Interview by Rosanna Caira
Chef Imrun Texeira (2020’s Top-30-Under-30 program award winner, produced by KML) talks about his passion for the culinary arts and desire to make the industry a more hospitable and healthier place in which to work.
Rosanna Caira: What fuelled your career in this vibrant and dynamic industry?
Imrun Texeria: I was born and raised in Ottawa, and I came into the industry wanting to earn some extra pocket money as a 14-year-old. I started working in the dish pit at a local family-style restaurant chain. Dish work isn’t the most glamourous job, but it gave me insight into the kitchen environment. It was fun and exciting to work through dinner rushes even though this restaurant was so casual compared to some of the places I’ve worked at most recently. Coming from sports background and transitioning into another team environment in a more professional manner felt so invigorating and rewarding. The adrenaline rush was addictive. I haven’t worked in another industry since.
RC: What is it about the industry that made you want to stay as opposed to having this as a part-time job and eventually going into another industry?
IT: There’s something about the kitchen that kept pulling me back. I’m a hands-on learner. I love to create and the art form that comes with that. I went to Algonquin College in Ottawa and completed an apprenticeship and eventually earned my diploma as a Red Seal Chef. I wanted to show some legitimacy, that I invested in this education to be able to spend time in the classroom with world renowned chefs and at the same time have an amazing experience. As I dove deeper into the culinary world, various opportunities were coming to me and I hit the ground running.
RC: As someone who attended culinary school, how would you like to see the school system in Canada improve? Is there something that needs to be done to make it more attractive to students?
IT: There’s so many different career paths under culinary arts and I’d like to see that highlighted more. It seems to be geared towards working in hotels and restaurants, but there’s also food writing for blogs or food styling for TV shows and movies. Being a chef can mean so many different things now and we need to bring light to that.
RC: How have your experiences contributed to your learning and skills development?
IT: Travel has always been a big thing – working in different kitchens, learning about different cultures, and meeting people with different taste palates. I have family in the U.K., so I’ve spent a lot of time there in particular. There’s always something to learn in this field, and that’s why I’ve grown so much. I’ve made it a priority to meet new people.
RC: How have you parlayed all of your knowledge and expertise into what you’re doing today?
IT: In January 2022, I launched a personal chef businesses called Wanderlust by Imrun Texeira, which brings the blind tasting menu experience into clients’ homes. Throughout the pandemic, many of the fine dining establishments had to pivot to new business models to make ends meet. I have 10-plus years of training in fine dining, and I didn’t want that skill set to go away. As we make our way out of the pandemic, a lot of those restaurant that pivoted have decided to stay that way because it’s a hard businesses model to go into to begin with. This is where my passion lies. This is the style of service that I like. This is where my creative juices really flow and to be able to bring this intimate experience to clients is unique. Every chef puts themselves on each plate they create. I think that’s the most beautiful thing about the culinary arts.
RC: Are you getting a lot of interest from people? How much are you pricing this at?
IT: I try to keep it under 10 people, with a 10 to 15 course tasting menu. It’s a lot of food. For bigger groups, I’ll bring in some help, but I’m on my own most of the time. It gives me ultimate control to curate dishes on my own timeline and work with the clients I have.
The price for my 10 course tasting menu is between $300 and $350, depending on market prices, inflation, equipment and supplies and skill set that goes into creating these dishes. Building a high-end kitchen in somebody’s home is not an easy feat, but it’s part of the fun. It shows that I can adapt and still deliver a high standard of upscale food.
RC: How often are you working? Have you had to do anything different to market yourself?
IT: I’ve done corporate events midweek, business dinners, engagement dinners and birthdays on weekends. It really depends on the client’s needs. I like that I can be flexible and offer exactly what the clients want when they want it to create the best experience for them.
Marketing has been one of the hardest things, but it’s essential to grow any business from the ground up. I’m young with limited funds and it has been hard. I’ve been trying to get out there and go to networking events. Word of mouth and social media has been great and it’ll be a snowball effect. Customers will be more inclined to have these kinds of events in the spring and summer months. I’m happy it’s slowly picking up and I have some time to focus on working out all the kinks.
RC: You said work/life balance is important to you and your generation. Is this the kind of job that will afford you that or will it be an issue in achieving that balance once the business picks up?
IT: As for right now, I have a lot more control over and I can pick and choose clients that I want to worth with. I want to make sure that I do carve out time for myself if there’s certain dishes with components that take days, weeks or months to prepare. There’s so much planning that goes into it. Maybe I’ll have a dinner once a week, but there’s things that I started for that dinner maybe a year ago with fermenting or dry aging. I know that I can go to the gym multiple times a week, I can play an organized sport and I can see my family. Within all those areas, I can keep preparing, menu development and spreading it out.
RC: The pandemic has shone a light on certain aspects of the industry that need to be fixed. Do you agree that we need to make some structural changes to how the business model works for restaurants?
IT: Yes, I think there’s parts of the business model that need to change for the longevity and sustainability of the industry. Prior to COVID, there was a working class getting exploited for gain and we were trying to undercut costs to offer the cheapest products. In a way, it was like we were putting a lack of respect on our skill set and what we stand for. This is our time to move forward in a healthy way and not to be stuck in old habits to create a better work environment for ourselves, for our employees and for our customers.
RC: With the business you’ve created prices need to be quite high. Do you think customers are willing to pay those higher prices after living through COVID, or do you think there’s still going to be pushback on that?
IT: Without a doubt, there will be a little bit of pushback. At the same, it’s going to high that that consumers want to pay for quality, especially when it comes to their health and knowing where their food comes from. Customers will be re-investing that money into Canada’s local artisans and sustainable farmers, and I think that’s important.
RC: One of the topics that has existed forever but has come to the forefront in the last two years is the systemic racism that goes on in this industry. How would you like to see the industry move forward on this front to make equality top of mind for all operators?
IT: You don’t see many people of colour in management roles, especially not in the fine-dining world that I come from. There’s this old-school mentality when you think of the Michelin Guide, for example, where French fine dining has always been highlighted. Those things are changing, but it’s not changing fast enough. You might see a multicultural kitchen, but then once you get into that management line, majority of them are white males. The men, women and people of colour who put in long hours and work hard aren’t always recognized or compensated well. I’ll see a team that’s all white people and they’re making French food, pulling in traditional flavours from China, Japan, India or Mexico, but I don’t see any of those people represented on the team. It’d be nice to see different people, cultures and flavours highlighted.
Some of the best restaurants aren’t always the most glamorous places in the city. I find I have the best food and experience at smaller independents or food trucks. We have to look deeper and harder to find these untraditional gems and highlight them.
RC: We recorded a podcast a few weeks ago celebrating last year’s Top-30-Under-30 winners. As one of our winners, what has the award meant to you?
IT: It has meant a great deal to me. I’ve had to work hard to gain respect within the fine dining world. In the grand scheme of things, the fact that I’ve been on TV shows, interned across the world and had to work twice as hard as some of my counterparts to gain half the recognition. I’m seeing more people that look like me gaining recognition and similar experiences and I think is what will help other South Asian people to come into the industry.
RC: Do you feel a sense of responsibility being a Top 30-Under-30 winner to pave the way for others in your area to grow similarly as you have?
IT: Absolutely. I identify as Canadian. I have an Indian background, and there’s so many restaurants I’ve gone to that expect me to make just Indian food because that’s what I’m known for. That’s where I come from. I’ve worked hard to break away from that. I had French culinary training at Algonquin College, I’m born and raised in Canada and my parents grew up in the U.K. I’m farthest from being “Indian,” and although I still have a lot of respect for where I come from, why am I pigeon holed into this one area? There’s so much room for growth and I think now is the time to open up to the possibilities of how we can represent different cuisines.
You asked me before about a role model. To be honest, there hasn’t been someone to look up who looks like me, at least not in our country. I want to be that person for others in any way I can. It’s not going to be an easy road because it’s never been done here before. There’s a lot of barriers to break down and a lot of doors that I’ll need to kick in to get a seat at the table. I owe it to myself and to others coming into the industry.
RC: What advice would you give to younger people who want to enter the industry?
IT: I think for most people that come into this industry, the decision is built on passion. But it’s finding where that passion is. Personally, I wanted to taste and try absolutely everything to know I could start working with those flavours and cooking like this type of chef or with these ingredients. I knew it would spur different ideas in my mind. I worked with farmers at one restaurant, but I had never though about working on a farm prior. Now I love gardening and connecting with various farmers and growers. It’s really just about diving into everything and letting go of any preconceived notion of how you think your career is going to go. Eventually, you’ll find your end goal.
RC: The last two years have been difficult for everybody. What have been your biggest takeaways and what have they taught you?
IT: My biggest takeaway has been the importance of mental and physical health. One feeds the other. We’re working long hours, eating less and unable to take care of our bodies properly. If I’m not taking care of my body then my body isn’t going to act right at work. You need to create a balance and spend time with family and friends. Chefs put so much love and respect into the food they create and we need to have that same love and respect for ourselves. I know if I want a long sustainable career, I need to treat my body and mind right. We need to stress the importance of it because a lot of chefs that are double my age are now seeing the consequences for not taking better care of themselves. I’m teaching those lessons to younger generations coming through.