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One on One: Frank Pabst

By James Wright
May 01, 2009

Mastering the art of cooking is not unlike learning a new language - just imagine trying to do both at the same time. That's the challenge Frank Pabst accepted when, after completing his military service in his native Germany, he decided that a career in a French kitchen was his future.

"I mostly sat in the office, distributed the mail, made coffee for the general and gained about 15 pounds," Pabst recalls of his days in uniform.

But not just any kitchen would do for Pabst, 42. Setting his sights high, Pabst applied for apprenticeship at some of the finest restaurants in Europe and eventually spent time at Michelin-starred La Becasse in Aachen, Germany, and Restaurant de Bacon in Antibes on the French Riviera. There he prepared food for many celebrities, including Roger Moore, Madonna and Bill Cosby, to name a few.

"It was wonderful. I never really cooked at home. But I always liked food. I never went to university. I wanted to get my hands dirty, to travel, to learn different languages," said Pabst, who speaks German, French and near-flawless English. "My mother urged me to go into cooking."

Pabst is also fluent in the international language of food. His skills are like elegant prose to diners at Blue Water Café and Raw Bar, highly regarded as the finest seafood restaurant in Vancouver, British Columbia. As the executive chef since 2003, Pabst has won many culinary awards, including the 2008 Vancouver Gold Medal Plates competition, an event that supported Canada's Olympic athletes. Vancouver Magazine also recently named Blue Water Café, which is strongly committed to sustainable seafood, Best Seafood Restaurant. I spoke with Pabst in early March during a rare moment of down time at his busy restaurant.

WRIGHT: What local species 
are you most impressed by?

PABST: Certainly the Pacific halibut. I'd never seen it before; we have turbot in Europe but it's not the same. Sablefish is a beautiful product that doesn't exist over there. Sea urchins here are phenomenal, just amazing. On the Pacific coast we have the red sea urchin and the green and they are both just wonderful.


Why did you choose Vancouver?

My first choice was a climate a little warmer in winter. I picked San Francisco. I visited with friends, looked at the best restaurants. But they usually won't sponsor a line cook with no green card - it costs too much money. I've been here since 1994, and I absolutely love it.


Why do you only serve dinner?

You have to change the concept of the menu for lunch and cut prices significantly. If you don't do the numbers you wish, it can get very difficult. Nighttime is much better, because of the theaters and the hockey arena - after Canucks games or concerts we have big rushes. The hockey players come in, as do movie stars because they film a lot of movies here. We've had Halle Berry, Renée Zellweger - but I don't know who most of these people are! It's a hot spot for sure. Several years ago, we had the Stanley Cup in the wine room when the NHL draft was in town.


What are some of 
your first seafood memories?

In Europe we have weekly and bi-weekly fish markets that move around the city and you can hit a market nearly every day, even going to nearby Holland or Belgium. We weren't a big seafood family, though. I kind of miss those markets here in North America.


Is food safety more of a concern here?

I think so. To what extent, it might be exaggerated. I don't think people are dying in Europe because they bought fish at an outdoor market.


What's the difference 
between dining out in Europe 
and in North America?

It's unaffordable for the middle class to go out in Europe. If you have to pay 60 to 80 euros ($80 to $105) - for me it's hard to justify spending so much on a meal. As much as I like food, the better restaurants are for the upper class. Here it's expensive but not to that extent.


How has your Ocean Wise 
affiliation aided in your 
sustainable seafood goals?

They are a huge help. As chefs, we couldn't really do the research ourselves about sustainability. And most of our suppliers couldn't tell us what we needed to know. Ocean Wise gave us the scientific research and provided us with information regarding sustainably harvested fish and which fishing methods are clean. I'm a strong believer in sustainability and promote seafood that is first of all local and secondly that is not endangered. In lots of cities in Europe these questions are still not asked. The West Coast is a frontrunner in this.

We feature a program every February called 'Unsung Heroes' where I promote species at our doorstep like geoducks, urchins, sardines and herring - things that are known but under appreciated. I pick about 10 different species and we use smaller plates to get people to try them. I have the responsibility to offer choices on the menu. And it's fun for us in the kitchen to work with products like that.


Are your customers 
in tune with sustainability?

They are usually aware, and if not our waitstaff points it out. Most of the seafood we work with is Ocean Wise-approved, but not all. Lobster is a big seller, but it does not have [an eco-label]. American lobster gets a yellow rating, but it's a tough one to take off the menu; there's no real replacement. It's important to make an effort and have your heart behind it.


How are you handling these challenging economic times?

We're more price-sensitive and dropped menu prices by a certain percentage. We don't want to get away from our fine-dining menu. We don't want to make inexpensive products only to make the menu cheaper. Customers expect the best from us. But you can choose less-expensive items like lingcod.


You have a sushi master, 
Yoshihiro Tabo, on staff. 
What have you learned from him?

He's so in touch with Japanese food and products so I started to incorporate that in the French-style food that I'm doing. The two harmonize very nicely - it's a lighter way of cooking. I stay away from the word fusion, a word that started 15 to 20 years ago. Combining too many items from too many ethnic groups didn't make any sense at all on the plate. I prefer certain items and techniques without overdoing it.


Associate Editor James Wright can be 
e-mailed at jwright@divcom.com


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