Cacao serves up innovative solutions for restaurant staff shortages

Asking chefs to help serve just one of chef Jefferson Alvarez’s creative approaches

Matthew Gayowski was a little nervous the first time he served a dish at Cacao.

It wasn’t the stress of coping with the Kitsilano restaurant’s constant demands. And it definitely wasn’t because he had doubts about the quality of the food.

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As chef de cuisine at the bustling W. First Ave. restaurant, Gayowski had prepared the dish he was about to present to the eager diners. What gave him pause was the age-old question lurking in the back of the mind of most creative types who put their work out into the world: Will people like what I’ve done?

“It’s a little bit nerve-wracking bringing the dish out, but one of the reasons I became a chef is I love to make people happy and enjoy my food,” he says. “To see that happen, right in front of my face, it’s worth it.”

Although diners also love it when a chef comes out of the kitchen, the restaurant’s co-owner has a more pragmatic reason for asking his fellow chefs to sometimes bring the food from kitchen to table.

Cacao Vancouver chef Jefferson Alvarez
“It’s not about being a celebrity. It’s leading by example,” says Cacao’s Jefferson Alvarez, whose innovation as a chef and restaurant co-owner is earning him plaudits. - Dan Toulgoet

Cacao co-owner and chef Jefferson Alvarez has never had a problem finding chefs and cooks who want to join him. Instead, his staffing challenge is always in the front of house. He wants people who treat serving as a career, not as something they do until they can move onto something better.

By having chefs, including himself, serve some of the dishes, Alvarez is not only enhancing the dining experience for everyone. He’s also avoiding the difficult decisions faced by other restaurant owners who have to close one day a week, or reduce the number of sittings, because they can’t get enough staff.

Alvarez’s approach was mentioned as a success story at a recent forum hosted by the B.C. Restaurant and Food Services Association to tackle staff shortages.

The Courier approached Alvarez after the meeting to ask him why he does what he does.

It turns out that Alvarez has an intuitive approach to many of the association’s suggestions:

• He offers a benefit plan.

• He actively mentors his staff and seeks their input.

• He schedules their hours so they can sometimes get Fridays and Saturdays off.

• For almost two weeks at the end of February, he’s closing the restaurant so his staff can join him in Peru to learn from one of Latin America’s best restaurants.

“You lead by example,” he says. “When they see you do it, they want to do it, too. It’s the way I was raised.”

Cacao ceviche
Cacao's Ocean Wise albacore ceviche with arepa crisp. - Dan Toulgoet

Born in Venezuela, Alvarez moved to Vancouver when he was 16. Before opening Cacao in 2016 with mother/daughter duo of Marcela and Andrea Ramirez, he was the chef at Secret Location in Gastown. Westender food columnist Anya Levykh gave Cacao’s progressive Latin cuisine a five-star review, noting Alvarez has long been admired for his daring innovation. “You could never doubt his damn-near-obsessive dedication and courage,” she wrote.

Alvarez organized next month’s working holiday to Lima to show staff that, as chefs and restaurateurs, there’s always something new to learn. He and Gayowski will spend a week cooking at Central, which has been described as one of Latin America’s best restaurant.

“Afterwards, we decided to increase our knowledge and exposure to Peruvian cuisine by visiting other restaurants and staple markets,” Alvarez told the Courier.

Alvarez says that if he owned an Italian restaurant, he’d be taking his staff to Italy so they can be exposed to the traditions and styles that form the foundation of the food they are creating. He’s never worked in Peru before and he, too, is eager to add to his understanding of Latin cuisine, both past and present.

“They want to see you learning and growing as well. They don’t want to see you chilling in the office. It’s not about being a celebrity. It’s leading by example.”

Cacao will be closed from Feb. 20 to Mar. 3.

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