FACILITYCalgary publisher Mark Kolke, in conversation with Brian Plunkett
April 29, 2014
I’m not what you would call a ‘foodie’ – my ambitions to be a chef were quashed by my parents when I was a teenager, but I’ve always loved to cook. I’ve spent time in my real-estate career working with food retailers and restaurateurs – so I know now how hard they work and how difficult it is to be successful. So, it was great that I had an opportunity recently to interview a great chef, a fine retailer and a genuinely nice guy – meet Brian Plunkett:
In 1990, he won the Gold Medal for an individual entry at the Culinary World Cup in Luxembourg. He was a Member of Team Canada 1992 – World Culinary Olympics in Frankfurt. This guy can cook along-side the best in the world.
How did this chef, this boy from Dublin who ate fish just once a week, who began his culinary career at fourteen, become Calgary’s premier seafood retailer?
Brian was the first-born of eight children in a modest-means Dublin, Ireland Catholic family. Fish was served every Friday. Traditional Irish recipes were simple every day reality. Mom (with 8 kids) stayed home. Dad was a waiter in the hotel where Brian Plunkett began his food career, thanks to dad’s help, at age fourteen when leaving school to apprentice was the norm and leaving a very busy home was a young man’s priority.
Brian’s culinary training involved a lot of hard work and much travel – apprenticeship in Dublin, chef’s training at St. Mary’s College in Dublin, two years training in Switzerland at the Grande Hotel in Zurich – then coming to Canada at twenty, to connect with friends and find a job in Toronto (where he met his wife Mary – who is from County Kerry), chef jobs in Vancouver (Hyatt) and Toronto (Four Seasons) were plenty of preparation. But there was more – consulting jobs, executive chef jobs in Las Vegas, on cruise ships added to the ambition of every chef – to open his own restaurant.
What brought him to Calgary? “Executive Chef job at the Calgary Golf and Country Club for eleven years, then two years at the Country Club of the Hamptons”. And he taught for two years at SAIT. But that ambition persisted – leading to opening his own place. Do you remember Plunkett’s? Brian and Mary’s restaurant in Avenida had a good run – but running a good restaurant really well is exhausting and demanding. Selling that restaurant was followed by more consulting work and a short-lived partnership in seafood retailing that didn’t work out, but the hours of a 6-day a week retail operation seemed more appealing than 7-days at the restaurant.
In 2008, Blu was born. The main store and production kitchen on Macleod Trail features seafood as the main fare (also lamb, beef and chicken if you don’t eat fish every day).
And, you can find Blu fresh and frozen fare at the Calgary Farmers’ Market – a tidy but very successful stall # 4 between the Silver Sage Beef and Yum Bakery in the north-west corner of the Market (Blu is one of 18 members of the Calgary Farmers' Market Co-operative – 80 vendors rent from them) on Blackfoot Trail.
I asked Brian about expansion – adding more locations? “No. We are quite happy with our current size – we have great staff and a formula that works well.” Have you considered catering? “We did some at first, but no. We get it ready so our customers can finish it at home”.
Brian and Mary have two grown children – both working in oil industry jobs in Calgary – and one grand-daughter.
I asked Brian how he sees the restaurant and seafood business … his area of seafood specialty, retail in particular, over the next quarter?
… great for us! BBQ season is here, and business spikes for us. Fresh halibut, fresh salmon. High food prices generally put pressure on our margins. We need to be cautious with high-end items.
And over the next 5 years?
… I worry about supply, about a sustainable fishery. As our society becomes increasingly health conscious, a healthy commercial fishery is critical. Farming IS the future. In Canada, consumers have been slow accepting farmed fish. In every other meat, farmed is the norm. Good quality farmed fish has better flavour. Farmed salmon has a higher fat content than wild-caught.
What qualities distinguish your preferred colleagues, collaborators and suppliers?
… Quality is #1. Commitment. Suppliers who know how to handle the product. Sanitation and temperature control every step of the way. I’m loyal. Our suppliers are mostly out of Vancouver, and offshore.
What distinguishes you that causes people to choose Brian Plunkett, why choose Blu, why do they do business with you, why do they choose you over your competitors?
… same reasons! I’m hands on. I run my business on my feet. I don’t bite off more than I can chew. Customers are always greeted and made to feel welcome. I hope we sell them some product. Cleanliness. If it’s not good, we aren’t going to sell it. The store has to pass my smell-test every morning.
What do you lose sleep over, what do you worry about?
… I used to worry about business – a lot. I don’t have to anymore – things are going well.
Who or what influenced you most – that has made a difference in your life, or that was a major turning point?
… my father – he got me into the kitchen. He was always a go-getter.
… Neils Kjeldson, a Danish chef I worked for at the Toronto Four Seasons and I followed him to work at the Vancouver Hyatt. He taught me so much about cooking, and management. He encouraged me to be a more creative chef.
Work life balance?
… I cook at home every night for my wife (Mary cooks 4 or 5 nights a year). I cook simply at home. I used to use lots of butter and cream. I’m much more health conscious now so it’s olive oil. Vacations. We take two vacations each year. One week separately – I usually go to Ireland to visit family. We also try to get away every January for 10 days. This year it was Mexico. Next year we’re booked for Hawaii. Family occasion dinners at our favourite restaurant – La Chaumiere. Tuborg beer.
What do you read?
… daily papers, industry magazines, Grisham novels, biographies.
… we have two. A Dodge Caravan for business, and an Audi Q5 (Mary’s ride).
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