I recently did a catch-up piece with Chef Matt Stowe, who won Season 3 of Top Chef Canada. Today, we catch up with Trevor Bird, who was runner-up in Season 2 of Top Chef Canada.
There are two kinds of chefs in the world: those that are passionate about the food they cook, and those that understand the business of food. No one can question Trevor Bird’s passion for his work. It shows in every plate, every night, in his packed restaurant. But in the last 19 months, since “Top Chef Canada” Season 2 aired, the evolution of Trevor Bird as a restauranteur continues.
Our story starts in the kitchens of the Shangri-La hotel, where Bird was the chef de partie. “I was a cook,” he says, “not a chef.” He’d applied for promotions, only to watch them be filled by other people, and self-doubt crept in. When “Top Chef” came knocking, it felt like a test. He knew he was the underdog. But he needed to prove himself–and not necessarily by competing with everyone else–but by trying to refine and make his own work better.
“Everything happens for a reason,” he says.
During Restaurant Wars, Bird and his team came up with the concept of a restaurant that was “farm to table” and called it Fable. They won that challenge. After Top Chef finished filming, Bird returned to Vancouver, quit his job, and spent the next four months writing a business plan. It had always been his goal to own a restaurant, and he had been saving a little every month towards his dream since he was 18. FABLE would be the embodiment of his passion for cooking with locally-sourced, fresh, sustainable ingredients. He found a business partner, and took over the ReFuel space on W 4th. In May of 2012, only days before the finale of Top Chef aired, FABLE opened its doors for business. He was 28.
“It has been the steepest learning curve,” Bird told me one recent afternoon in the back of his restaurant, the backdrop a chalkboard wall bearing the specials. “I opened a restaurant to cook my own food, but now I show others how to cook my food. I miss cooking sometimes,” he grins. “Creating consistency is the hardest thing to do.”
Still, you’ll see Bird in FABLE’s open kitchen most nights of the week. Being a restaurateur makes for long days–everything that ends up on the plate at FABLE is made in-house. Once a week, a whole pig is delivered from the Fraser Valley, and is butchered in house. All produce is sourced locally, and this summer, Bird even started a rooftop garden, growing his own herbs, turnips, radishes, and tomatoes. The only thing that is not made in house is the sourdough bread. “I brought sausage in one time,” he says. “I had to take it off the menu the next day. It hurt my soul.”
“We’re so disconnected from our food these days,” he says. “But if you take passionate people that grow it, handle it, and put it on a plate, you’ll have a better result.” This is the story of every plate that comes out of FABLE’s kitchen. And it’s working. Vancouverites pack FABLE every night, for Canned Tuna (it’s amazing), squash gnocchi, duck breast, and steak frites.
Still, Bird is quick not to rest on his laurels. “I like to under-promise and over-deliver. Food is like art–it’s incredibly subjective. When people speak too highly of your food, it causes expectations. Expectations are a mother****r. I try to concentrate on the heart and make it the best I can.”
When I start to ask him questions about the reason he thinks he has been so successful, or about where his inspiration comes from, he becomes a little more reticent. “I have no idea why FABLE has been so successful,” he says, acknowledging that it’s a tough city to make a go of it. “All I know is, it has far surpassed all of my plans–for better or for worse.”
And inspiration? Like many chefs, he doesn’t like that question. “I’ve never considered myself an ‘artiste’,” he says. “I’ve just always been weirdly obsessed with food. I never stop thinking about it. It’s how I perceive the world; how my brain interprets the world.”
What’s next in the evolution of Trevor Bird? He admits to struggling to find the balance–between the chef and the restauranteur, between the hands-on business-owner and the person. A second restaurant? Maybe. But at this moment, he’d be spreading himself too thin. “I’ve made a lot of mistakes over the last two years,” he grins wryly, “but making mistakes is good. Rome wasn’t built in a day.”
One thing is crystal clear: the passion Bird has for his food and his point of view comes through in every conversation and every plate. While he may learn and grow as a businessman, it’s that passion, in the end, that will keep him connected–both to the food and to the client–and it’s ultimately that passion that has been the secret sauce to his success.