Chef Of The Year: David Hawksworth

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Every line cook has experienced the unadulterated hell of kitchen service; it’s that moment when a routine service suddenly and dramatically ramps up. Orders are coming at you faster than you can process them, and you just can’t keep up. Your body takes on a huge whack of stress — the pressure to perform is immense. The need to recover is even greater. ‘Where did all these customers come from?’ you ask yourself, wishing you could vaporize every one of them immediately.

The hard-tiled, kitchen floor — unforgiving to the balls of your feet, ankles and knees on the quietest of shifts — might as well be quick sand. You’re sinking faster and faster, as the night’s service rattles on at break-neck speed. “Can I have mussels sometime this week please?” barks the chef de cuisine, infamous for his sarcasm. A minute later more encouragement comes in the form of, “What exactly do I have to do to get mussels for table 20 please?” You secretly wish the floor would eat you alive.

Thankfully, these moments in hell don’t last forever, but they do teach you about your craft, and you never forget them. “I was on hot starters,” recalls chef David Hawksworth, recounting his personal moment of terror at Raymond Blanc’s famous London-based, Le Manoir Aux Quatre Saisons. “A Sunday night and it was just horrific in every way,” laughs the 42-year-old. “I had Blanc all over me and nothing was right; it was just horrendous,” says the owner of the successful Hawksworth Restaurant, tucked inside Vancouver’s legendary Rosewood Hotel Georgia. It didn’t help that Blanc’s app menu was complex. “He’d have a dish on there with three different pastas, three different garnishes and three different sauces,” Hawksworth says, shaking his head, “and that was one dish of eight!” Hawksworth, the youngest chef inducted into the B.C. Restaurant Hall of Fame (2008), concludes, “once you fuck up in the kitchen, you’re kinda like the guy from Star Trek that gets beamed down with the red shirt; you’ve got a target on you.” The fiasco was an inauspicious start to Hawksworth’s 10 years in high-octane, Michelin-starred London kitchens; the first chapter of an illustrious career now firmly rooted in Vancouver’s city centre.

“A couple weeks after that, I thought, ‘fuck it — three months and I’m outta here,’” recalls Hawksworth. “I thought, ‘these guys aren’t better than me, and if I go back to Vancouver, where am I gonna work?’”

Phil Howard, chef and proprietor of The Square in London, England, who employed Hawksworth years ago, says he always knew Hawksworth would one day wield culinary clout. “He had a clear idea of what he wanted and how he was going to get it. His dreams were part of that rare, small percentage, where one actually believed they’d materialize.” Howard’s fondness for the West Coast chef is sincere: “David’s grounded, realistic, talented and ambitious — these characteristics come together to produce a pretty formidable force in Vancouver’s culinary world. I’m not surprised at all by his immense success.”

Accolades closer to home come from Chad Clark, GM, Hawksworth Restaurant, who’s worked with the chef for two years at the Vancouver resto. “Chef Hawksworth loves his work almost as much as his family,” says Clark. “His seemingly ‘tough-as-a-rock’ persona is quickly disarmed in the face of his five-year-old son and wife, uncovering a surprisingly thoughtful and loving father and husband.”

Persona or not, Hawksworth’s insatiable thirst for success was stimulated by the original enfant terrible: Marco Pierre White. “I liked working for Marco, he was the real deal,” says Hawksworth. “He knew what he wanted, there was no messing around, and everything was just bang on,” he says about his former mentor. “He’s a mesmerizing figure, he stands 6-5” with a great command of the English language, and he can make you feel about two inches tall.”

Today Hawksworth, one of Canada’s leading culinary talents, has a pragmatic outlook on the Canadian restaurant business. “I see what people [earn] in other industries, and you have to want to do this,” he shrugs. “Getting to the top, there’s a lot of luck involved, it’s a very unforgiving business.”

With a brigade of 35 cooks at his award-winning Vancouver resto, and annual sales of $9 million between the Hawksworth Restaurant & Cocktail Bar, the Bel Café at the Rosewood Hotel Georgia and Hawksworth Catering, the chef has certainly made it. Packed each week, customers return to the restaurants for “contemporary Canadian” food.

Hawksworth takes inspiration, “from a lot of different cuisines, but a great Asian community here inspired our senses for a little bit of heat, a little bit of crunch and acidity,” he says. Along the way, Hawksworth and his team have earned kudos from various groups, including Vancouver Magazine’s Restaurant Awards and, this fall, Macleans magazine. Describing Hawksworth restaurant as “casual posh” and identifying his creations as playful and artistic,” the national glossy named the restaurant, “Canada’s Best Restaurant.”

And, Hawksworth’s good name extends beyond Canadian borders, too. Earlier this year, the restaurateur guest-cheffed at Sevva in Hong Kong, China. “It was a hard graft for eight days, but we got there in the end,” says the toque. While inspiration from other cultures continues to imprint his menu, when asked which dish or flavour profile he wishes he’d created, his answer is curious. “It’s somewhere in Japan. I have yet to go there; I’m dying to go,” he ponders. “I cooked French food for 10 years — I’m really interested in what’s going on in Japan.” 

The perfectionist, whose nightly chit averages $95, operates with a food cost of 32 per cent and uses only fresh ingredients. “The best strawberry you’re ever gonna have is when you’re on the field, it’s 23 degrees, you pick that strawberry because it’s at that temperature … nice and warm,” he says. Drawing on Canada’s culturally diverse heritage, Hawksworth’s fresh, vibrant ingredients are evident on exquisite creations such as Pacific halibut with crunchy brandade, beet, horseradish and dill ($33); crispy Maple Hills chicken, in sweet-and-sour vinaigrette, lemon confit, jalapeño ($30) and, 22-oz. dry-aged rib eye, accompanied by la ratte potato, spring bouquetière, crispy bone marrow and brown butter hollandaise ($98 for two).

Like many chefs, Hawksworth understands industry wages are never really commensurate with the hours, passion or the knowledge a chef acquires. “It would be nice if we could pay everyone more money and we could make more money, but we’d have to charge more money. And the whole thing just doesn’t make a lot of sense,” he says, explaining away the industry’s economic frailties. Offering something perhaps more valuable than hard cash, Hawksworth mentors cooks, offering an apprenticeship program to young chefs. He also gives back in others ways, too, donating his time to several causes such as the Greater Vancouver Food Bank Society’s Kids’ Picks Program, which raises awareness about nutrition and healthy eating. Active on the Chefs’ Table Society of B.C., he was a proponent of the 2009 Spot Prawn Festival and, for seven years, has donated to an annual fishing tournament benefiting the Canucks Autism Network and the B.C. Children’s Hospital. “We do a lot with the Canucks Autism Network — anything where kids are involved. We do something for the food bank, for kids who can’t get a proper meal, stuff like that. Can you think of a better cause?” he asks.

As for the future, Hawksworth will continue to apply his perfectionism to each plate. “We’re not really going for the one-dimensional plate, so we like to keep it vibrant and very fresh,” he says. So, for now, mentoring apprentices, continuing with his charitable endeavours and promoting his recently launched line of H-blend wines is keeping him busy.

It’s clear Hawksworth’s a long way from those early days in Britain’s capital city. Clark, who says he’s packed four years of work into two years of actual employment under Hawksworth’s tutelage, says his employer is “a man with vision. His eye for detail and drive for perfection have made him who he is, and he never compromises his integrity or reputation when faced with adversity.”

Thank goodness the floor at Le Manoir Aux Quatre Saisons didn’t open up and swallow him alive.

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