I sat down with Robert Uy, executive chef of The Westin Wall Centre, Vancouver Airport (3099 Corvette Way), one wintry December morning. Uy emerges from the kitchen of The Apron, the hotel’s restaurant, where he was busily prepping turkey, stuffing, sauces, and vegetables for upcoming holiday events. The work life of an executive chef is a grueling one, but Uy is certainly not complaining. He adores what he does.
In the elegant space of The Apron, Uy talks about his parents’ decision to uproot their young family from Piat, in northern Philippines, to Canada when Uy was five-years-old. “My family decided to come here for us, the kids, for a better life,” he says.
In Canada, his parents continued to work hard. Uy’s mother was a nurse and his father was in housekeeping at a hospital. On the side, his father worked as a butcher, visiting local farms, with his son in tow. “As a young child, I was exposed to the farm life, the animals, and how to use and treat a whole animal,” says Uy. At twelve, he slaughtered his first animal, a goat, which was an intense, but important lesson on the long road to becoming a chef: “It’s quite the experience. It gives you more appreciation for food, where it comes from, and it encourages you to use the whole animal and not just the final cuts.”
Uy’s father was also a fantastic home cook, teaching Uy how to whip up traditional Filipino comfort food, like chicken adobo, pansit (noodles), and lumpia (spring rolls). The very first thing he ever learned to make was rice, a staple of the food culture. “Our lives were centred around food,” explains Uy as he recounts his early memories of eating and cooking with his family.
Right after high school, Uy decided to follow his mother’s lead and enroll in nursing at Douglas College. However, he had little life experience at the time and found the demands of the profession too draining. After his nursing semester, he worked at different jobs, like landscaping and warehouse work, while still searching for the career that would truly spark his passion.
One day, while chatting with his wife, she suggested that he sign up for culinary training since he relished cooking so much. The idea felt right. During an intensive program at Dubrelle French Culinary School, Uy quickly began equipping himself with basic techniques and the mindset of a chef. “You had to be very attentive. You had to be really focused about it. With such a short program, you couldn’t just do your own thing. You had to be observant about what the instructors were showing you. You had to come in early and stay later,” he explains.
This kind of all-consuming work ethic continued after Uy graduated with honours from Dubrelle. During his first year working as a chef, Uy was clocking in 84-hour work weeks as he juggled a graveyard shift at the warehouse and a daytime job as a third cook at the Renaissance Vancouver Harbourside Hotel. He got used to a mere few hours of sleep every night. “What you put in is what you get,” says Uy. For the next two decades, Uy devoted himself intensely to his craft and to the hotel industry, gradually working his way up the ranks and gaining experience at a variety of establishments, such as the Sheraton Vancouver Wall Centre, the Westin Bayshore, and Sutton Place Hotel.
Asked why he enjoys working in hotels so much, Uy replies: “I like the vast experience with all the chefs you come across, the variety of food and menus, and the volume. I love doing the big numbers. You can cook for over a thousand people at a hotel.” During the frenzy of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, Uy was the acting executive chef at the Sutton Place Hotel. The hotel was short staffed and Uy ended up working 16-hour shifts for 28 days straight. It was an exhilarating, but utterly crazy time.
In 2012, he joined, as executive chef, The Westin Wall Centre, Vancouver Airport, where he’s been ever since. Uy credits his culinary success to some key values: passion, dedication, commitment, integrity, and relentless development.
When he first started at the hotel, its restaurant, The Apron, was serving “fussy” food that favoured the foams and powders of molecular gastronomy. Uy worked to transform the menu so that it was more accessible, while still showcasing his culinary prowess. “People want value for their money. They want food that tastes good and a meal that’s somewhat familiar,” he says. He describes the menu as ‘Pacific Northwest cuisine with French techniques.’ Also, given Richmond’s demographics, the menu incorporates many Asian flavours.
The farm-to-table ethos he learned from his father also translates to the kind of local, seasonal, and organic sourcing that he’s committed to at the restaurant and the hotel as a whole. The suppliers that he purchases from include Blundell Seafoods in Richmond, Gelderman Farms in Abbotsford for their pork, and Glorious Organics in Aldergrove for their produce. The restaurant is also part of the Vancouver Aquarium’s sustainable Ocean Wise program, as well as Mealshare, whereby a meal is provided to a youth in need every time certain menu items are ordered. In addition, the menu features gluten free, as well as SuperFoodsRx options.
Popular current dishes that embody Uy’s cooking philosophy include Haida Gwaii clear water halibut with tamarind and makrut lime dust, sticky rice, mango, and coconut green curry broth; seared grass fed beef tenderloin with truffled pommes purées and pickled chanterelles; and free run Rock game hen with carbonara agnolotti, pancetta, and parmesan and garlic purée.
All showcase local ingredients and perfectly meld the west coast with French and sometimes Asian influences. Pastas and sauces are made from scratch as a further commitment to the quality of the food.
Menu development is a collaborative process between Uy and his cohesive kitchen team. Unlike some other chefs, Uy doesn’t believe in ego and drama when it comes to cooking. While Uy enjoys the administrative side (eg ordering, scheduling, payroll) of being an executive chef, he says his true passion is still the culinary work: “I love getting my hands dirty in the kitchen. I don’t want to let that go.” He also adores interacting with people, whether that involves explaining the dishes to guests at the restaurant, or discussing menu options with cooks he’s mentoring.
In his free time, he hangs out with his family, plays hockey, and eats out at places like HK BBQ Master (4651 Number 3 Road, Richmond) for their addictive roast pork and Deer Garden Signatures (1213-8338 Capstan Way; 2015-8580 Alexandra Road, Richmond) for their hearty bowls of noodles. He also likes mushroom foraging, as well as going crabbing in Tsawwassen with his staff. At the end of the day, Uy believes strongly in the unity of the people he works with, as well as in the quality of the food that they produce together. Uy says, “I really enjoy making people happy with food. I think that’s the biggest reward.”
- 1 lb bran flour
- 1 lb banana purée
- 250 g sugar
- 4 eggs
- 8 oz buttermilk
- 5 oz canola oil
- 25 g baking soda
- 25 g baking powder
- 10 g salt
- 1 oz vanilla extract
- 1/4 cup goji berries
- 1/4 cup dried blueberries
- 1/4 cup dark chocolate chips
- 1/4 cup oats
- 1/4 cup flour
- 1/4 cup brown sugar
- 1/2 cup unsalted butter
- For the crumble mix, melt the butter and then mix all ingredients together.
- Cream butter and sugar together.
- Mix in banana, buttermilk, oil, eggs, and vanilla extract.
- Add flour, salt, baking powder, and baking soda.
- Fold in berries and chocolate.
- Place in loaf pan and top with crumble mix.
- Bake at 350F for 40 minutes, or until firm.