Recently appointed to the role of executive chef at Conestoga…
Eric Neaves, formerly the culinary force behind the relatively new and certainly popular Fork and Cork Grill in Kitchener’s Kingsdale neighbourhood, is the newest addition to the staff at Conestoga College’s growing School of Hospitality and Culinary Arts.
London, Ontario-born, Neaves joined the College and Bloom Restaurant in late 2018 as a chef-technologist; he was immediately impressed with the quality of the kitchen that Conestoga students have access to.
“This kitchen is nuts. There’s equipment here that I had to be shown how to use, despite having been in the business for over a decade. There’s even a freeze dryer. It’s awesome,” Neaves says.
While he remains connected to Fork and Cork to advise and assist on special events, he’s excited about the new phase in his culinary career. “It’s still early in the term with the students, so we’re both learning together. It’s come together nicely, and I’m really enjoying it,” he says.
An early interest in good food
At home, Neaves says his parents were good cooks–his mother was also an excellent baker–and from that he likely gained an interest in food and how it is prepared. “We didn’t grow up eating fancy. It was simple dishes, fresh and well made,” he says.
As a Western Ontario music graduate–Neaves is a trained opera singer–he found himself in need of employment and ended up working in a Loblaw cooking school. “When it came time to decide about culinary school, I liked the immersive nature of the Stratford Chefs School (SCS). By this time, I was 25 and anxious to get in and get out and Stratford was near my hometown,” he says.
He met his wife Lexzi at SCS, and they were engaged by graduation time. “We headed to Toronto, and I worked at Marben with Karl Heinrich briefly before getting the chance to work at Buca (a top restaurant in Canada). “There, I really benefitted from the rigorous training I had gotten at Marben.”
There was a move back to London and a two-year gig at Only on King and then an opportunity to head up the kitchen at Fork and Cork, which was in the process of being built. “I was at Stratford at The Prune doing a guest-chef event, and I met Robert and Dorothy Zablocki, who had had good success operating an Angel’s Diner in Orangeville. They asked me to be the chef, and we opened in the summer of 2015.”
Neaves found the kitchen at Fork and Cork “big and empty,” he says. “They asked me what I wanted in it,” adds Neaves of the opportunity. “Looking back, and given our success, I think it was gamble that paid off for both of us.”
Indeed, the Fork and Cork partnership and the kitchen, which focussed on seasonal menus and using local ingredients, came together well very well: by the second year, the restaurant was included in Where to Eat in Canada and won food innovation awards from the University of Guelph.
The transition from ten years of restaurant kitchens in several different cities to the academic setting in Waterloo (granted Bloom is a restaurant open to the public like any other) was abrupt. “Right now, I’m getting a lay of the land and trying to own great teaching,” says Neaves.
He teaches students and reinforces the skills concepts they have learned. “We help them see how the classroom demonstrations are applied in the restaurant setting. It’s interesting in that what I do here isn’t really different from at Fork and Cork. It’s just running a restaurant with more but less experienced hands. There is, however, more skill here than I was anticipating. They are very dedicated.” That scenario will only get stronger, he believes, given that the new restaurant and dining room facility is really only about 50 lunch services old.
While working on something like a sourdough bread wasn’t possible at Fork and Cork, it’s something that Neaves and the students can do in the Bloom kitchen. “That’s refreshing,” he says.
Canadian cuisine at James Beard House … and Conestoga College
As a University of Guelph “Good Food Innovation” gold winner while at Fork and Cork, Neaves will be heading to the renowned James Beard House in New York City to cook. “I will look at the producers who are growing in this region, and see if I can get that across the border,” Neaves says with a smile. “I’m very excited and honoured to be able to participate, but I really have no idea about what to expect. I’ve heard it is a very small kitchen, but any cook who gets the chance to cook at Beard House, it’s like, wow! I get a chance to say to the guests, ‘Here’s my little slice of what I think Canadian cuisine is.’ That’s a real honour.”
In contemplating the issue, Neaves has been considering the idea of a Canadian version of risotto using a native grain. Answering the actual question of what is Canadian cuisine will find no easy answer, Neaves point out.
“We’re such a multicultural society,” he says. “We constantly take in food cultures from across the world. Where is the line? What’s uniquely Canadian?”
indeed, these are not easy questions to answer–and they will likely be ones Neaves will be challenging his Bloom restaurant students to address during their time together at the College.