospitality focus. 

Share with us your five-year plan for Popina Canteen and how you and your business partners are working to evolve the Vancouver food scene.

Popina Canteen has always been a concept that we wanted to have multiple venues for, not only on Granville Island but also around the city and in different guises too. It's not just going to be a seafood-focused place, an ice cream place, a fried chicken place. We hope to have a bar one day, a cafe, a coffee shop, a salad place; utilizing Popina Canteen’s brand across the city with venue-specific cuisines. 

Learn more about Chef Robert Belcham.