– Words By Susan Lundy Photos by Lia Crowe
Where did you come from and how did you get to Cowichan Bay?
Growing up on the West Coast, we have always been drawn to the ocean. After purchasing a house in Cowichan Bay in 2004, we knew this was home. An opportunity came about in 2012 in a location that we had my eyes on for years, and we found ourselves jumping in head first with absolute certainty that this was the right decision. After operating at our original Cowichan Bay location for five years, it was clear we had out grown that space and that’s when we were approached by the Oceanfront Suites Hotel to take over the 11,000-square-foot penthouse restaurant that included an ocean-view dining room, two event spaces, a street-side patio and a kitchen four times larger than our previous space. We knew right away that our vibe would be a perfect match for this space.
Matt, what inspired you to become a chef?
The majority of my childhood was spent living in Long Beach, California, where my parents worked at an upscale hotel. As a child, I spent countless hours roaming the property and mostly making my way into the kitchen where the executive chef had taken me under his wing. I was always intrigued by the creations I saw, and one day I told him I wanted to cook my mom lobster for her birthday—I was six! The next week he brought me into the kitchen, gave me a custom-made apron, a classic “toque” chefs’ hat and three beautiful Atlantic lobster. The next day, I was cooking steak and lobster on a Webber barbecue…with supervision, of course! I’d have to say that’s what originally inspired me, but what keeps me going is the beauty of the West Coast and its offerings.
How did you adapt to becoming chef and owner of Cow Cafe?
Honestly, I think my biggest strength is adaptability. We are in an industry that is very demanding in so many ways. You need to be quick on your feet to make changes or accommodate something that might put you out of your comfort zone. When I initially took over operations as owner, I was mostly FOH (front of house) and had been for a of couple years. At that point, I didn’t really have a desire to be in the kitchen: I was very focused on the big picture and wanting to learn everything I could about the industry as a whole. However, I had a vision: I knew what I wanted to see coming out of the kitchen—my food! I knew I had to be in the kitchen if I was going make this vision a reality.
What challenges and rewards does working together as a couple and business owners bring?
One of our biggest challenges, but also the most rewarding was deciding to have a family: with both of us being so hands on in our respective positions, we had to figure out how to maintain our restaurant while learning to be new parents. We have always been a team in every aspect of our business, and finding a new balance has been a journey. But being able to share the journey as a family has been the ultimate reward.
What makes Cow Cafe special?
We believe its our staff; they are like family to us. In this industry it’s very common to have staff come and go quite frequently. This is not the case here—our core is our family and friends, and together we have made it through so many ups and downs. We all love what we do and we believe in the potential and growth of the business. Recently, we have had so many compliments from customers noting that everyone is so positive around here. This makes our hearts so happy as this is so important in the world, especially right now.
Your specialty is “modern, West Coast-inspired comfort food.” Can you give a few examples from your menu.
Well, we love staying ahead of trends, but in our own unique way. One thing we’ve created is our famous Coast-to-Coast Caesar—we’ve taken the Caesar craze to a whole new level by incorporating seafood from Canada’s east coast —lobster tails from Nova Scotia, eastern sea scallops—with west coast seafood, such as Pacific prawns and locally smoked candied salmon from Port Hardy. When we think of comfort food, it always reminds us of family gatherings in the kitchen, so we try to put that feel in almost everything we do. I think our best representation of that on our menu would have to be the Millionaires Meatloaf. It’s a classic home-cooked-inspired meal, but with a modern West Coast spin. We’ve taken locally raised grass-fed beef and a Japanese-raised wagyu beef, wrapped it in a local bacon and topped it with fire-grilled garlic cajun Pacific shrimp and a Dungeness-crab-infused hollandaise. It’s like mom’s home cooking meets west coast contemporary.
Tell us about the dining experience: what do you hope to create for your patrons?
Honestly—we just want people to feel at home. We want parents to feel that they can come in for a date night or a family night. We want dad to be able to get steak and lobster, while the kids can enjoy a burger and a milkshake. We want mom to enjoy a delicious glass of locally made cider with her girlfriends on a Tuesday night, or a 90th birthday celebration on a Sunday afternoon. We want people to just be able to enjoy great food in great company and feel at home, and while doing so without the dishes.
What is your favourite cuisine to eat?
At home, we love to enjoy as a family any kind of home-cooked meal that isn’t grilled cheese and tomato soup. We also do really enjoy a good Mexican spread and our occasional sushi dates.
When are you happiest at work?
For Matt: “First thing in the morning: I’ve always been an early-bird-gets-the-worm kind of guy, and to arrive at my restaurant when the sun is just starting to rise over beautiful Cowichan Bay, I sometimes find myself able to take five minutes to just soak it in. That’s when i feel truly inspired and blessed to be where we are. For Jenn” “It’s taking a moment in the middle of a dinner service to gaze across our oceanfront dining room to see the smiles and laughter coming from the families and friends as they fill their bellies with our delicious food and drinks.”
When are you happiest outside of work?
Jenn: “I can answer this one for Matt—golf! Anything golf: watching, playing, reading, talking golf. He’s so happy, haha, and, of course, any family time we get to share with the three of us is always so nice, whether this is at home playing or out adventuring on the island.