Red River College grad Kevin Castro is in the business of transformation.
The 21-year-old sous chef (who completed RRC’s Culinary Arts program in 2012) is slowly getting fired up for his day, cleaning odd corners of the Fitzroy kitchen and waiting for his team to show up to prep the day’s ingredients. The space he’s standing in is the first layer of transformation.
Once a showroom that modelled condo designs to urban professionals, the Fitzroy space was bought, gutted and renovated by Jon Hochman and Dustin Pajak over the first half of 2013. The shining, top-of-the-line equipment, sleek red walls and solid wood countertop pull off both a minimalist lack of pretension and a detail-oriented precision.
Castro hauls out a menu that’s all about transforming simple ingredients into the best “blue collar” eats.
“We do sophisticated presentation for food that’s normally dismissed as comfort food,” he says, pointing to the BBQ pork under corns and crackling, the caramel corn and hot nuts, and the salt beef sandwich on City rye bead. “It’s food that I like to eat – specialty dirty dishes.”
It’s food that’s grabbing the attention of media and foodies, too. Where this stretch of Sherbrook Street was once infamous for its broken motels and rooming houses, the influx of young homeowners, new entrepreneurs and chef-owned restaurants has turned the area into a reliable hotspot, a place the cool kids suggest hitting up to see what’s happening. The evidence of steady traffic is on the door Castro just unlocked: “Fitzroy – open 4pm till late.”
Castro’s more focused on his particular gig than the neighbourhood development plans. “I just like putting out good food, food that represents me and the restaurant,” he says. He came on board the Fitzroy team in March 2013, put in his hours to make July’s grand opening happen, then stepped into the role of sous chef when Pajak left to work in a different kitchen.
He’s his own testament of transformation, moving from kitchen assistant in a chain restaurant to sous chef in a hip start-up in just a few years. He gives a generous portion of credit to the pressure cooker of Red River College’s Culinary Arts program for how far he’s come so quickly.
“There’s a lot of competition between students,” Castro says. “Some come in with more experience, some with nothing. And some of the teachers are very old school – French restaurant, army brigade style.”
“That’s how it should be. The reason why? It’s developing professionalism.”
Castro stuck with the program while others cracked under the pressure or decided they belonged in other workplaces. He estimates his class dropped from a semester start of 40 to 15 before it became clear who had a solid chance of becoming a chef.
The grind of kitchen basics, international cuisine, menu development and baking classes – each dogged by the tight timelines and exacting standards expected in professional restaurants – paid off in rewarding moments of victory. Castro recalls a fine dining lunch assignment, where he had to produce 12 plates of a three-course meal in three hours.
“I was actually surprised I could do it,” Castro remembers thinking as he plated the appetizers, mains and desserts. Even so, he wishes he’d pushed himself even harder when he was at school, pursuing what he calls the only real passion he had growing up.
“You’ve got to push yourself as hard as you can; no one else will do it for you.”
Castro has some advice for people considering the course: know what you’re getting into, and why.
“They have to know the hours they’ll be putting in,” he says, noting a typical work day can be 12 hours, and adding that when Fitzroy first opened, he was lucky to average four hours of sleep each night.
“It’s all about the love of food, that’s the payoff.”
Castro has a number of plans to keep growing, both as a chef and as a person. He’s hoping to travel, expanding his palette by visiting Asia and Australia, including the ethnically-diverse Fitzroy district of Melbourne that the restaurant takes its name from.
He’s hoping to work some Filipino dishes into the menu, bringing tastes of his childhood to his diners. And he wants to be more outgoing, something Fitzroy’s open kitchen encourages.
“Because the kitchen is open, you interact with the customers and explain the dishes,” he says. “You can actually see how the diners are enjoying their meals. (At) other restaurants, you never know what a customer is feeling. Here, you get to see their faces.”
Profile by Matt TenBruggencate (Creative Communications, 2013)