Words. Cara Williams. Photos. Clay Dolan.
Born in Singapore but raised in India, Chef Kartik Kumar has been changing the culinary landscape at restaurants and resorts around the globe for over 25 years. Having conceived, designed, and cooked in five-star kitchens from Dubai to Vancouver, Chef Kartik jokes he has curbed his nomadic ways, now that he is “on the wrong side of 50,” opting for a quieter life on the Escarpment as the Executive Chef in charge of Culinary Operations at Blue Mountain Resort.
Chef Kartik learned his love of cook- ing from his tight-knit family, where every meal was an event rather than a chore. “I grew up in a family where food was very important,” explains Chef. “Our kitchen was communal and we were one hundred percent vegetarian – no meat, no eggs. My late grandfather was the director of the Tiger Conservation Project so I grew up with orphan tiger cubs who were bottle fed by my mother and then sent back when they were old enough. We also had our own cows, which my grandmother milked. Every day at dinner we had about 30-35 people — it was a hospitable household and people just came.”
Cooking for a crowd is in Chef’s blood. After receiving his Bachelor of Science, Hotel and Restaurant Management from the University of Houston, Chef Kartik, who speaks six languages, headed back across the pond and completed his apprenticeship in France. Ever since, Chef has been travelling the world, cultivating a resume that reads like an atlas with stops in Nepal, Gambia, Laos, Singapore, Egypt, and Melbourne, Australia. “I lived in Dubai in the ‘90’s before the craziness and building boom,” explains Chef. “I was an executive sous chef and often cooked for large scale events like the Dubai Air Show, which had over 300 chefs from around Dubai cooking at different stations. From there I went to Nepal, and lived near Kathmandu for two to three years at the Shangri-La Hotel then our family emigrated to Canada – to Edmonton because I had friends and family there.” Chef’s “taste the world” approach has informed his sharp palate as well as taught him how to manage resorts as large as Blue Mountain. With nine separate kitchens and an annual revenue of over $20 million, Chef oversees everything from poutine at The Yeti food truck (atop the gondola in the green months) to pizza at the Grand Central Lodge to coffee, tea and buffet lunches at the Conference Centre.
“My career and travels have made me very culturally aware,” says Chef. “I’m sensitive to people’s backgrounds. I’m able to get my team to buy into the vision and want to create. I also give them responsibility. I teach my staff patience—immense patience. I believe the five fingers on the hand don’t have the same function but when you make a fist it becomes a strong, important force.”
Chef had the distinct honour of handling the menu and catering for HRH Prince Charles during his visit to Papua New Guinea in 2012, and has cooked for The Dalai Lama and Mother Theresa. “I have also cooked for celebrities like Sally Field,” notes Chef. “She stayed at the hotel near Kathmandu for 45 days and is a pure vegetarian. She told me she does not like to eat the same dish twice, which was a challenge, due to the growing season and lack of diverse ingredients. It was a fun challenge though, not like climbing Mount Everest without oxygen.”
I asked Chef how he came to work at Blue Mountain: “I came back to Canada because of my children, who live in Edmonton,” explains Chef. “A head-hunter from Toronto reached out to me and said that Ontario’s largest mountain village resort has been looking for a chef for almost a year. I wasn’t so sure, because I had been living in a snow-free environment for four years – in Gambia, West Africa. One of the things that attracted me to Blue Mountain is the multiple operations, the separate buildings, different cuisines. The Pottery is fine dining at night, with casual lunches. Jozo’s is typical pub food, the Conference Centre has high volume production and then we have the lodges – where we are grounded in reality: burgers; French fries; hot dogs. My late mentor used to say, ‘feed the masses and you’ll dine with the classes.’ A great percentage of the work here is feeding the masses so I say, that whatever it is you do, make it the best. If you are making hot dogs, make them the best, fry the French fries perfectly.”
With the warmer months come the offering of the Escarpment’s fresh produce, which is one of the reasons Chef is willing to live through our snowy winters. “I love the apples here,” smiles Chef. “They are wonderful in every course – in salads, cooking and for baking. I love how fresh and cheap the local asparagus is – this is very hard to find back home.” Chef sources produce from local markets and growers, with Creemore’s New Farm being the top of his list. “I love the New Farm’s spicy salad mix, their hybrid Japanese cucumbers, and their entire philosophy of how they don’t put any fertilizer in the soil and everything grows so well because they plant things around it to weed out the bugs and everything.
Chef Kartik notes of all the countries he has lived, Canada is at the top of the list. He acted as the opening Executive Chef at the River Rock Casino in Richmond, BC, where he designed the kitchens, created the concepts and hired the staff. In 2006 Chef Kartik was awarded British Columbia’s Outstanding Chef of the Year. “I’m not a PhD on everything, but I have knowledge in different types of food. Caribbean, Indian, Vietnamese, Thai. One of the most popular things we have done at The Pottery here at Blue Mountain, is introduce Ethnic Nights, which we do on the last Thursday of every month. This is a buffet, which is only $21 per person. We have gluten free, vegetarian options, with no compromise on flavour. We have built a reputation on these special nights and we sell out the restaurant.”
Given his diverse range of experiences and influences, it comes as no surprise that Chef has long wanted to showcase the foods of his people. I attended The Pottery’s “Night on the Orient Express” earlier this summer and was delighted with the diverse Pan-Asian fusion cuisine, such as hoisin BBQ duck, Malaysian beef rendang, Korean cauliflower salad, and even fresh sushi rolls. We dined for over three hours, enjoying each course and washing it down with Asia Pacific’s Tiger Lager, imported directly from India. The desert cart offered coconut crème brûlée, lychee tarts and black sesame ice-cream, among other tempting treats.
“In India, if you travel two miles north, south, east or west the cuisine changes completely,” notes Chef. “We are only limited by our imaginations. Indian street food is my passion. That’s what I would serve if I could host a dinner for President Obama and his wife Michelle. I would also invite Dr. Christian Bernard, South African, and the first man to successfully transplant a baboon’s heart into a human. If I ever got the chance, that is who I would like to cook for.”
Clearly Chef Kartik Kumar is a man who travels according to where his heart is telling him to go. “It’s the greatest experience of life – to learn from new places and new experiences. I have led my life by my own terms. I am on the wrong side of 50 now, and travel is not as easy as it used to be. There are still a couple of things on my bucket list that I want to do before I’m too old to sit on an elephant’s back.”
It would appear, for now at least, Chef is fulfilled and satisfied with the path his life has taken and is content with life on the Escarpment. “I am a very introspective person, who enjoys time of quiet contemplation. I love my cats – I have three. I spend a lot of time with my wife on my days off. We love old Hollywood classics and I read. I Skype with my grandkids who are animal lovers, one of which is very into dinosaurs.” And just as I was thinking that this could be the place where Chef finally puts down permanent roots, he adds; “If it’s possible, one day I’d like to go to Namibia and work with cheetahs, my favourite cats.” |E|