Karen Close: Ned Bell, The Cabana Grille
If, as Matisse suggests, passion is the main ingredient in art, chef Ned Bell is certain to make his mark among Kelowna's culinary notables. Born in the Okanagan, Bell credits the Valley with giving him his passion for cooking. Working with fresh ingredients has always inspired and motivated him to create new and imaginative dishes. His intent at the new Cabana Grille, is much broader. Cabana is a conceptual piece. Like other artists working in the conceptual genre, Ned sets out to create a performance and generate an atmosphere of artistry and interaction. When there's a mingling of energies, something new emerges. I like this. It invites participants, in this instance, diners, to appreciate art as a subtle process that opens us to the uniqueness and richness of all experience. Ned's concept is enriched by attention to details and a concentration on creating a distinctive dining experience for all who enter his art piece. Ned reflects:
I know how great it is to have been born in this valley. Although we moved to Vancouver when I was three, my family has maintained a place here for close to 50 years. I've been in the food industry since I was 14 when I began washing dishes. This is my 12th year as an executive chef and I've been passionate about food and making meals since I was a kid. These are the skills I've brought to the creation of Cabana. I know the local growers and the artisans in the Valley. Cabana is a collaboration of all that is wonderful about this place. I'm in love with the food industry and the unique opportunities it provides for interacting with people. We throw a party here everyday for upwards of 400 people. Sure there are systems in place that help us to perform but there's always that creative tension and the excitement of creating order out of chaos. Everyday is a great feeling because it always comes back to the fact that I'm doing what I love making food and nurturing people, both my customers and those who are training here with me. That's my art form. It's about doing what I'm passionate about and making friends.
I trained in Vancouver, Niagara, Toronto and Calgary but during the last 10 years I really became consumed with the idea of starting a restaurant here in the Okanagan and presenting the phenomenal bounty of this valley in fabulous dishes. Look around the restaurant and you'll see all the preserves we put down so that I can open those jars in November and December and it's a little bit of a gift from the special tastes of summer in the Okanagan. I regularly travel south to Osoyoos and north to Vernon "hunting and gathering" from the best in the valley. I think these are the attitudes that have made me successful, and I don't mean financially. I mean mentally, emotionally and artistically. I call my menus "sessions" like in music. I want summer sets, fall sets, winter sets, and spring sets where each of these is a result of what I can find in the valley in that season. The plate is a canvas on which I create sensual statements which I hope will entice my patrons and open them to a richer dining experience. I've always been happy and artistically motivated when I'm preparing food.
I've also had some great mentors, outstanding culinary artists. I started my career in Vancouver working as a sous chef at Robert Feenie'sLumiere restaurant as well as working under Michael Jacob chef and owner of Le Croccodile. In 1997 I headed east to Toronto and gained appreciation for the art of cuisine at Michael Stadtläander's notable creation Eigensinn, a farm that has been transformed into a significant art piece and dining experience. I was an executive chef at Niagara on the Lake's Peninsula Ridge Estate Winery, and at Toronto's Accolade and Senses Restaurants. In the late 90's I was at Murrieta's Grill in Calgary, where I was fortunate to be named Where Magazine's "Rising Star".
Our designer for Cabana Grille, Lori Dundas, gave a lot of attention to helping us create this dining space. If you look carefully you'll see that wood divider wall is a design created by weaving the C and G of Cabana Grille. This design is then duplicated on the belts our servers wear. The décor is an expression of a beach theme and the natural elements of earth, fire and water. We have sand works on the wall, natural stones in the floor, the fire pits and water features outside. Everything is meant to work together to create a unique dining experience for all ages. I'm particularly delighted with our children's menu. We asked the graduating class from the Waldorf School to make art for the fronts of our children's menus. Wherever we could, we've included art work. Artist Tari DeBello painted my chef's jacket which I keep in the case over by the preparation area so that I can wear it when I'm creating. The carved pieces of driftwood that are the handles on the doors of the front entrance were done by the coast artist Brent Comber.
Thinking of chefs as artists is a recent perspective. As a measurement of what makes something art, many have suggested art is an expression that has the ability to help us envision a better world. Asked if there are ideals that he sought in the creation of Cabana Grill Bell's response was immediate. I hope that my approach to the food I'm cooking is helping to build a renewed respect for the micro climate that is the Okanagan and the foods that we can grow here. In recent years a lot of orchards and other crops have been removed to plant grapes. I'm glad that I'm buying from 35 different farmers in this area. This helps keep them in business, and maybe makes local residents more aware. I've been a proponent of the 100 mile diet for many years now. When we buy locally we get a fresher, better product and a renewed sense of community. I'm not sure we could ever stay totally within the 100 mile borders, but I think trying t, makes us all more aware. We then pay attention to what's in season and that is important. I hope I'm making my customers develop their tastes so that they are sensitive to the flavours in different types of cherries, fresh lettuces or the great heirloom tomatoes we grow in this region. We produce good products here in many areas, not just food, and the more I can foster a nationalistic pride in what we do as Canadians the better. Look at the wine industry and how as we learned to appreciate the wines grown here in the Okanagan and give them respect, it's brought world recognition and economic prosperity to all the Okanagan.
In concluding, I asked Bell to put his dishes in the context of poetry: "what oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed", and asked what his signature dish is.
When I went to chef school I was fortunate enough to apprentice with seven great chefs. One, I particularly remember, was Kurt Ebert, who had been pastry chef at the Hotel Vancouver. He gave me the advice to go to pastry school before I finished chef school. You can always tell a good chef by his pastry. Pastries start the meal with breads and end the meal with fine desserts. I'm proud of our pastries, created by my pastry chef, Melanee Peers.
Chilean poet Pablo Neruda wrote:
I asked Ned about your best chowder.
For the Okanagan, I like a summer-time chowder with a big, bold, fresh taste. I use heirloom tomatoes as a base with maybe some halibut and salmon which are both good from the coast now. It would be a little bit spicy, but also have some other touches of the Okanagan maybe some corn or some peas for texture. The emphasis would be on fresh and simple preparation so you'd serve it right away.
I have a similar philosophy for all I create. My philosophy on life and foods is similar in so many ways. Balance is important. Simplicity is key. Taste is everything.
These are values I learned growing up here and I'm proud to incorporate them into helping build the culinary arts in the Okanagan. We are building a unique expression of who we are and what is special in this valley.
Indeed Bell's passionate enthusiasm is the key ingredient in the full expression of Cabana Grille and my senses tell me he's created a great art piece.