The Okanagan's Rod Butters serves up inspiration for young chefs

Butters makes it better

It’s fitting that NAIT’s 10th Chef in Residence sees himself as a teacher first.

“It’s part of my foundation,” says Rod Butters, the Kelowna, British Columbia-based chef and entrepreneur who spent five days in March with the polytechnic’s culinary students.

“I’ve graduated 51 apprentices over the course of my career, which is a lot,” he adds. “It’s what I believe in and it’s rubbed off on them – they’re giving back to the industry now, too.”

“I don’t want to eliminate the sexy image [of being a chef] but I want to give more of a sense of the reality.”

That desire to share knowledge with the next generation of chefs is at the heart of NAIT’s Chef in Residence program. The program has brought accomplished chefs including Susur Lee, Amanda Cohen and Vikram Vij from across the continent to work with NAIT culinary students, giving them insights and inspiration and revealing the real work that goes into achieving celebrity status.

Butters’ stint from March 12 to 16 marked the program’s 10th anniversary and continued that unique, hands-on education with lessons from a seasoned culinary businessperson who’s built three restaurants in Kelowna and another in Oliver, B.C.

“I don’t want to eliminate the sexy image [of being a chef] but I want to give more of a sense of the reality,” he says. “I try and instill the business aspect of it, which I think gets lost. The cooking is the easy part.”

An unassuming mentor

Butters’ own business skills were acquired gradually, over the course of a career spent working across Canada and abroad. His early plans to become a professional baseball pitcher were sidelined by a shoulder injury while he was on an athletic scholarship at Indiana State University. Instead, Butters “went on to the thing I was actually good at, which was cooking.”

He trained at the Pacific Vocational Institute (now Vancouver Community College) and worked at top hotels and restaurants in Toronto, Vancouver, Whistler and Hong Kong. He was the founding chef at the renowned Wickaninnish Inn in Tofino before opening his own restaurants over 17 years in B.C.’s Okanagan Valley. The latest, a “modern diner” called Sunny’s (after his beloved golden retriever) opened this spring in Kelowna, where Butters also owns the casual and inviting Micro Bar and Bites and RauDZ Regional Table, a restaurant renowned for its use of seasonal, local ingredients. He also owns Terrafina, which serves Tuscan-style cuisine at Hester Creek Estate Winery in Oliver.

“He taught me leadership, how to run a team, how to keep morale up.”

Landon Schwarz can attest to Butters’ skill as both chef and teacher. He was apprentice No. 50 for Butters when they started working together in 2012, as a 19-year-old fresh out of Okanagan College. “Honestly, it was one of the greatest experiences of my life,” says Schwarz, who at 26 years old is now the chef de cuisine at Royale in Calgary.

“In this business, so much is ego-driven but Chef Butters was all about the experience and the teaching,” says Schwarz. “He taught me leadership, how to run a team, how to keep morale up,” all lessons Schwarz tries to pass on to his own team today. “He will forever and always be my mentor.”

Butters is known for his understated approach to food and to his own celebrity, says Mary Bailey, publisher of The Tomato, an Edmonton food magazine. “I don’t think people realize just what a force he’s been because he’s so unassuming. But he does ‘farm-to-table’ so well. The things he’s doing are going to affect the culinary scene right across the country for many years.”

Of all the accolades he’s received in his career, Butters says the one he values most is being named an Honorary Fellow at Okanagan College, in recognition of his contribution to its students and the community.

Future of the residency

While the idea of chef as teacher has been well established by the Hokanson Chef in Residence program today, 10 years ago it was a challenge to explain the concept, recalls Perry Michetti (Cooking ’90), the operations manager who has overseen the program since it started. As Bailey points out, it was a first of its kind in Edmonton and even Western Canada. In fact, it was hard to find chefs willing to come to Edmonton to try it out.

“Trying to explain to Rob Feenie what a Chef in Residence was all about was hard because [he] was the first one,” Michetti says. Feenie is the Vancouver-based chef who founded Lumière and Feenie’s in Vancouver, starred in his own Food Network Canada show and has written several cookbooks.

“I think it’s a feather in NAIT’s cap.”

When searching for the right chefs to approach, the program’s leaders look for someone who is “real,” says Jeff Gordon (Cooking ’89), head of NAIT’s department of culinary arts and professional food studies.

“Yes, they have a presence on TV, they have a restaurant, they have a cookbook. But, at the end of the day, they were sitting where those students are sitting and, through circumstances and hard work, they’ve ended up where they are. It’s important for the students to see that.”

John Hokanson, who, with his wife Susan, provided the endowment to fund the program, says he’s thrilled with the results. “One of the things that can really enhance a student’s education is to travel to other places, or have other places travel to them. This program brings in top chefs from around the country who have real-world, current experience.

“I think it’s a feather in NAIT’s cap.”

Because it’s an endowment, the Chef in Residence gift from the Hokansons will continue in perpetuity, says Michetti. This gives the program the chance to evolve and grow. He’s looking internationally to find guest chefs, to give students an even broader perspective.

One piece that won’t change is the residency’s focus on hands-on teaching from experts in the culinary world, he adds. “Our culinary program is really influential and I think Chef in Residence has just made it that much more prestigious.”

For the students, the firsthand experience with some of the best chefs in the country is invaluable, adds Michetti.

“When (the chefs) come here, they’re real, and I think they’re pretty natural. They tell the students it’s not all glamour. It’s rigorous and you have to do your time like in any other craft. I think that really sticks with them.” 

Recipe: The RJB

from The Okanagan Table by Rod Butters

Named after Chef Rod Butters, this take on the classic steak sandwich features bacon, brioche, crab and caramelized onion jam.

2 (5-oz) beef tenderloin steaks 
2 brioche buns, halved lengthwise
2 Tbsp mayonnaise 
¼ cup caramelized onion jam (see recipe to the right)
2 oz crabmeat, warmed in 1 Tbsp melted butter
1 oz Tyrolean-style cured bacon or prosciutto
Roasted potatoes and roasted whole mushrooms, to serve

Preheat BBQ to medium-high heat. Grill the steaks for 5 to 7 minutes, flip, and cook 4 to 6 minutes, until medium rare. (Alternatively, pan-fry over medium-high for 5 to 7 minutes per side.) Transfer the steaks to a plate and rest for 3 to 5 minutes. Place the buns, face side down, on the grill and toast. Spread the mayonnaise on the bottom half of each bun and onion jam on the other. Drain some of the butter from the warmed crab and spoon the crab on one side of the brioche. Add the beef and cured bacon. Serve with roasted potatoes and roasted whole mushrooms. Makes 2.

Caramelized onion jam 

½ cup grapeseed oil
½ cup unsalted butter
1 medium white onion, sliced
1 medium red onion, sliced
1 medium sweet onion (such as Vidalia or Walla Walla), sliced
2 medium shallots (chopped)
½ medium leek, sliced
8 cloves garlic, chopped
½ cup balsamic vinegar
3 Tbsp parsley, chopped
Sea salt and coarsely ground 
black pepper

Heat a large pot over medium heat and add the oil and butter. Once melted, add the onions, shallots, leeks, and garlic and sauté for 15 to 20 minutes, until caramelized (lower heat if necessary to prevent burning). Add the sugar, allspice and vinegar; reduce heat to low and cook for another 10 minutes. Transfer the mixture to a food processor and process until evenly chopped and slightly chunky. Transfer to a bowl, add parsley and season to taste with salt and pepper. Refrigerate until needed, up to 7 days. Makes 3 cups.

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