Karl loves food, writing, and writing about food. He has been doing so for over 10 years!
An Interview With Dave Bohati
Dave Bohati is chef de cuisine at Teatro in Calgary. He brings twenty years of professional experience in the kitchen to bear, with a focus on using the best seasonal ingredients that are sourced from both the surrounding area and further afield to ensure maximum quality. I talked to the chef about his culinary roots, his approach to food and which traits make a great chef.
Karl Magi: How did you first start down the culinary path?
Dave Bohati: It all started when I was 17 and I had two resumes in my hand. I took one to a gas station and the other one to a restaurant. The restaurant hired me immediately to be a dishwasher so that’s where my path started.
One of the experiences that shaped me was going to the Napa Valley over ten years ago. As I went around the Napa Valley, it made me realize what food had to offer and that I really wanted to grasp it as a career and see what I could contribute. It was really inspiring down there with guys like Thomas Keller since he pioneered the food movement out there.
KM: What was the path that brought you to your current position of chef de cuisine at Teatro?
DB: I went to Montréal for a little while and came back to Calgary. I just needed some downtime for myself to re-evaluate and reset. I was in a position for a couple of years that I wasn’t necessarily happy with, so I wanted to get back into working in a kitchen full-time as an acting chef. I was fortunate enough to interview for the position and get it. I got it just over a year ago and since then, it’s been a really great time. I work with good people, people who are really focused on cooking fine-dining cuisine that’s still approachable. I want to help create a sustainable business model and continue to thrive.
KM: Talk about some of the challenges and rewards of being a chef.
DB: I’ll start with the rewards because that’s why we do it. They aren’t always monetary, obviously. The big thing for me is to start my new position as a leader and a mentor in the kitchen when it comes to life experiences and relating them to the ups and downs of cooking. I think I’m a pretty relatable guy and I think a lot of the team can relate to it when I share stories about how I got to where I am, what drives me to push the envelope and to continue to focus on creating elegant dishes for guests.
I think that finding work/life balance is the biggest challenge of being a chef. It’s about trying to separate yourself from being a chef to just be who you are. I look at being a chef like having a superpower. When you put on your apron and your chef jacket, you’re transformed. You’re still yourself but you tend to work before everything which is kind of tough. I’d rather be Bruce Wayne than Batman some days, so you have to find that balance.
KM: What is your personal approach to food and cooking?
DB: My personal approach is always to see what we can do with an ingredient to elevate it every time. I’m not much of a signature dish guy. When people ask me about my signature dish, I tell them that it depends on what time of the day it is, what time of the year it is, how I’m feeling or what the guest needs. It’s more about discovering that you’re not just cooking for yourself, you’re cooking for other people, too. You have to approach that with caution sometimes, not always do what you think is best and put your ego aside. You’re trying to run a business and not just satisfy your own palate.
KM: How do you approach the food that you create at Teatro?
DB: The owner of the Teatro Group, Dario Berloni, is a very fine gentleman with deep Italian roots, so traditionally, the focus of the restaurant was Italian or Mediterranean-themed cuisine. When I came on board a year ago, they told me not to worry about all of that. They just wanted me to make good food and get customers in seats. I do embrace the fact that we have a nice fresh pasta section on our menu. We make our own noodles and fill our own stuffed pasta in house, so that embraces the Italian roots of our menu. It’s mostly about sourcing ingredients that are fresh, delicious and seasonal and using their full bounty.
We have a tasting menu which gives us the opportunity to basically do whatever we want. The tasting menu is one thing that I don’t negotiate when being able to cook what I want to cook. I know I mentioned earlier that it’s all about making the guests happy, but you have to have an avenue where you can be creative as well. You have the a la carte menu that is based around dishes that are costed and you’re able to output those, satisfy people because they know that every time they come in, that dish will be available.
The tasting menu is about us and what we can do. It’s about how we can bring in a specialty item and do something different with it. We like to plant our own seeds and cultivate our own patio garden in the spring so that we can use it later in the year. We really embrace the local farms and communities (as most chefs do these days). I remember the movement in 2012–13 when people were talking about being a nose-to-tail or a farm-to-table restaurant. Now it’s expected, so that’s a great thing and we have to keep pushing that way.
KM: How do you approach ingredient sourcing?
DB: It’s about sourcing what’s in season. Right now, we’re getting into corn season. I have some corn coming in for the first time, so we’re going to put that on our tasting menu for next Friday. I want to pair that with some scallops and foie gras. It’s just about getting inspired by all these ingredients. You can do what you want as long as a dish that has all of the things like taste, texture, colour, presentation and temperature that it needs to have.
Overthinking is a problem for some chefs. When I was younger, I used to put way too many things on a plate. Now I get more satisfaction from building a dish and taking something away that isn’t necessary.
When you mature as a chef, you learn through experience to use less. I like to use the entire ingredient I’m using in different ways. If I’m doing a cauliflower dish, I’ll do three or four different styles of cauliflower in the same dish and elevate it with raisins or a spice. Why add anything else?
KM: What is one of your achievements as a chef of which you’re especially proud?
DB: We just completed a twenty-five-course tasting menu. The whole thing took about four hours! It was 1400 plates and we had every single team member pushing to the fullest of their ability. It was a marathon. At the end of it, all anybody wanted to do was go home and sleep. Normally, you’d want to go out and celebrate afterward, but I think everybody just wanted to go to bed. You know it went well when that happens.
KM: Talk about your future goals as a chef.
DB: For me, it’s about remaining true to myself and cooking the food that I’m confident in cooking and telling a story about my career in the kitchen. The main thing that I want to do is do one thing and do it well. I don’t want to try to do too many things. The second you start diluting your message, too many people have the opportunity to take shots at you and try to rip you apart when you stray from your original vision. I want to make sure that I please my guests because they help make our business sustainable. Like I said earlier, if you put your ego aside and cook good food, your work will speak for itself.
KM: What are the traits that a good chef needs to have?
DB: The strongest traits that a chef can have are discipline, the ability to be selfless and a work ethic. The work ethic is the first thing that comes to mind when I think of any chef. If your work ethic is there and you’re not just doing it for social media status, then you’re doing the right thing. It’s easy to get hung up on social media status. I’ve succumbed to that before, so you just have to put the phone down and get away from that stuff.
I think it's more important to mentor your team members, give them constructive criticism and reward them when they do good things. I think the days of the Gordon Ramsay approach are long behind everybody. You can’t just yell at someone because you’re having a bad day or a plate fell and you’re going to blame somebody else. The discipline thing comes in there. You have to have discipline about what you put on your plates, discipline for your own work/life balance so that if you need to take a day to recharge, you can.
It is a job at the end of the day. For a lot of chefs, they’ll say it’s about being a band of brothers with your team, and of course, it is, but it is also a business. You have to put gas in your car to get to work and groceries in the fridge for your family.
As I get older, I pay more attention to developing my team members. I want to give them my recipes and my secrets because I don’t think that anybody should keep those things from people. We all know that restaurants don’t pay very well compared to oil and gas jobs. I always tell my team that I’ll give them all the knowledge, all the recipes and all the theories and that is part of their pay. A lot of kids latch on to that because one day, you can pull out that recipe, remember exactly how to make it and you look great when you’re at a job interview and they ask you to make a dish.
It’s the Thomas Keller approach. He says that he wants his team members to be better than he was. It means that you’ve done the right thing if they go on to do great things. It’s such a satisfying feeling to see them grow up and go on to take the helm at other places, knowing that you had a hand in it.
KM: How do you keep your batteries recharged?
DB: It’s been a positive approach for me to maintain my biggest tool which is my body. If my body doesn’t feel well, my tools are dull and I can’t work as well. Over the last couple of years, I’ve been taking way better care of myself. I don’t really party as much. I don’t drink a whole lot, and I’m focused on personal health and growth. I also play men’s league baseball which allows me to get out of the city and spend Sunday morning running around trying not to hurt myself.
I also like to cook with my girlfriend and go out to eat with her. It’s cool to get somebody else’s opinion who isn’t a chef when we go out to eat.