Picture a wide white bowl. Spoon in lemon-verbena syrup, and accent it with gin-drunk blueberries. Top it with a scoop of ice cream. On top, place a perfectly round cream puff the size of a softball, topped with a crackly cookie layer. Using the knife your server so helpfully placed beside you moments earlier, cut into the puff to discover an airy, rich mixture of Neufchatel cheese — a lighter version of cream cheese. Construct a perfect bite that includes every component. Taste. Lemon-blueberry cheesecake.
The man behind the dish is Welbert Choi, the chef de cuisine at Forage in the Listel Hotel. Choi has worked his way up from line cook (at Forage’s previous incarnation, O’Doul’s), to pastry chef, to chef de cuisine. As line cook, he noticed that pastry was just another kitchen to-do, and took the initiative to make the restaurant’s pastries. That initiative has helped him move up the ranks to his current role.
At Forage, the menu can change weekly, so it’s a credit to Choi that the Neufchatel cheese puff, made with cheese from Golden Ears Cheesecrafters in Maple Ridge, is a mainstay on the dessert menu. Right now, the drunken blueberries are served in a lemon-verbena syrup, but it was originally designed for elderflower.
“Elderflower’s one of my favourite ingredients,” he says. “Every year we have a two-week window and during that time, I’ll ask the forager to pick whatever they can give me.” He makes a syrup and hopes it’ll last until the next harvest. The restaurant used the 2015 batch more quickly than anticipated, hence the lemon-verbena that I got.
Forage’s mandate for local and seasonal can be challenging for the pastry department. “You have to find a way to preserve your flavour,” says Choi. Citrus and chocolate are particularly challenging. “Lemon-verbena has the flavour, but not the tang [of lemon].” As for chocolate… well, some things have no substitute, so Choi has sourced his from a company whose values align with those of Forage’s.
Since stepping into his new role, Choi works more on the restaurant’s operations side and sets the menu with executive chef Chris Whittaker. While Choi still has a hand in pastry, he’s handed off the day-to-day pastry duties to two of his staff. “My job is mostly to show them how it should be done. I really want every cook who works here to grow — not just follow instructions.”
Choi credits his family with his love of food. “On my mother’s side, the whole family, they’re really good cooks. Especially my uncle and my mom.”
But he didn’t immediately become a cook — he was an auto mechanic and a cellphone technician before enrolling in Dubrulle (now the Arts Institute) culinary and pastry programs in 2003.
Choi’s family also sparked another love: photography. A high-school photography class turned into a hobby, then a side business. Eventually, Choi started bringing his camera to work to document the dishes they were making at Forage. “The photos remind me of people’s reactions, and of the flavours. They help me build the next dish,” he says.
The photography has taken a back seat as he focuses on his role as chef de cuisine. But even during peak times, Choi makes sure to get one day a week off to spend time with his wife and six-year-old daughter.
“My daughter likes to cook. She can make scrambled eggs, but she’s a picky eater. I hope that’ll change.”