Not all fairy tales have happy endings. Just think of Little Red Riding Hood devoured by a wolf. Or poor Dale MacKay, who recently shuttered his two Vancouver restaurants a year after winning the first Top Chef Canada contest.
But let me tell you the story of a new eatery called Fable that's off to an exceptionally promising start.
There once was a young cook named Trevor Bird. After travelling all over the world (from Truffert in Montreal to an NGO in Peru), he still yearned for a place to call home. As our true reality TV tale begins, he is working as chef de partie at Vancouver's Shangri-La hotel, a corporate environment that makes him very unhappy because he can't exercise his creativity. Or at least this is how he keeps explaining his situation on Top Chef Canada, Season 2.
In the show's early weeks, Mr. Bird appears to be the least confident contender. In one episode, he famously loses his cool when a teammate sends a bowl of macaron batter flying across the studio kitchen. "Why are you still cooking?" he cries, down on his knees, mopping the floor. "And why am I cleaning up your mess?"
Sure enough, it doesn't take many challenges for Mr. Bird to stretch his proverbial wings. After a couple of bright successes – pork-rind-coated chicken drumsticks here, a "wicked" plate of deconstructed spaghetti-and-meatballs there – his fellow contestants begin referring to him as the "dark horse" to watch out for.
So when Mr. Bird announces that he has quit his job to open his own restaurant long before the finale of the pretaped series has been aired, viewers far and wide assume he must have won the $100,000 grand prize.
Ahem. As with any hero's journey, Mr. Bird encounters several obstacles. First, there's the "pitiful" state of the restaurant he has acquired. "I would be embarrassed to work in such a dirty open kitchen," he blogs, calling out the previous (well-known) owners. Who but a Top Chef champion would be this cocky?
Then there's the far more serious matter of missing investors. "Chef looking for front-of-house general manager. Must have money," he writes in a Craiglist ad after a partner backs out.
Two local restaurant pros, Ron Macgillivray (Kingston Taphouse) and Kathy Schleyer (Goldfish), come to the rescue. Soon thereafter, an ousted Top Chef teammate – mad computer scientist and self-taught macaron whiz Curtis Luk – joins as chef de cuisine. Mr. Bird obviously doesn't cry for long over spilt batter.
Fable, a name Mr. Bird came up with for his Top Chef team on the Restaurant Wars episode, begins taking shape. The restaurant's farm-to-table philosophy is cleverly branded with wood beams (reclaimed from the historic Cecil Hotel), rustic shelves lined with mason jars of house-made preserves, a pitchfork chandelier and burnt tabletops charred with blowtorches.
Now, if I were on Restaurant Makeover, I'd suggest he whitewash the fake-brick walls to make the space feel more modern. But all that homey barnyard decor does seem to resonate with Fable's local Kitsilano customers.
As the guessing game continues, the lineups outside Fable grow longer with besotted diners quietly clamouring for meltingly tender pig-ear croquettes, "best canned tuna" (fresh albacore slowly poached in olive oil with zings of preserved lemon and chervil) and a summery fresh urban-foraged fig salad spiked with blue-veined gorgonzola and pickled blackberries.
Mr. Bird's food is simple, yet exquisitely executed, lovingly sourced and vibrantly seasoned. He seems to have comfortably grown into the role of a calm, controlled team leader heading a happy brigade of wholesome gals dressed in plaid shirts and guys who call you "sweetheart" without sounding offensive. (Although they do lose a few real-life points by serving warm white wine.)
Back on the TV show, even the big, bad head judge Mark McEwan says Mr. Bird showed more progress than the other chef competing in the Top Chef finale. Alas, it is not to be. Our local hero places second, trumped by Toronto's Carl Heinrich.
But the culinary success story doesn't end here. Months later, Fable is still packing in customers. His slow-cooked salmon is a crisp-skinned filet of velvet flakiness, served atop a silky purée of spinach, crispy kale and succulent gnocchi. Sticky sweet-and-spicy black-pepper jam takes ordinary flank steak to extraordinary heights (imagine a turf version of the sauce used for Singapore pepper crab). Potato-crusted chicken is moistly rolled inside golden rosti over bright tomato ratatouille.
Fable doesn't treat vegetarian dishes as afterthoughts. From crispy chick-pea fritters rolled into golden crusty balls gorgeously decked with pink-pickled shallots and curried mayo, to meaty eggplant Parmesan served with mushroom Bolognese, the menu has plenty of choices.
The kitchen falters slightly when trying too hard. Mr. Bird's deconstructed meatballs tufted with Parmesan foam doesn't squirt with the same delightful juices that so impressed the Top Chef judges.
And Mr. Luk's unset mascarpone cheesecake brings back memories of the raspberry sorbet soup of the Restaurant Wars team. But the macarons on his daily dessert plate (accompanied by luscious mini-pavlovas and divine financiers spread with creamy caramel) are as delicious as they looked on TV.
The moral of this story? Sometimes you don't need to be a reality-show champion to create a winner in real life.
No stars: Not recommended.
* Good, but won't blow a lot of minds
** Very good, with some standout qualities
*** Excellent, well above average with few caveats, if any.
**** Extraordinary, memorable, original, with near-perfect execution