Feenie’s next move

March 13, 2008

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When we interviewed star Vancouver chef and restauranteur Rob Feenie over a year ago, we had no idea how troubled he must have been beneath the surface. In 2005, after spending $1.5 million to renovate the kitchen at Lumiere, the restaurant that (along with an Iron Chef victory and a Food Network TV show) made him famous, Feenie was in dire financial straits and needed to scramble. To buy out his original partner and pay for the reno, he made what he has since told the Vancouver Sun was the biggest mistake of his career: he signed over majority control of Lumiere and next-door bistro Feenie’s to investors David and Majy Sidoo.

The move saved the restaurants at the time, but this past summer, the Sidoos and Fennie fell out over the hiring of a new chef de cuisine. Without any power in the situation, Feenie walked away.

This saddened us a great deal when we heard. When Feenie broke onto the scene in Vancouver, the city didn’t have much to speak of in terms of haute cuisine. Hell, Canada as a whole didn’t.

After discovering the wonder of cooking while on a high school exchange in Sweden, Feenie returned to his native Vancouver, ditched his plans to follow his friends to university, and entered the Dubrulle Institute. From there, he got a few lucky bounces, landed at some remarkable restaurants – including the Rimrock Cafe in Whistler and Le Crocodile in Van – and parlayed his contacts into stays at the kitchens of masters in the Alsace region of France. Knowing that Europe was where he needed to be to learn, Feenie was willing to pack himself up, hop on a plane, and work for free.

When he returned, he began putting the pieces in place for a new restaurant. People told him he was crazy. He was only 27. But Feenie had told himself he would open a restaurant by the time he was 30, so he wasn’t going to listen to any doubters. Getting Lumiere off the ground was a struggle – it required some soul searching as well as wheeling and dealing – but when it was finally born it had a huge impact on the food scene in Vancouver.

We know many people in the Vancouver area have grown sick of Feenie, arguing that he is over-exposed, over-discussed, over-valued. But that’s what all cities do to their institutions. It’s par for the course.

Now, after a period of relative silence, Feenie has embarked on a new tack: he will be the “food concept architect” for the Cactus Club, a casual food chain in Western Canada. It’s a departure to be sure, but we wish him luck. There’s no doubt that, with the drive Feenie displayed in bringing Lumiere and Feenie’s to life, he will no doubt silence all doubters yet again.

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