A graduate of Camosun College’s Culinary Arts program in Victoria, British Columbia, Chef Robert Belcham began his career working for innovative restaurants including Rebar, Aerie Resort, The French Laundry, C Restaurant and Nu. In 2007, Belcham opened Fuel Restaurant, later rebranded as Refuel Restaurant and Bar. By 2008, he had opened Campagnolo, followed by Campagnolo Roma in 2011. Today, he is also a partner in Popina Canteen and has been inducted into the British Columbia Restaurant Hall of Fame.
Club House for Chefs met up with Chef Belcham to uncover his trade secrets for developing A-list restaurants!
What is your process for developing a new restaurant concept? What elements should be considered?
When it comes to restaurant development, it’s not an easy process. First and foremost, you must be passionate about the style of food you want to produce. If you don’t have passion, your restaurant concept will not take off because it won’t resonate with your customers.
Next, market research. Find out if there are similar concepts aligned with what you would like to do and where they sit within the target market. Follow this up by looking into the demographic they’re attracting; their ingredient selection and which type of food and wine programs are being executed. Now, figure out what you think could work even better and refine it based on your market research.
Where do you draw inspiration from for new restaurant ventures? How do you continue to find inspiration and evolve your restaurants?
The environment I’m in, the people I meet, the cities I visit, things I might see in a movie or magazine. If you only try to come up with the next “big thing,” it won’t work. It has to come from a genuine place and what you surround yourself with. There’s no formula to it, you just either catch it, or you don’t.
For example, when I opened Campagnolo, it all started with research. I knew the basics of Italian cuisine, but I didn’t understand it as well as someone who grew up in that area. I took the time to speak with multiple people, dine in relatable locations and find out how I could adapt an Italian restaurant concept to the Vancouver food scene. We took the idea of farm-to-table and went from there, emulating cooking styles and dishes with Italian inspiration; that’s how it all started.
As a chef recognized for their commitment to using local and sustainable Canadian products, how does the choice in ingredients impact a new restaurant’s concept and its flavours?
It’s very simple and boils down to one thing: FLAVOUR. I’ve been cooking for 25 years now and what makes a dish great is having flavour resonate with the person who is eating it. The way of getting the best flavour out of that dish is having the food you make it with be as close to the restaurant as possible because it needs to be at its freshest.
Can you explain the role food and flavour trends play in a restaurant concept and menu development?
I’ve never been a trend follower, not even in the food I create. Personally, I like to look back at recipes that my grandfather had created and talk through them with my father to ultimately use their line of thinking. In utilizing their old, forgotten techniques, it has helped us to best showcase the flavours of foods.
For example, with our charcuterie program, we just simply wanted to make sure that we had the best tasting pork all year long. We’d find the meat in its peak season at a local Vancouver farm where you could only buy the whole animal at once, not in separate cuts. Looking back again on my grandfather’s recipes, my father said that he’d slaughter a pig every fall and that would get them through the whole winter. I then used that same line of thinking with the full pig we’d attained, and we would then make ham, bacon, pancetta, etc. The rest would be cured and preserved as best as possible. It was utilizing those old techniques that ended up best showcasing the flavour of the pork while supporting a small farmer and being able to teach our cooks something new that they might not have seen before.
You recently opened Popina Canteen with Chefs Joël Watanabe, Angus An and Hamid Salimian. Tell us how this new venture came about and how it differs from your other restaurant concepts.
The project had been gestating for the past 4.5 years. It started as individual food stalls in a large space to sharing a common workspace, then common staff, becoming a refined cohesive concept that we all worked together on. Popina is the product of that cohesive partnership. A concept that takes our almost 100 years of combined fine and casual dining experience and using that knowledge to make fast food better in all ways. From where the raw product is sourced and the techniques used to process and cook it, to how we sell the experience. Angus has had very good experience in doing this style of restaurant in the past with Fat Mao, Longtail and Freebird but we took these ideas many steps further. It has been tough breaking new ground in how we are trying to do things with Popina, but the results have been very well received.
You’re credited as mentoring emerging chefs countrywide. What advice would you give chefs looking to open their own restaurants?
I’d tell them that the biggest difference between being a chef and a restaurateur is knowing the business both in and out of the kitchen. You have to be an unbelievable manager not just for the back of house but the front of the house as well.
Also, make sure you know the ins and outs of every penny every day as it takes much longer and is much more expensive to open and run a restaurant than you might think.
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Photo Credit: Chris Mason Stearns