The creation of Cook Culture was an inevitable outcome of my unconventional path. At the time my career in retail had been full of hills, peaks, and valleys. I’d been fortunate to gain a wide range of retail experience and been involved with may dynamic businesses and worked closely with some amazing people. However something was missing in my career, like an itch that needed to be scratched. I really wanted to be involved with something that mattered to our communities and that I could make a difference.
Cook Culture came to be almost by accident. My wife and I had dreamt up the simple idea many years before while traveling in the Napa Valley. However the concept wasn’t something that I was looking for until it found me. In 2009 an opportunity in the beautiful new Atrium Building presented itself and with the amazing support of our Landlord, and my mentor, we decided to make Cook Culture a reality.
I was diligent in my planning. I’d been selling housewares for over 13 years and been in some sort of retail for most of my life. I’d become a certified bookkeeper, learnt much of what there was to know about the technology of the day, and worked hard to be the best leader I could. BUT, I knew nothing about teaching or running a cooking school, I’m not a trained chef, and at the time I didn’t know much of anything about commercial kitchens. What I wanted more than anything else for our business, was for it to matter. I wanted people to be able to be emotionally connected with what mattered to me, and us.
I’ve read all the books, watched all the movies. I drink from the kool-aid. In a millisecond I can be on my soap-box preaching how we can save the world by collectively making better food choices. Organic is best. Stop eating meat and dairy. You know this song. That is not what this story is about.
I come from a family of divorce, but before it broke up and everyone went their separate ways, food and community was the center point of what I remember mattered. My father became Mayor of our municipality when I was an infant, who started the first local recycling program. My mother was a local potter, who had a community kiln and shared it with whoever needed it. She was a stay at home mom, who would gather our food from local producers and growers and make much of what we would eat from scratch at home. She started a local cheese and nut co-op so that locals could buy wholesome organic food at reasonable prices.
These are my first memories, and they’re great. I know that a stronger community makes for healthy people and healthy people eat healthy food. This is what drove me to build a teaching kitchen in our first Victoria location. I have a deep belief that if people can learn how to cook better, and more often, then they will be happier, healthier, and we will have stronger communities. I guess this sounds a tad vain, but it’s the responsibility that drives me to continue growing our culinary teaching business.
( My family at a Salt Sprig Island wedding)
I was stunned. In the first 3 months of opening our Victoria teaching kitchen in 2010, we were doing something like 15 times the teaching business that I’d planned. I had estimated that we could teach 1 or 2 classes a week but by 3 months in, we didn’t have a free day on the calendar for months in advance. I had to quickly learn what we were doing and put some people and processes into place. In late 2014, we opened our second kitchen in North Vancouver and had around 30% more demand than we had in our Victoria location when we opened 4 years earlier. The kitchen on the North Shore was built from what we learnt in Victoria to meet the needs of the community.
Again I was stunned. The team that operates this part of the business went to work doing what they do so well, and delivered the community exactly what I had envisioned 5 years earlier as I sat in the basement of my in-law’s house for months planning Cook Culture. We were also building a house at the same time of opening Cook Culture, with our second baby on the way.
Since we arrived in Vancouver with the buyout of Cookworks in 2014, I’ve been planning how we can continue to deliver culinary teaching to our communities. I wasn’t sure how it was going to look, but I knew it was just a matter of time that the path would become clear. In January this year, we started planning a full-scale renovation in our Downtown location, at Howe and Hastings St. This has been the most complex renovation project that I’ve taken on because of the location; an older building and dealing with the massive, overly complex machine that is the City of Vancouver. However, planning is complete, the construction process has begun and we’re now only a few months away from having out 3rd teaching kitchen open, and delivering more Cook Culture to the community of Downtown/Cole Harbour, Yaletown, and Gastown. We hope to be operational by mid to late January with classes going on sale near the beginning of November, 2017. We’re starting with classes in mid February and will release classes for earlier dates as we get closer to our opening date.
(Above: The demolition of 3/4 of our Downtown Vancouver store)
The classes will be very much the same as we have on our calendar now, the kitchen is similar to our North Vancouver location with a few improvements and we’re adding a Cafe, or Smoothie Bar, but with food. We don’t know what to call it yet but we’re going to make awesome, wholesome, nutrient-dense plant-based food (or what we called Vegetarian when I was a kid), in a quick to-go format. This is the new exciting part for me, kinda like starting the cooking school 7 years ago. I haven’t done this yet, not sure how it’s going to go, quite unsure of the operating model, but I do know what I want for the community. I do know how I want people to feel when the come eat our food. I do know that value relationship that is needed in retail today when people put themselves out there and say ‘go to Cook Culture, that’s where I go, they know their stuff’.
When this is all done, and I’m looking back, there are only 3 things that I believe now I will care about then. 1. Was I a good Dad? 2. Was I a good husband? 3. Did I give everything I could to our communities to leave the world a better place than when I showed up? These points are not unconnected and most of the time I do not work on them separately.
Cooking is such a gift and taking the time to do it well is magical. Bringing people together over food, especially the right food, is powerful. I’m going to continue to grow our business and will take the culinary teaching with a retail concept to other communities. My desire is that people continue to invest in themselves and we will meet them in the middle with high-value culinary classes that are the building blocks of health, happiness, and strong communities.