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What exactly is Canadian cuisine? An expert chef on the “vibrant, lush earthiness” of the region

The first thing you see when you go to Botanist’s website is this quote: “Step inside Botanist, a world where day blurs into night, summer into winter, and food and drink are plenty.” In speaking with Chef Hector Laguna, it’s clear that this is an insight into his seasonality-and-terroir inspired cooking. And it doesn’t hurt that Botanist is also a stunningly gorgeous restaurant! 

There are many cuisines that are understood wholly just by a mere mention of the county of origin: Italian, Chinese, “Southern,” and so on. But what about “Canadian?” It’s rare to hear anyone saying “what are you thinking about for dinner tonight? Maybe Japanese or Canadian?” 

For Chef Hector Laguna, Canadian food (and Pacific Northwest food in general) is so immensely steeped in the unique, particular make-up of the environment, the soil and the seasonality of the region. Salon Food spoke with him to learn more about his training, his Mexican heritage, his chef ethos and what he hopes he can accomplish at his restaurant, Botanist.

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Chef Hector Laguna (Photo courtesy of Fairmont Pacific Rim)

I love the name of the restaurant. What inspired it? How does it apply to the ethos, the menu and the overall philosophy of Botanist? 

Botanist stays true to its locale in the Pacific Northwest, offering a dining destination rich in experiences that reflect the vibrant, lush earthiness of the region. Botanist ingredients are sourced from their natural landscape and designed to showcase the best version of them. The menu features regionally inspired ingredients rooted from the soil of the northwest, sustainably sourced from our oceans and organic agricultural methods from backyard suppliers. Botanists’ identity seeks to create a juxtaposition and complementary unification of science, art, enjoyment and wonder. 

Botanist focuses on the “culinary abundance and botany of the Pacific Northwest.” Can you elaborate on that? 

The Pacific Northwest is renowned for its culinary abundance and diverse botanical offerings. The uniquely rich and varied landscape includes dense forests, abundant marine life and fertile land, all of which contribute to a very vibrant culinary offering that combines traditional and contemporary flavors.

How would you define Canadian cuisine? What sets it apart from “American” food? 

Canadian cuisine at its core is a reflection of the land’s diverse abundance of natural resources. I do feel there is overlap with our neighbors, but Canadian cuisine prides itself on the locally sourced ingredients and flavors found close to home. 

The description of the restaurant’s space sounds amazing, especially “The Garden.” Where did the idea for it come from?

The garden is a reflection of Vancouver’s definitive environment: fertile, productive and a diverse agricultural region, abundant in natural beauty. We wanted to recreate that in the restaurant so guests feel immersed into the experience. 

Interior GardenBotanist Interior Garden (Photo courtesy of Fairmont Pacific Rim)

The dinner menu is stunning. Talk to me about the categories: graze, hook, hunt and harvest, and we’ll take it from here

Graze represents the appetizers portion of the menu, designed to be shared amongst the table. Hook, Hunt & Harvest represent the main dishes; fish, meat and vegetable-focused dishes are equally represented and presented with contemporary cooking techniques. The “we’ll take it from here” section of the menu allows for some creativity on our side — this is when the guest looks to us as the culinary expert to curate a meal and experience for them — and hope they enjoy it! 

The apple-parsnip soup is such a perfectly cozy fall recipe. What inspired it?

Apples are actually quite nostalgic for me as they remind me of my childhood and growing up in Mexico. When paired with parsnips they serve as perfectly balanced ingredients for a fall soup; this particular recipe is easy to make and very versatile – delicious on its own or when combined with seafood such as scallops or shrimp. (Try the recipe here.)

InteriorBotanist Interior (Photo courtesy of Fairmont Pacific Rim)

I know that you grew up in Mexico before working in kitchens throughout North America and settling in Vancouver. Talk to me about that through-line  how do all of those influences come together in your food now?

My cooking style is inspired by passion and emotion; I want everyone who dines at Botanist to feel an emotional connection to what they’re eating and where the local ingredients were sourced. I design my dishes to honor many different ethnicities: Mexican, Asian, American and Canadian, all of which have been part of my culinary journey as a chef. Throughout the dining experience, we aim for every dish to tell a story and the result is to evoke feelings of comfort, calm and satisfaction. 

What’s next for you and for Botanist? 

We have some exciting plans in the works. This November, Botanist will host the incredible Daniela Soto-Innes for a one-night-only culinary collaboration dinner in celebration of Dia de los Muertos. We’re both Mexican, so we thought what better way to honor our heritage than through food. Here at Botanist, we love to bring in the best of the best of culinary talent and have been lucky enough to bring in the likes of Chef James Kent from Crown Shy in NYC. I’m excited for more of those to come and to keep curating an incredible dining experience for our guests.

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