You won’t find executive chef Shaun McCabe of Glasshouse Bistro and Café stepping out in the middle of a meal service to greet guests. He’s much too busy manning kitchen burners and running around tending to last minute emergencies.
It’s a high-pressure career that demands long hours, 12 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week, whatever it takes.
Bistros of the Glasshouse calibre are usually well planned, working to maintain an illusion of effortless excellence. But on any given day, a producer may fail to deliver a much-needed order, or a staff member might call in sick.
It’s McCabe’s job to vault the disasters and push the reset button for the rhythm of service.
While most diners would mutter, “No thank you,” to this stressful environment, McCabe thrives on it.
A graduate of The Art Institute Culinary School in Vancouver, he apprenticed as a stagier at Le Crocodile, an acclaimed restaurant that blends traditional French cooking with innovative West Coast style.
“It was tough. There were days I left wondering if I should be doing what I was doing. But the experience was invaluable. They put pressure on you, but I learned more in two months than I did in one year at culinary school,” says McCabe.
A St. Albert Catholic High alumnus, McCabe showed little interest in cooking during his school years. He enrolled in a Grade 10 culinary arts course baking classic cookies and microwaving potatoes.
“It was a joke. There probably wasn’t enough in the budget to do anything special. It didn’t foster any idea of wanting to continue it.”
Instead his main interest was music and he spent six years on drums. He even helped form Industrial Arts, a garage band, with buddies Nathan Brass and Michael Doyle.
“We played maybe two shows. It never went anywhere. It was more about playing together.”
After being rejected from the MacEwan music program for not developing a sound technique, he drifted from job to job – movie ticket taker, meat cutter, call centre operator and clothing store salesman to name a few.
“I did it all and hated every one. I was a terrible employee – the worst employee possible.”
The inclination to drift ended after a buddy working at St. Albert’s East Side Mario’s mentioned there was a job opening as a line cook.
“I’m 21 at this point. At East Side Mario’s I worked 10 to 12 hours a day, six days a week and I was there when needed. I have no clue what I liked about the job. I just enjoyed doing it.”
It turns out that while McCabe felt his school’s culinary program was a waste of time, he avidly watched the Food Network throughout his adolescence.
“I remember the first meal I made for my dad. My sister and I made a Caesar salad. We grabbed cabbage and the usual suspects. He sat at the table and ate it with a smile.”
McCabe’s interest in food was fired up after seeing a cooking show host make crackers. It was a light bulb moment. Here was ready-made food purchased in a box that was being crafted from scratch.
It piqued his curiosity and soon he was experimenting with homemade marinades, barbecue sauces, cookies and cakes. A stickler for getting things right, he would repeat his recipes over and over until they were perfect.
Whether joking or not, his grandmother once told him, “If you cook, I’ll give you my recipes. If you go into music, I’ll take them to the grave.”
After working at East Side Mario’s for three years, McCabe maxed out his potential preparing formula based dishes and set his sights on learning from the best.
“I wanted to learn where there are crazy chefs. And they’re either in Toronto or Vancouver. That’s who I wanted to learn from.”
His sister had just moved to the West Coast and the choice was obvious. Paying the $28,000 tuition, he enrolled in the 2010-2011 one-year culinary program at the art institute.
“I went to learn about food and they taught me about food – fine dining, food presentations and cool chef tricks.”
But it was his time as stagier at Le Crocodile that would define not only his culinary style, but also the type of executive chef he would become.
“The biggest thing is that I learned to learn. Kitchens of that calibre have a method for everything you can think of. The first thing I learned was discipline. People who sit at a table want consistency. They don’t care if you’re tired or hung over. They want consistency.”
Working at Le Crocodile, he realized that six or seven committed chefs working quickly could efficiently run a kitchen.
“I want to work at a restaurant where people want to be there. You have to have dedication in a kitchen and dedication is not what most people have.”
Interestingly enough, McCabe was offered a job at Le Crocodile, but quickly came to a realization.
“After Le Crocodile, I love cooking, but I’m not going to be a Michelin star chef. I’m not willing to sacrifice my entire life for cooking.”
McCabe returned to St. Albert in 2012 working for two years at Glasshouse Bistro as chef de partie under Julia Kundera before spending a year at Privada Wine & Tapas as sous chef with executive chef Tony Krause.
“Privada made everything. Why wouldn’t you? The best thing about cooking is you get to keep learning. If I’m not learning why get out of bed in the morning?”
As head chef at Glasshouse Bistro, McCabe fuses multiple influences to create a new and exciting menu. He blends a love of Alberta steak with Vancouver’s Asian influences and Le Crocodile’s French inspired cuisine.
Passionate about East Indian dishes, he also picked up numerous tips and tricks from the East Indian temporary foreign kitchen staff working at East Side Mario’s.
As for staff, McCabe self-admittedly says he is hard on employees and views himself as a coach.
“I want people to leave here and move up. Don’t you want someone who pushes you to do better than you think you can do? At the end of the day, my job is to inspire people.”
Ultimately, a robust kitchen runs on creativity and fun.
“But creativity needs to be rooted in knowledge and muscle memory. Break the rules, but learn them first.”