(Pictured above; Chef Jack Chen and Chef Lee Cooper).
There are plenty of shells in the ocean, not all of them pretty, nor interesting. Even fewer contain something precious; a pearl.
There is a culinary rarity to be found on Water Street within the latest creation from the gents who brought us L’abattoir. Coquille Fine Seafood (Coquille of course is French for Shell), is a place many of us have wanted to see in Vancouver for quite a while. As equally down to earth as it is elegant, the sea faring themed, 100 seat (plus patio) restaurant takes diners into unchartered territory, serving edible treasures from the ocean, while catering to a diverse range of tastes and budgets.
We met with Gastown restauranteurs Chef Lee Cooper and Chef Jack Chen to discover where the voyage has taken them and where it may further travel.
How did you both meet and end up here?
LEE: Jack and I first met in 2008. We were both working in a restaurant in Burnaby called The Pear tree. I had just returned back to Vancouver from England. When we opened L’abattoir in the summer of 2010, Jack was in England and I needed a sous chef. Between constantly harassing him to come work here and a delayed opening, Jack ended up coming home to join the team as head chef at L’abattoir. After a few years, he went to work on a handful of other projects and in January of last year, Jack came back to L’abattoir as head chef (a position which he still holds). We conspired during a cold winter and conceived our newest creation – Coquille Fine Seafood – where we are both partners. At some point in all of this, Jack met my pastry chef who happens to be my wife’s sister, they got married, had a baby, so now not only are we business partners and friends, we’re also family.
L’abattoir has been, and continues to be, hugely successful. What was the inspiration for opening Coquille Fine Seafood?
JACK: We saw that there was a lot of potential for the space that had once been occupied by the Secret Location restaurant. During our initial planning, we looked around Vancouver and despite its proximity to the ocean, we couldn’t find a casual seafood restaurant in the city that could also be classed as high end. Using L’abattoir as a benchmark, we wanted to continue with our level of service and menu standards, while still maintaining a fun and casual environment for our guests. The idea was that people could have fish & chips and a beer or if they wanted to splurge, order a seafood platter and champagne.
Would you say Gastown is Vancouver’s test kitchen? In other words, a culinary petri dish?
JACK: Vancouver as a whole has expanded considerably in the past 5 years. I’m from Vancouver and having been around Gastown for the last 30 years, I can see how the neighbourhood has changed drastically. With the current food scene, Gastown is one of the trendier areas of the city that attracts a certain type of restaurateur – one who wants to try out new things and concepts.
LEE: When we opened L’abattoir 8 years ago, it was one of the few places around that we could afford. We really wanted to be downtown and Gastown was pretty much the only option for us. There were pioneers that came before us, many that are still here, who paved the way to help make Gastown what it is today. Since L’abattoir, I’ve seen a lot more independent restaurants in the neighbourhood led by people who are willing to take risks and these establishments tend be more unique and personable than those in other areas of town. What do you like about working in Gastown?
JACK: It’s getting busier and I’m seeing more corporate businesses coming into Gastown but there are still many independent restaurants, retail stores, cafés and boutiques with a true neighbourhood feeling that remains on every street and corner.
LEE: Jack’s right. There’s a community feeling in Gastown that I appreciate and value. I like connecting with other business owners, saying hi, shooting the s*it when out on the streets. I’ve spent so much time here in the past 8 years, I don’t know what it’s like anywhere else. There are good people down here and a certain level of ‘sandpaper’ to the neighbourhood. It feels honest, unique, different, and there are a lot of creative people here trying their best.Favourite food to eat?
LEE: I usually make myself a fried egg sandwich when I get to work in the mornings. Maybe that’s it?!
JACK: Asian food. Because I work with food all day and everyday, I don’t get to usually cook for myself. When I do get the chance, I like making dishes from my childhood that my mother taught me how to prepare.
Favourite food/dish to cook?
JACK: When it’s sunny, a salad and a nice steak. When it’s gloomy, something hearty like this tofu stew that my mom used to cook for me.
LEE: Probably my baked oyster dish from L’abattoir. It’s been on the menu for a long time. It’s my baby.
Most complicated/difficult thing you have ever cooked?
LEE: Nothing’s really that hard. I’ve been at this for a long time. What’s challenging are the simplest things, the dishes that are the most basic. I don’t do as much cooking as I used to. Today, it’s about managing a team and getting them to a point where they can work independently. The simplest dishes are the ones people have the hardest time getting right. There’s no room for error when the end result is something uncomplicated.
JACK: I think I’d agree with Lee on that one.What’s next for Coquille?
LEE:We just received our patio license and we’re excited to open it up soon. We’re working out the logistics and ensuring that we bring the same level of service from inside the restaurant to out under the open air.
JACK: We are going to have a patio party to welcome in the summer, with a BBQ and some good times.