By Cheryl Mah
When you truly love to do something — why would you stop? After more than five decades, Bruno Marti is still doing what he loves to do: cooking.
“I love making people happy,” he says emphatically. “As long as I’m capable, I want to cook. I do it because I love it.”
His career reflects a lifetime of dedication to furthering the culinary arts and raising the profile of the profession. For his outstanding talent, leadership and achievements, the legendary chef has been recognized with almost every award and honour possible.
When we meet in his restaurant, he speaks candidly and passionately about not only cooking but also the industry he is so much a part of. This year marks a couple of personal milestones for Marti. He recently turned 70 and it’s the 30th anniversary of his award winning restaurant La Belle Auberge.
“When someone wants something special, they come to La Belle Auberge. That’s why maybe I’m still in business after 30 years,” he says. “Quality and consistency is what makes us the best.”
Marti’s beautifully crafted fine dining cuisine has resulted in numerous awards since the restaurantopened in 1980. La Belle Auberge was most recently selected as the winner for Top Food in the Zagat 2010 Vancouver Guide.
At an age when most people are retired, the energetic Swiss native remains hands on at his restaurant. He spends more time now at the front of the house than in the kitchen but he still cooks. Cooking is not work, he explains, it’s a hobby.
“Even if you’re retired, you have to do something. I don’t golf. I could have had a hobby like a Cessna. But this is my hobby. This is not work. If it would be work, why would I do it?” he says with a laugh. “I love food and I cook for myself every day.”
For someone who chose cooking because he didn’t have the aptitude to pursue an academic career, his success story is remarkable.
In high school in Switzerland, he remembers hearing a mother talking about her son who was a cook on a ship and travelled all around the world. The idea appealed to him.
“In Switzerland when you’re about 13 in those days you have to decide what you want to be. I didn’t dislike cooking. My mother was a busy seamstress so I would do her prep work,” says Marti. “My father was also a good cook so on Sundays he would very often do the cooking.
Marti left home when he was 16 to spend one year in a French monastery, learning French, “peeling potatoes and washing dishes” and eventually cooking. He then returned home, completing his apprenticeship at different places including working with Philip Pauli, who later became one of Europe’s acclaimed chefs.
After serving one mandatory year in the army as a cook, he went to work at the Swiss owned Hotel Pierre in Puerto Rico. It was there that he first got involved in competitions, learning how to make stunning show platters.
His next stop would be Montreal’s Queen Elizabeth Hotel where he stayed for 3.5 years and got married to a “beautiful Greek waitress”. In 1965, he became the executive chef at the well known LaSalle Hotel.
“I was the chef with 36 employees of which I was the youngest at the age of 25,” notes Marti. “That’s when my chef career really began. That’s when I started to separate good food from excellent food. I was determined to make it and I did.”
The ambitious young chef quickly started to build his reputation by competing seriously against other big hotels — and winning.
“Chefs don’t give you respect unless you prove it — no matter how good you are. I proved it by winning,” says Marti.
He then became Cara Operations’ executive chef before moving to Vancouver to join Canadian Pacific Airlines in 1972, a position he held for 12 years.
His time in the airline industry meant traveling, competing all over the world and learning from many great chefs. “I’ve had opportunities most chefs don’t have. I saw the best and it motivated me,” he says. “Back then first class was like restaurant business. We served the best airline food in the world.”
Marti’s arrival in Vancouver marked the beginning of significant changes for the culinary scene. Thanks to his efforts, Canadian culinary teams have competed internationally since 1972. He was also the pioneer of culinary competitions in Vancouver.
“When I came here in 1972 this was a desert of Canadian food. There were four restaurants you could eat in and the rest were fast food,” he says. “At that time they also never really had a culinary competition. So I did the first competition with judges, points and categories.”
In 1976, he was the captain of Western Canada’s regional team at the Culinary Olympics in Frankfurt, coming home with five gold medals and the grand gold. The highlight of his career was 1984 when he was on the first Canadian culinary team in history to win a World Championship, beating out 32 other national teams. Not only did the win put Canada on the culinary world map, it also helped garner respect for the profession.
“We were honoured in the Canadian House of Common and on almost every front page. We were no longer just french fry cookers,” states Marti, counting two of his 1984 teammates as mentors: Hubert Scheck and Gerhard Pichler.
During this time, Marti had decided to go into business for himself because the airline business had changed. With deregulation of the airlines, Marti knew he could no longer serve the same quality of food as before.
“I have an ego,” he says matter-of-factly. “You need to be proud of yourself and what you do. Good chefs all have egos because they need to be respected for what they do. If I had no ego, then I could cook a hamburger. But I couldn’t. I had to cook the most beautiful food I could cook.”
Unwilling to compromise his style of cooking, he purchased a heritage house in Ladner with the help of a partner Michael Jeffrey. Marti started the restaurant while continuing to work for CP Air for four more years.
Marti was adamant about owning his own business and in Ladner, he could afford to buy the house, saving him from paying huge rents. “I recommend to any young chef if you open a restaurant try your darndest to own your own place,” says Marti.
Looking back, he says it has not been easy.
“I had to work two jobs for four years. I never took salary for seven years here because I couldn’t. My wife and kids worked day and night like monkeys but we survived,” he says.
The culinary world has changed dramatically since those early days, especially in the last 10 years. Vancouver is now a mecca for good food and customers are more demanding than ever.
“The evolution from 1980 to 2010 is incredible — how this city has exploded with regards to the food scene,” remarks Marti, shaking his head in wonderment. “And the food science in the last 5-10 years has had huge benefits.”
Running a restaurant is tough business — running a successful one even more so. Marti admits he is no longer in an ideal location and there are many more good restaurants but La Belle Auberge continues to persevere (much like its chef-owner) despite the challenges.
“Life is not a breeze after 30 years. Restaurant business will always have a new challenge every day,” muses Marti, citing the recent new liquor laws as an example. “I’m not for drinking and driving but who will come to Ladner to eat the best food when even a glass of wine will put customers in fear of driving?”
An important ingredient for the restaurant’s success is Tobias MacDonald, once Marti’s apprentice and now chef de cuisine of the seven member kitchen staff.
“Tobias is very much like me. His priority is the best food in the world,” says Marti, adding, “another reason why I’m happy to stay in the kitchen at my age is because of young people like Tobias who has new ideas and want to try new things.”
The staff buys everything fresh every day. The menu changes by the season and availability but the focus of the food is always to make sure “it looks good, tastes good and is good for you.”
“Every day we cook whatever we have. The creativity is still one of the most beautiful things about having a restaurant. We live in farm country so everything is fresh and local as possible. Cooking is not just about food. Cooking is also about loving where my food comes from,” says Marti, who lives on a nearby three acre farm where he still keeps animals (as pets) and grows vegetables.
“I love to make vegetables. I could be a vegetarian,” he continues with a laugh. “For 30 years, I’ve served an overindulgence of vegetables — always six or seven.”
He stresses chefs need to be responsible for making nutritionally balanced meals, which should include lots of vegetables.
“It’s our responsibility to feed people healthy food and if you don’t do this, you are still, as a chef, missing the boat,” he says. “The sooner we start thinking about this, the sooner we start serving more vegetables.”
The education of young chefs is a priority for Marti. In addition to teaching young cooks to win at competitions, Marti devotes much of his time to mentoring apprentices in his kitchen. His restaurant has been the training ground for some of Vancouver’s best and upcoming chefs today including Scott Jaeger, Jennifer Peters and Steve Kwan. Chefs around the world also send their cooks to gain experience in Marti’s kitchen.
“It makes me feel good,” he says about being a mentor. “That’s where my energy comes from — giving all my knowledge to the young people to make sure B.C. is the best province in this country. That’s very important to me. If this was just a restaurant, it would be easier for me to wake up one morning and close it up.”
And B.C. chefs are certainly proving why they are the best. At this year’s national conference in Windsor, every major competition was won by a B.C. chef. The VCC junior team, coached by MacDonald, will be competing at the 2012 World Culinary Olympics along with the 2010- 2012 Culinary Team Canada whose members are predominantly from B.C.
Another achievement Marti is especially proud of is being inducted into the American Academy of Chefs Hall of Fame as an honorary member in 2002. He is also the first cook (Marti insists on the word cook) to be inducted into the Order of BC in 2008.
While the inductions were great honours, Marti says they more importantly serve as an example to young chefs that if they work hard, they can be honoured like any other member of society.
“Most people don’t realize cooking is a hard profession. To be a good cook takes lots of work,” says Marti.
His unwavering passion “to be the best” has helped shape Vancouver into an internationally acclaimed food city and Canada into a powerhouse on the world stage of culinary competitions.
Marti has been at every culinary competition, competing and/or leading national and regional teams for the past three decades. He has been a coach for the national team for the last 25 years and is currently in the process of creating a new Culinary Team B.C, which he founded in 1980.
He is also the founder of the Culinary Arts Foundation, a past president of the BC Chefs Association (when he created the junior chapter which today is the strongest in Canada), and chairman of the Canadian Culinary Federation.
And he’s not done trying to change the industry for the better. He still has one more goal: apprenticeship for waiters.
“A waiter should know all about wines, the difference between roasted and braised. They deserve to be recognized as professionals,” advocates Marti. “We have great cooks, good food but we have no educated people — professional waiter — to serve it. If you have a professional waiter, you will have a better dining room.”
When Marti’s not at his beloved restaurant, he’s either at a food function, coaching a culinary team or making a speech. As he puts it, “I live for my profession.”
Or he might be riding one of his motorcycles, star gazing or looking after his farm. Although his wife passed away in 1992, he is still surrounded with family and has the joy of nine grandchildren.
Marti says he’s given some thought to how to walk away from La Belle Auberge. He would’ve liked to have one of his sons take it over but all three have successful careers of their own.
As long as the restaurant still gives him a sense of purpose and he is capable of contributing, Marti has no desire to hang up his chef or restauranteur hat quite yet.
“Maybe it’s my ego but I’m not ready to give up. I will probably cook here until I die,” he says. Indeed, Marti looks like he still has many years left in him to continue adding to his legacy of creating beautiful food and being the best.