Alex Hancock takes a break from the kitchen and sits down to chat in the sleek surroundings of CAVU Kitchen Bar located at the Hilton Vancouver Airport Hotel (5911 Minoru Boulevard, Richmond). Hancock, executive chef, exudes confidence, built through a long and varied career in the food industry.
“There were people, whether directly or indirectly, who had a huge influence on me. I didn’t recognize that at the time though,” Hancock says. His British mom, now eighty-two-years-old, is “the master of the Sunday roast” and is known for making highly decorated birthday cakes with “fantastic icing.” A family friend, who was a hotel chef, also played a pivotal role in getting a young Hancock interested in the craft of good food.
Hancock’s entry into the restaurant world was hardly illustrious, but it was a great training ground for hard work. When he was sixteen, Hancock unexpectedly landed a job as a delivery driver (he had applied to be a busboy) for a Chinese restaurant in Langley, where he also spent time peeling vegetables, washing dishes, and eventually serving out front and closing the books at night. One of the perks of the job was free food. “I couldn’t eat Chinese food for three years after that. It was too much,” laughs Hancock.
Hancock’s next culinary mentor was a friend’s dad who was a caterer and also owned a café, where everything was made from scratch. “He gave me a lot of the tough love lessons in the kitchen. Doing prep, I wasn’t allowed to touch anything because I was a newbie. I was allowed to cut lemons with a serrated knife, and that was it. He was an old school German chef,” Hancock explains. Gradually, like the Karate Kid, Hancock was given more foundational training as he earned the chef’s trust.
After a stint at a Greek restaurant, Hancock worked as a line cook at Earls from 1996-97 before doing his Red Seal apprenticeship at The Boathouse. There, Greg Friar inspired him as a chef: “He was a no-nonsense chef and a workhorse. He taught me the value of being reliable and dependable. He also taught me how to lead and be a leader.” Romance also blossomed at The Boathouse, where Hancock met and fell in love with his now wife, who was working as a manager at the time.
In 2004, Hancock was ready for a new challenge as a sous chef at the Vancouver Airport Marriott Hotel (7571 Westminster Highway), adjusting to its increased volume for banquets and conventions. Highlights included time at the Marriott’s glitzy Las Vegas Resort & Spa where he cooked for groups with over a thousand guests, as well as doing exclusive catering for the 2010 Olympic Speed Skating Canada House at the John MS Lecky UBC Boathouse.
Hancock’s experience cooking for members of the International Olympic Committee and for foreign dignitaries prepared him for his work at the very busy Sheraton Vancouver Guilford Hotel, starting in 2010. “At the Sheraton, I had the chance to cook for two presidents: George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. That was cool meeting those guys. My first impression of them was that they’re really tall,” recalls Hancock. He also got to meet Richard Branson, who Hancock describes as “the most personable guy you’ll ever meet. Super down-to-earth.”
Then, in 2013, Hancock enthusiastically accepted an offer to direct the opening of a new restaurant, CAVU, at the nearby Hilton Vancouver Airport Hotel. While he says the restaurant menu is always an exciting work-in-progress (Hancock likes continually switching things up), certain items have become consistent crowd favourites. Many of their signature creations embody CAVU’s theme of “comfort food with a twist.” “It’s all about taking what would normally be a pretty mundane dish and coming up with a different way to look at it,” explains Hancock.
For example, their Knife & Fork Caesar is so much more than an ordinary salad: “You think Caesar salad is Caesar salad. But it’s all about the presentation and how we give it to you. We use local romaine hearts, we make our own house dressing, and we dehydrate Kalamata olives and crumble them to add to the dish. There are a lot of different subtleties in that dish.” Pancetta and rye croutons further elevate the salad.
A staple of their ‘sharables’ and their happy hour offerings is their hot mess wings, which feature Hancock’s own recipe for hot sauce. “It has a great balance of spicy, cool, and tangy. It covers a lot of the bases in terms of flavour profile,” says Hancock.
And a visit isn’t complete without the CAVU burger: “Our CAVU Burger is a true classic for us. It’s not going anywhere. It’s a great burger: Tiroler bacon, applewood smoked cheddar, port roasted onions. We serve that on a nice brioche bun.”
To add to these signature items, chefs in the kitchen also dream up blue plate specials for lunch and dinner. Hancock explains: “It’s the chance for our chefs to get creative. It allows the menu to stay fresh and allows guests who are going to stay for a long time to have something different everyday.” For example, a recent lunch blue plate special was cavatappi pasta with local spot prawns.
During this year’s spot prawn season, CAVU will also be offering six inventive dishes that feature this local, sustainable seafood. The restaurant is also in the midst of working on their summer menu to include more refreshing salads, fun mains, and a revamped happy hour menu: “We’re going to keep it light. It’s all about fresh, light flavours, utilizing local fruits and vegetables as they come in season. I love summertime because that’s when everything is going off.” Stay tuned for the launch in the first week of June!
Ultimately, Hancock is deeply passionate about food and his work at CAVU and the larger operations of the Hotel. “It’s not an easy job by any stretch. But I love the team I work with right now. It’s that energy that the food industry has,” he says. And judging by Hancock’s grin when he talks about his work, that energy is definitely infectious.
Alex Hancock’s Tiramisu Jar Recipe
- 4 egg yolks
- 75ml Marsala wine
- 125ml granulated sugar
- 445gm Mascarpone cheese
- 500ml whipping cream
- 150ml espresso (brewed)
- 12 pieces Italian lady fingers
- Over a pot of simmering water, whisk the egg yolks, sugar, and Marsala wine.
- Whisk continuously until a thick custard or sabayon forms, remove from heat, and set aside.
- In a stand mixer, beat the mascarpone until loose and fluffy, then slowly incorporate the sabayon.
- In a separate bowl, whip the cream until soft peaks form.
- Gently fold the sabayon mixture into the cream and mix well.
- Dip the lady fingers in the espresso, allowing them to absorb the liquid then cut them in half.
- Place the tiramisu mixture in a piping bag and pipe some into the bottom of the jar, then alternate layers of cookie and cream.
- Garnish with powdered cocoa, cocoa nibs, or shaved chocolate.