Worth The Wait
Stirling Kelso - November 2011
David Hawksworth, aka Job, ticked off the years as his namesake restaurant in the revitalized Rosewood Hotel Georgia in Vancouver slowly took shape. Now open and packed, his patience has been rewarded.
Four years ago, David Hawksworth stood across the street from what is now his first namesake restaurant, a 120 seat fine dining establishment serving contemporary Canadian cuisine on prominent Georgia Avenue in downtown Vancouver. "I knew, no matter how long it took, that I wanted my restaurant to be here," he now reflects, gazing at the glowing glass façade of the trifurcated dining room stretched out along the base of the Rosewood Hotel Georgia that opened in May after the shifting economic winds caused years of fits and starts in the renovation of the historic hotel. Certainly his commitment to staff through thick and thin has earned him the right to have his name painted across the door.
A native Vancouverite, Hawksworth started out in city kitchens before moving to London in 1990 to cut his teeth under Marco Pierre White, Philip Howard, and eventually with Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons in Oxford, where he rose to sous chef during his four year stay. "It was an intense training ground," he notes, while accenting a foie gras parfait resting in apple syrup with a tuft of olive oil cotton candy. "It's incredibly competitive." However, Hawksworth decided that his culinary mark would be more profound in his home city. He moved back to Vancouver for an executive chef position at West (originally Ouest), a high-end restaurant in Vancouver's affluent South Granville neighborhood. It's there that he solidified his reputation, earning high marks from international critics, fellow chefs, and dedicated diners. He was named Vancouver's Chef of the Year in 2005 by Vancouver magazine and in 2008 he was named to Western Living's "Top 40 Under 40" list and became the youngest chef to be inducted into the British Columbia Restaurant Hall of Fame. When word spread at the end of 2007 that he was planning to open his own restaurant—under the same roof as the historic Hotel Georgia, set for a dollar-eating renovation just as economic storms stirred to life—it was not just a win for the chef himself, but also for Vancouver, which at the time was questioning itself not as a food city (in that regard, it's very self-assured) but rather as one capable of supporting fine dining. Hawksworth's commitment eased its existential headache: One of the city's own was going to showcase the province's vibrant larder and foodways at a prominent address that would attract a global clientele.
Now that Hawksworth Restaurant has opened, pent-up anticipation and favorable reviews have kept hostesses busy taking breakfast, lunch, dinner, and weekend brunch reservations. "It's a double-edged sword," admits the impeccably dressed, energetic restaurant manager Chad Clark. "It brings guests in, but it has also raised expectations." Expectations that were further heightened—and helped—by Rosewood Hotel Georgia's service-driven mission and well-heeled audience. (While occupying space in the 1927 property, fresh from its $120 million overhaul, Hawksworth is managed by a separate team and has an independent staff of around 100 employees.)
It's fair to say that Hawksworth delivers with contemporary Canadian cuisine, a purposely general term that allows him to highlight regional foods such as sablefish and spot prawns as well as cherries, raspberries, and apricots grown in the Okanagan Valley, British Columbia's wine country. He also infuses many dishes with Asian touches, as any chef would working in a city in which Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, and Indians (plus others) comprise a healthy number of the population. So lightly fried enoki mushrooms top a Yarrow Meadows duck breast and a yellowfin tuna tartare with yuzu foam comes with puffed crisp rice, de rigueur flavors in polyglot Vancouver.
Hawksworth's food is further elevated by its presentation. In a simple apple and beet salad, for example, thinly sliced green apples are artfully woven through a fluffy pile of beets, arugula, walnuts, and dill. The Dungeness crab salad is almost architectural: two rectangles—one of crabmeat, another of compressed watermelon—sit side-by-side under shaved circles of artichoke hearts, a sweeping taro root chip, and dollops of verjus foam.
Expert food design is complemented by the restaurant's lustrous interiors, conceived by designer Alessandro Munge of the Toronto-based firm Munge Leung. The Delta Group, the firm that owns the hotel, introduced Hawksworth to Munge, and the fluidity of the design is a testament to their symbiotic relationship. A white tablecloth ambience was never seriously considered, though Hawksworth's cuisine could have warranted that level of luxury. Instead, Munge's take verges on elegance, but approachably so. "Interestingly, this concept was created over three years ago," says Munge, referencing the significant construction delays. "Yet we stayed with the original design. That tells me Hawksworth has a timeless feel."
Hawksworth is divided into three parts. The first space, a bar and lounge, serves as an entryway to the restaurant and acts as spillover seating for hopeful diners. A large nostalgic Damien Hirst piece—a sparkling heart dotted with actual butterfly wings—hangs on the northern wall, and cool gray leather couches surround a counter with 12 stools, the playground of bar/lounge manager Brad Stanton, who has also shaken, mixed, and poured at KOKO Restaurant + Bar at Opus Hotel Montreal and Uva Wine Bar in Vancouver. "I love to play with the formula," he says about his approach to handcrafted, pre-Prohibition cocktails. In his Martinez for example, a drink that dates back to 1887, he uses Tequila and mezcal—a blend he is currently aging in American oak whiskey casks—instead of Old Tom Gin. He's also brought back the Hotel Georgia cocktail (also featured at Hotel Georgia's bar 1927), a recipe from 1945 that calls for Plymouth Gin, orgeat syrup, fresh lemon juice, orange blossom water, and egg whites.
Tall European-influenced arches separate the three dining spaces. "Taking a step and a half through thick archways creates a sense of anticipation," notes Munge. The next dining room, the Pearl Room, gets its name from its iridescent wallpaper, cream-colored leather chairs, and milky glass tables outlined in stainless steel that resemble marble. ("Real marble was out of the question," says Clark. "In my experience, it immediately chips and stains.") The room's standout feature is the 376 piece chandelier, an Art Deco–style glasswork that looks like a series of emerald-cut diamonds. Savvy patrons often book a table right under it; the series of two-tops can be connected to create a 10 seat rectangle, a dining room focal point.
The third and final space, nicknamed the Art Room or the Rodney Graham Room, is more modern and understated than the Pearl Room, yet no less distinguished, thanks in large part to internationally recognized British Columbia artist Rodney Graham's custom installation, positioned over connected leather seats on the Art Room's back wall. The piece, a collection of geometrical shapes made of Liquitex on linen, surprisingly inspired by the 1970s British film Psychomania, sits just above diners' heads. This is Graham's first piece to be displayed in a restaurant—a rare commission that he agreed to, in part because he became a fan of Hawksworth at West. "Art always elevates a space, but this was truly special," notes Munge. "We were able to build a room that was partly for Graham and his work." To complement the piece's bold forms, angular black light figures called spider sconces by lighting designer Serge Mouille were hung from the ceiling, acting much like spotlights highlighting the museum-quality work.
Back in the Pearl Room, a 4,000-plus bottle wine room, where wine director Terry Threlfall heads up a team of seven sommeliers, fronts the kitchen. The glass cellar is small but handsome, and the pair of four-top tables in front of it—Nos. 30 and 31—are two of the most popular because of the decorative backdrop. Inside, bottles surround a chest, designed by Threlfall himself, with rolling drawers sized especially for wine boxes, as well as a smooth wood counter where sommeliers pour, taste, and jot down notes. "Wine is introduced separately from the food," explains assistant wine director Jay Whiteley. "Patrons are encouraged to speak directly to members of the wine team about bottles or wines by the glass." Thanks to a 12 tap Cruvinet nitrogen wine preserving system, which maintains open bottles for up to eight weeks (though members of Hawksworth's wine team won't attach bottles for more than three), wines by the glass vary greatly; the lengthy menu often includes premium offerings such as Caymus Vineyards Special Selection and Dominus Estate wines as well as a handful of bottles from Bordeaux and Burgundy.
Smart design continues into the kitchen. Give or take a few architectural features that couldn't be changed because of the historic building's predetermined layout, the 1,200-square-foot space accommodates stations for meat, fish, hot appetizers, cold appetizers, garnishes, and pastries overseen by Wayne Kozinko, formerly at Diva at the Met restaurant in Vancouver. Chef de cuisine Kristian Eligh (whose previous posts include McCrady's in Charleston, SC; Perry St. in New York City; and the chef de cuisine position at Market by Jean-Georges at the Shangri-La Hotel in Vancouver) draws attention to the room's standout equipment: a Pacojet ice cream maker, a Convotherm by Cleveland combi oven, built-in Winston Industries Cvap, and KDS touch and display screens that allow for paperless orders. "They definitely keep the noise level down," Eligh says of the screens as sous chefs tap away. "But we had to go through some serious training on how to use them."
An additional second floor prep station connects to the hotel's York Room, a private dining space. "This was a big selling point for me," Hawksworth says of the intimate ballroom with original crown moldings, stained-glass windows, and views of the Vancouver Art Gallery. "Hosting events opens up a number of creative possibilities." That night, for example, a dedicated patron was hosting his 50th birthday party with 54 guests. Hawksworth's off-menu items included foie gras torchon with a liquid cherry center and braised beef short ribs with charred scallion puree and Asian pear salad. Party guests, needless to say, were enchanted.
And if the dining room and private events space weren't enough to keep Hawksworth and his team busy, Bel Café (named for Hawksworth's wife, Annabel) just opened across Hotel Georgia's south lobby entrance. The corner space has playful interiors as well as a large wooden chandelier. The cafe serves coffee and tea, pastries, lunch, and, thanks to the high traffic and high visibility location, expects to attract about 800 diners a day.
Now home to these two dining establishments and the Rosewood Hotel, Georgia Avenue has a new identity, one that greatly contributes to the city's growing reputation as an innovative food and travel capital. Hawksworth deserves a lion's share of credit, though he'll quickly deflect it, offering praise to Eligh or Munge in his stead. His thoughtful straightforward demeanor is most accurately depicted in a pencil portrait by Vancouver artist Brian Boulton hanging in the Art Room. Sketched in his chef's jacket, Hawksworth is the subject of the piece, but he's facing forward, assumingly toward his kitchen—quietly acclaiming his team for cooking up a new star in the heart of Vancouver.