Dave Ryan’s love of food began with lamb kebabs and a red ’67 Austin Mini that was used to haul his family and a hibachi barbecue across Nova Scotia. He recalls camping trips at the edge of countless maritime lakes where his single mom prepared simple, yet tasty, Middle Eastern fare, teaching Ryan good food comes from the heart.
But, even with his mom’s example, Ryan didn’t immediately make a foray into foodservice. In fact, the chef’s entry into competitive food preparation marked his introduction into the profession.
Having never competed at anything, the erstwhile mechanic and fence builder was intrigued when a teacher of the two-year cooking course he was taking at the Dartmouth Regional Vocational School, encouraged him to enter a culinary competition in Moncton in 1986. Mr. Cameron assured his pupil he would help, and the pair planned an elaborate three-pronged entry of four cold plates, a tallow sculpture and a buffet platter. But when Cameron was admitted to the hospital for emergency back surgery, Ryan was left to his own devices. Still, the fledgling chef earned a bronze for his sculpture of a unicorn head, which, he jests, was awarded “in sympathy,” in acknowledgement of the distance he’d travelled for the contest.
Back at school, the first-year student enjoyed the recognition his win attracted from fellow undergrads. “All of a sudden, people in second year started asking me questions — and I was sparked. That’s when the light went on for me. I got respect for competing and [it] inspired me to cook, to really get in there and push it.”
And, Ryan is still pushing it. These days — after a run of restaurant jobs across the country — he juggles two jobs, one as a demo chef for Wolf, a supplier of heavy-duty cookware, and the other as a teacher of culinary arts at Vancouver Community College. “Cooking and teaching are similar in that every student has to be handled individually with care and respect — and most good ingredients are the same way,” muses the toque who loves the learning process. “To be able to pass on the finer things I’ve learned to somebody else who you then watch take the [lesson] even further is truly a reward.”
The chef, teacher and nine-time World Culinary Olympic contender (and coach) is always learning, too. There was the time Ryan was inspired by a busboy at a banquet hall who clapped together two bus pans of dressing-drenched romaine and shook them to make caesar salad. “You can learn from anybody,” says Ryan. “I don’t think you can be a good chef unless you realize you’re always learning, and you’re always teaching.”
Still, it’s a dedication to minimalism that feeds Ryan’s cooking philosophy more than anything. As he learned, over a childhood of hibachi-prepared meals with his mom, food should never be overpowered by herbs and spices. “Just keep it simple,” he says. “That should see you through.”
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