Vancouver’s Vegetarian Heaven: The Parker
Finding a niche and creating something to fill it is very difficult these days, but Steve Da Cruz and Jason Leizert managed to do so. With their newly opened vegetarian restaurant, The Parker, they not only look forward to providing vegetarians with a nice place to dine but they focus on doing so in a sustainable fashion accompanied with world class service. Here Steve and Jason educate me in old French cooking methods brought back to life, fascinating ways in how they acquire their wine, and much more.
Words by Christina Chan
The City: So Jason, you’re the executive chef here, tell us how you got started.
Jason Leizert: Well, I started as a dishwasher in Tofino and from working in the kitchen I went on to work in Europe, Australia, Asia, all over the world and ended up in Vancouver to work with Steve about 4 years ago. We worked together in a restaurant before we parted ways and in the last few years we were doing our own thing. Then we found this space on Craigslist and just jumped on it! It looked like a good opportunity and so we said why not.
The City: And Steve, you’re the general manager here, tell us about yourself.
Steve Da Cruz: I started in the business in New York in the late 90’s. I was going to school and quickly became a bartender then became a manager and started managing nightclubs. I moved (to Vancouver) in 2005/2006 and helped out in Boneta in Gastown and then opened my own restaurant (The Corner Suite), where Jason was the chef, and then moved onto a couple new things and now we’re back doing this again!
The City: So you guys have all worked together before, how did The Parker come to be?
SDC: Well I’ve known Martin (Warren, restaurant designer) for years from building the original Boneta, and he had built my restaurant, The Corner Suite, as well. I spoke to him about 6 months ago, because he wanted to build a restaurant and with his sustainable company (Vanglo), which only uses material that’s either recycled or with a low environmental impact, we wanted to do something with that. So we made it happen in 2 months, which was pretty cool. Plus we figured he’d be a great partner to have in case anything ever breaks!
The City: How about the design of the place?
SDC: Michel Laflamme is the architect of the project, known for building the YYoga’s in the city, so a lot of that aesthetic with Martin came together. We utilized the space to its full effect with pieces having been custom-made by Martin. We’re also all about sustainability; our chairs are 100% recyclable bought from (local furniture store), Spencer Interiors.
The City: Why a vegetarian restaurant?
SDC: We specifically wanted a vegetarian restaurant. We felt there was a niche in Vancouver and as my girlfriend is vegetarian, I’d often find I’d have nowhere to take her. Or whenever we did find a place to go, it was always an underserved market. There was nowhere (vegetarian) that we could go and get dressed up for and have a nice candlelit dinner with world-class service and good wine and good food. It didn’t really exist.
JL: Conversations over time gave us the idea. Not only did we see the need for it, but also there’s so many good suppliers and local growers out there that we wanted to use. We really try to stay away from what’s happening with meat and fish these days and if you think about it, should we really be eating this much meat and fish? I don’t think so. As a cook, I’ll never be a vegetarian or a vegan or anything because I love food. I go to restaurants and want to eat all sorts because you can learn from any restaurant whether it’s different techniques or different ways of doing things. We think that’s the biggest thing.
The City: Do you feel you’ll only attract certain clientele with the restaurant being purely vegetarian?
JL: We try to stay away from the whole isolation thing. We have stuff on the menu like cassoulet, French onion soup, and all those are traditionally done with heavy, meat base sauces. But we’re making them without the meat and you still get the flavor and the richness by using mushrooms or seaweed. We know what it’s supposed to taste like, but achieving that flavor without using those (meat) products is a challenge I enjoy.
The City: With the recent opening of other vegetarian restaurants how do you think it’ll affect Vancouver?
SDC: If anything, Vancouver is just catching up with the rest of the world. San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Paris, London – they do many different options for vegetarians. It’s really odd that you don’t see more here because we have such a massive vegetarian community with such few dining options. We like people to approach it as if maybe some nights you crave Indian food, you’d go to an Indian restaurant. With that in mind, The Parker is a vegetarian restaurant; it’s a style of cooking as opposed to an ideology that one needs to adhere to but rather focusing on the quality of experience.
JL: It’s hard to say whether there will be more openings but I do believe people may start utilizing more vegetables. I can see more people becoming vegetarian; perhaps through what people read in the newspaper about E. coli. People are going to look at that and rethink whether they should be eating that stuff.
SDC: There’s a big difference between having three servings of meat a day as opposed to really appreciating meat once a week, which is much more prevalent in the world as a vast majority of the world is actually vegetarian. It’s more by accessibility to protein that’s the difference between societies. Like everything else, once things become habit, a choice becomes an option and almost becomes ingrained into society. Not many vegetarian restaurants may open but you’ll see a lot more menus having three or more vegetarian options as opposed to not having any.
The City: So I read that Jason is constantly changing the menu, why is that?
JL: It just… gives me something to do! I get bored with the stuff and sometimes our farmers won’t be able to bring us a certain ingredient and bring something else instead, so we really realize what our farmers have (on the impact of our menu).
SDC: It goes back to our basic sense of sustainability; by using what’s given to us we’re not demanding the environment to provide something. We’re listening to what’s being told to us. And it keeps things interesting for our clients as well!
The City: Are there cooking trends and do you follow them?
JL: There are big trends in cooking all the time although Canada is way behind. Everyone’s talking about nose-to-tail cooking right now in Vancouver, but it’s been around forever! These urban farmers – that shouldn’t be a trend, that should just be what we do.
SDC: People definitely have their minds keyed in to a different understanding. We invite people here and explain that we’re going to be different. Sometimes you’ll have a lot of dishes you may be familiar with and other times you won’t believe what Jason has made. It can be really exciting for people.
The City: So what are your personal favorites from the menu?
JL: It depends on what night! Today I would go with the creamed chanterelles with poached egg.
SDC: I change the cocktails everyday and try to match them with people rather than food, so it depends on what your palette is like. When people are having dinner I try to tailor the experience towards them. I’ll go over to Jason and say what they’re having and we’ll cook just for them, so it’ll be a special experience. I’ll make custom cocktails sometimes or have one that I know they’d like. Right now I have one that’s been on the menu for a few weeks and everyone really likes it: the New Strathcona (bourbon, olive syrup, orange & lemon zest). The Vancouver is one I’ve been making for years with a recipe that has been lost for 40 years. (As for food) I love the cassoulet when Jason makes it, as I’m very familiar with French food it’s pretty cool to see a vegetarian take on a classic Southern French rich dish. It’s traditionally steeped in bacon and duck and here you have it with mushrooms and stew with beautiful beans and it comes out really nice. Most people who have had it couldn’t believe it’s totally vegetarian! The other one is the handmade agnolotti, which is amazing. Agnolotti is pasta that has been made by hand everyday and is served with sous-vide carrots. One of the cool things in the kitchen here is that we process with sous-vide that Jason uses to cook.
The City: Sous-vide? What does that entail?
JL: It was a technique invented in 1970 by a French chef and it pretty much means, “boiled in a bag”. You would Cryovac something, which means to suck out all the air, and then you submerge it into a water bath. The circulator then circulates water at a precise
temperature until we change it. We use it for vegetables, cheese, etc. and what it does is retain flavor, color, and nutrients. When you boil vegetables, you’re boiling nutrients and color out of it whereas this way, it’s boiled within the bag so there’s nowhere for the stuff to go but back into the vegetables. For instance, cooking purple carrots this way will have them purple all throughout while they’re usually orange inside when boiled normally.
SDC: For people who have eaten vegetarian for 10 or 15 years, they may have never encountered this type of cooking. So it’s a whole new reality in terms of how they actually experience their food! It’s nice to do that for somebody.
JL: Our menu is very seasonal too, (for instance) if you like fresh tomato salsa or tomato salad, you should really only be eating that in August or September, maybe October this year with us being lucky enough to get tomatoes throughout October. Those months are when tomatoes are in season and when they’re the best and the freshest. Restaurants that serve tomatoes in other months aren’t local while we use community gardens, one in East Hastings and another on 1st. We also get a lot of our greens from the SOLEfood farming collective that grows on concrete.
The City: Any plans to open up more locations? Perhaps a vegetarian food truck?
SDC: If we did expand, we would have staff that would be trained with us and they would have their own experiences and thoughts to offer. No food trucks for us; it’s just not what we do. We really enjoy providing a unique dining experience, something special in the room. We like doing it this way.
The City: Anything else to add about The Parker?
SDC: One of the cool things about our wine program is that it’s based out of the Columbia Watershed. There’s so many watersheds based 15 million years ago with volcano lava spreading out to Oregon, Washington State, the tip of Idaho, and British Columbia. We share the same volcanic soil so all the wine comes from within that region. It means that none of it gets on a plane, so the environmental impact is much lower. For instance, a bottle of Bordeaux usually has to travel a long way, to reduce the environmental impact we source it out of our seasonal/regional facilities. Oregon and BC wine are world-renowned and taste wonderful. Another cool thing is that we work with Masa (Shiroki) from Granville Island, he was the first sake maker in Canada, and he actually has his own rice farm in Abbotsford. He’s made the first sparkling sake in Canada (available at The Parker)! There are a lot of Asian influences in the food depending on the day. Although right now, J’s making an Italian dish – he jumps all over the map! His handmade gnocchi is gluten free while made with German potatoes that were grown locally along with local Brussels sprouts!
The City: Awesome! Closing statements?
SDC: We’re excited to be doing custom Christmas parties this year. We plan to meet with them and suggest several dishes from all over the world! In the summer we’ll open up the window and lay out picnic blankets on the park/grass across the street. So far it’s been fun and people really love it!
JL: It’s just cooking what we want to cook and cooking with good product. It could become anything if you’re using good product!
The City: I’m so glad to have met both of you, thank you so much for your time!
SDC: No problem! Thank you for taking the time out to come see us!