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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
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
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
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
What's the difference
between dining out in Europe
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
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.
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