Lee Cooper had his start at A&W. But helping his dad at franchise locations wasn’t necessarily his childhood dream, it was his fate. “I didn’t get an allowance; I had to work for it,” the chef confesses with a laugh. “I was about 11 when I started doing menial tasks in the restaurant.” And, he’s never left the restaurant scene since.
Transitioning from high school to a cook training program at Malaspina College (now Vancouver Island University) in Nanaimo, B.C., was a natural progression for the 17-year-old.
After graduating in the late ’90s, the chef beefed up his résumé working with his uncle Bernard Casavant at Chef Bernard’s Café in Whistler and at Rod Butters’ Fresco in Kelowna, B.C., before landing a job at Heston Blumenthal’s renowned Fat Duck in Berkshire, England. “I badgered the shit out of them until they said: ‘ok, come in for a work trial.’ Then I worked for two days, and I busted my ass as hard as I could, got the job,” he recalls. “I learned what hard work in a top-end kitchen is like. Until you’ve done it, you can’t really wrap your head around it. And it’s hard, but it’s fun.”
Back home in Canada, after his one-year work visa expired, the toque’s run at top-end restaurants continued; he worked at Scott Jaeger’s kitchen at The Peartree Restaurant in Burnaby, B.C., and as part of the opening team at Market by Jean-Georges in Vancouver.
In the meantime, Cooper planned the launch of his own restaurant, which became a reality in 2010, when he joined with friends Paul Grunberg (GM) and Nin Rai to open L’Abattoir. “It got to a point where I felt that it was something I could do,” he says. “Before we opened it had been 12 years of working in some pretty good kitchens with some pretty good chefs; I picked up the best parts of each one of them.”
Of course, convincing his partners to call the restaurant “The Slaughterhouse,” the English translation of the French word L’Abattoir, was challenging. But they warmed to the idea after learning the 19th-century building was rumoured to have housed Vancouver’s first jail and may sit in the old Vancouver butchery and meat-packing district. The “badass” name hasn’t deterred diners at the 70-seat restaurant, where approximately 100 to 140 meals are served a night.
But ask the 34-year-old chef partner at the rustic building what inspires the work that wins rapt attention from media and foodies alike, and he stops short. “It’s about making money first and foremost,” he says frankly. “It sounds cold and like I don’t care, but, at the end of the day, if you don’t make money there’s no restaurant.” He adds: “It’s a business first, and then you can satisfy your ego and whatever your beliefs are after that.”
Those beliefs loosely translate to an evolving menu based on fresh, seasonal ingredients cooked with an adherence — albeit not strict — to French technique. Menu favourites include pan-fried veal sweetbreads on toast ($14), warm steelhead and crunchy potato salad ($15) and pork shoulder cooked in milk ($26).
And, it’s in the kitchen you’ll find Cooper. It’s evident the executive chef who’s not personally “executive in any way,” is enjoying the ride.
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