There’s a rocker in the kitchen
by Kate Zimmerman for the Weekend Post

VANCOUVER — If chefs are the new rock stars — witness Anthony Bourdain and Jamie Oliver — Vancouver’s Gord Martin is a double threat: he’s a chef who used to be a rocker.

Martin’s music career, which started with the bagpipes at age five and progressed to saxophone, guitar and vocals, did not land him in any Halls of Fame. But those with a longstanding alternative sensibility may remember Martin from a Vancouver punk band ironically named Der Mittelgang (middle of the road).

“We were anything but,” he recalls.

Over the course of his on-stage life in various kinds of groups, the stocky local boy was even seen performing in dyed-black hair, a mini skirt and cherry-red pumps.

More recently, Martin has built a less precarious rep for himself at his Vancouver restaurants, Bin 941 and Bin 942. He’s been pairing gender-bending ingredients that are, according to startled local critics, as riveting together as electric guitar and drums.

Like white spring salmon with a sun-dried nori (seaweed) and bee pollen crust. Or grilled New Zealand venison with Stilton, caramelized onion and buttermilk waffle and Black Velvet sauce, which contains Guinness and Crème de Cassis. Or grilled lamb sirloin with candied shallots and wild mushroom savoury honey baklava. Some of these wicked recipes can now be sampled by way of the chef’s new cookbook Tongue Twisters: Sexy Food from Bin 941 and 942 (Arsenal Pulp Press, $23.95).

“I’d say I’m pretty lucky because people have grown to sort-of trust my style. So if I do venture off the garden path somewhat and try different things they will give it a go,” says Martin, 42, whose restaurants routinely draw celebrities like the band R.E.M., actor Halle Berry, TV chef Jamie Oliver, pop star Bryan Ferry, and actor/musician Jack Black, who bought a painting he saw on one of the Bins’ walls.

These restaurants are not run-of-the-mill. Jammed with Mexican folk art sculptures and Cuban paintings, unmatched mirrors and lighting fixtures that clash in theory but mesh in practice, they show none of the chilly reserve of most celebrated modern eateries. The Bins are places to meet and mingle, to have a bite and a glass that lead to more bites and more glasses. If you wind up being offered a taste of something off a stranger’s plate, that’s the atmosphere Martin’s going for.

“People really do get into the spirit of sharing and they get excited about it,” says Martin, who looks far more the scruffy rocker than the culinary artiste.

The chef defines the Bins’ plates — larger than an appetizer or “tapa” but smaller than an entrée — as “tapatisers.” They’re generous enough to be shared, they’re styled with as much flair as an entrée in a snootier boite, and none of them costs more than $12.

Martin, who spent a year in Barcelona, appreciates the camaraderie of the Spanish approach to tapas. There, he explains, you generally stand at the bar, fill a plate with bits and pieces from a counter full of savouries, pay according to what your plate weighs “…and you just pick at it.”

Nevertheless, in his view, traditional Spanish tapas are too exotic to work here. Martin can squeak something new by diners if he mixes it up with something familiar. Bee pollen might work on the ever-popular salmon, but if he tried to coat a fresh anchovy with it he would have a helluvalot of leftover anchovies.

So he picks his battles. The Bins serve up ostrich, buffalo and foie gras from time to time and his three-citrus halibut ceviche gets an avocado fritter accompaniment.

Martin says he’s just doing what comes naturally to him — being unpredictable. He stays informed on what new products are available, like the sun-dried nori he is now getting from a Vancouver Island Indian reserve, and a Mexican corn fungus called huitalacoche.

“I mean, I could put roast potatoes with virtually every dish and people would be happy,” he says. “But as a chef, that gets a little bit mundane and redundant, I have to say.”

At this point, Martin takes an executive role at the Bins: he doesn’t do the day-to-day cooking but develops the menus, makes the specials and supervises. His global approach certainly satisfies his personal cravings — Martin loves ethnic food. “But every time you go to an ethnic restaurant you get sort-of a lacklustre cafeteria-style environment with absolutely no music, no wine list and really, at that point, all you want to do is taste the delicious food and then move on.”

What he likes about the Bins is that patrons can try different ethnic-inspired foods — from Moroccan to Japanese — in a warm atmosphere, drink good wine and listen to cool music. They linger for hours.

Martin opened the first Bin in 1998, to instant success. With no car, he would walk down the hill from his downtown location, take the aqua-bus to Granville Island market, buy 10 bags of ingredients and take the aqua-bus back. He’d set his bags on the floor “and it was all a la minute from there. There was no time for mise en place, I was just doing everything to order, pretty much. It was crazy. I provided a lot of entertainment for people at the food bar.”

Maybe that’s what a rocker has in common with a chef — the urge to entertain. Martin no longer plays music, but he chooses the CDs for the Bins, which satiates his musical impulse. He thinks what a chef and a musician share is an artistic sensibility and a renegade spirit. “You’ve got to be, like, half-nuts to be a chef. The hours are insane. Your day isn’t over until it’s over, it doesn’t matter what the clock says.”

Ideally, practitioners of the two professions also want to achieve something that approaches perfection.

“I always wanted to be good at something, whatever I did….” Martin muses. “For me, it’s easy to be good at cooking because it’s in my blood.”

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