… the anatomy of melancholia.
Curator & Writer | Hakan Burcuoğlu · Venue | Mel’s Home & Osteria Savio Volpe · Gear | Leica
Akitchen clad in forlorn formica, and the poignant perfume of steamed, buttery cake. We’re here to lay bare—victims of vignettes—our visages cascaded by soft, intermittent shadows, of rustling drapes. Pilfered of light, and her alluring gaze, it’s scintillating shadowplay—an ocular tryst. How to posterize this instance… and to elucidate this camera obscura? I now realize it was never about the depiction, but rather the telling imprint of her subdued aversion—magnificent melancholia.
And that magnificence transcends, evident in her sultry paramour—Vancouver’s boner-inducing, saporous fixture, Osteria Savio Volpe. But she’s no wistful protagonist in this autofiction; instead, she transmogrifies, stoically helming a brilliant brigade of burly, hardknock chefs. Though she’s poised in her passion, and deserved of any paean, there’s always that heart of darkness—that line she’ll never cross. And as is with most chefs cooking at this level, life outside the sanctuary can be one painted in abstractions.
We’re partial to Mel here at The Curatorialist—she’s the first woman to grace our presence, and a herald for many, many more. So now that we’ve seen the light, let this Falstaffian foray be our aubade for ascension. Welcome, Chef Melanie Witt. [And our apologies for plastering 1000 posters of you around town. Video here.]
HB: I’ve heard from the grapevine that you’re a little shy with this sort of thing.
MW: [Chuckles] We did this Spot Prawn festival last week, down at Fisherman’s Wharf. I had to give this demo on stage—fried spot prawn heads with salmoriglio. Then, for some reason, I shout into the microphone, “So you guys know how to eat the heads, right?!” [Laughs hysterically] It was so loud… so terrible. I have a fear of public speaking. I hate it. But this is fine. I’ll be fine with you.
HB: [Chuckles] Well let’s start off comfortable then. Tell me about your provenance.
MW: I was born in Edmonton but we moved to Ladysmith—a small town on Vancouver Island—when I was three, so I didn’t get to spend a lot of time there, which is good, because it’s not my ideal place to be. But I go back quite a bit to visit my grandparents.
HB: I get the feeling people either love, or hate, Edmonton. Why the latter?
MW: I think I’m more of an ocean and mountain girl. My sister and I grew up in this huge, falling-apart kind-of-house lined with hazelnut trees, with this idyllic creek that ran right behind it. We’d play in this magical forest [chuckles] all day, by ourselves, picking huckleberries… plums. My parents were just like “Yeah, go. Go play in the creek”. You’d never be able to do that now as a kid. It was pretty insane.
HB: Were you nice enough to bring back some of the day’s bounty to your progressive parents?
MW: Of course! We’d harvest bowls and bowls of hazelnuts, as well as these Italian prune plums—purple in colour, super sour. We’d pick honeysuckles, and suck the nectar out. We really did have a great childhood, my sister and I. We were quite free, but had a structured upbringing at the same time. Not crazy hippy-like or anything.
HB: Would you reference your folks as dominant influences in your cooking?
MW: I’m not sure if I got the bug from my parents. It came much later. My dad’s a good cook—he played around with bread, brewed his own beer and also made wine. He’d gotten this crazy idea of making dandelion wine, so we had to pick tons of dandelion blossoms from our yard. We picked their petals for days, and ended up with this humongous tub of overflowing dandelions. For some reason, he didn’t get to it in time, and it all went bad. I vividly remember that awful stench of rotting dandelion in our kitchen.
HB: Unlike most people I know, you had a pretty direct, hands-on relationship with food growing up. It must’ve had some sort of dormant effect on you.
MW: Perhaps, but my step mom—Lesley—actually had more of a cooking influence in my life. She loved to cook, but anytime we visited, we were assigned to do all these chores. I’d always get mad about it, since we’d only get to visit my dad two days a week. One of our tasks was to prepare dinner, which eventually became quite fun because we got to glance through her cookbook collection and pick the recipes. One of the first composed dishes I made was from a Donna Hay cookbook—something like salmon with coconut cream and spinach. [Chuckles] It was really good, and I remember being quite proud of myself.
HB: Chores build character, as my folks used to say. But that structure, and joy of cooking, did come in handy for your formative summer gig on Salt Spring Island.
MW: It was a wild job, taking care of that family. They had this huge property on Salt Spring Island, and were always looking to hire young people for the summer season to help with various chores—mostly cooking and cleaning. My best friend Brianna and I worked there for three summers. We were called the “Summer Girls”, which is kind of fucked up, now that I think about it. They had boys there too. [Chuckles]
HB: Let me guess, Summer Boys?
MW: [Chuckles] Yes! Summer Boys! We all wore khakis, white polo shirts and white shoes, and drove golf carts around this enormous property that was only accessible by boat. It was demanding work but we also got time off to do whatever we wanted. We’d hop on their Boston Whaler and go to Ganges, set up crab traps, swim and hike. It was fun.
HB: What was your daily routine?
MW: We’d get up very early to prepare breakfast—toast, cereal and poached eggs, mostly. We hosted high profile guests, so we’d get their cabins set, and do all of their menu planning in advance. We even prepared meals for their dogs—they had these beautiful golden retrievers, of course.
HB: If their dogs ate that well, I’m curious to ask what kind of food was cooking for our fellow mankind?
MW: They ate beautiful food. There was a full-time gardener on staff who meticulously watched over this picturesque garden. We harvested heads of lettuce, cabbage, berries, kohlrabi, edible flowers… everything under the sun. I learned a lot about herbs, particularly nasturtiums. I remember eating one for the first time—this incredible, spicy flower. It really blew my mind. Everything was so fresh, and so accessible.
HB: You’re very lucky. Most cooks lack that sort of connection with the land. Those experiences must’ve shaped your food allegiances.
MW: You’re so right, and that’s why I’ve never cared for overly manipulated food. I almost feel the need to quote Alice Waters, something along the lines of “Let food taste the way it is”. I’m not her biggest fan, and think she’s kind of ridiculous sometimes, but I align with her ethos. I like food to taste the way it grows. I don’t care for turning a vegetable into a gel. It’s not my thing and I don’t like to eat that way either. In fact, at the end of my shift, I crave for a cold, crisp cucumber. There’s nothing more I’d want to eat.
HB: I assume you’d also attribute much of that appreciation, and ethos, to Belinda—the estate’s cook, and property manager.
MW: Belinda was my first ever mentor in the kitchen—a little intimidating at first, yet so motherly, so dedicated to her craft. She took the operation very seriously, and looked out for us, taught us how to be good at our jobs. She had reverence for the process—nurturing something, pulling it out of the soil, and preparing a meal from start to finish. Her passion was infectious, and she’s been such an inspiration in my life and career.
HB: The school of life. I wish I had a proper mentor figure in my life. I’m quite envious of you cooks sometimes.
MW: I never forget her sitting us down after our first summer, telling us “It’s time you girls ask them for a raise”. She reminded us of our worth, and what we needed to do going forward in our careers.
HB: That must’ve been quite nerve-racking for you, especially with your fear of public speaking.
MW: I was so nervous! I don’t think I even spoke, Brianna did all the talking. I faintly remember nodding my head to absolutely everything that was coming out of her mouth, like “Yes, I agree with everything she’s saying!”. But we got that raise, after all.
HB: What did it feel like, in hindsight, working for such an affluent family?
MW: It was crazy to be immersed in it so young, especially coming from a middle class family. I was very impressed with what they’d achieved, but also remember thinking how different it was from my family. My family just felt so much warmer.
HB: And from what little I know about you, university didn’t prove to be that source of warmth for you either.
MW: My mom’s a teacher and she really encouraged me to get a university education, so I took out a student loan and enrolled at the University of Victoria. I had no idea what to do, and ended up taking these random courses like calculus, economics… all these boring subjects. I did enjoy my poetry and short stories class, I aced it actually. But after a year of university, I was like “I hate this”. So I took whatever was left of my student loan and backpacked through Greece for a month. And it’s taken me 10 years to pay it off! [Chuckles] I shouldn’t have done that in retrospect.
HB: And you came back to enroll in culinary school?
MW: Yeah, I’d been thinking about it for a long time. My mentor, Belinda, had completed her culinary degree at Camosun College in Victoria and had encouraged me to give it a try. Plus the family I worked for sponsored me to go there. They were very generous.
HB: Was it all that you’d imagined? Especially after being so open, and free, in the royal gardens?
MW: I really struggled in the beginning. I had this instructor—a French man—who had this crazy moustache, that twirled. He wore such strong cologne, like “Who is this guy?!”. He was the first crazy chef I ever dealt with. I was so scared of him. I remember him frantically performing a five-finger fillet, yelling “This is a lesson, your knife should be an extension of your hand!”. I really missed Belinda! [Chuckles]
HB: That’s fucked.
MW: Right?! Our head instructor was also blatantly honest about the whole experience. He was always telling us to quit, like “You should not to do this for a living. If you’re smart, get out while you can. You’ll make no money, have no time, and sacrifice everything. Don’t do it!”.
HB: Not the most ideal ambassador for the industry I’d say. But the same shit goes for film school. They kept telling us not to pursue our dreams, day after day. Of course, that sort of thing ends up having the adverse effect on pupils.
MW: Exactly, like “I’ll show you, world!”. But out of my class I’m one of three people still cooking for a living. And I was also the only woman.
HB: In hindsight, do you feel like it was worth the takeaway?
MW: We did a lot of super dated crap. I’ll never use those skills. It was so disjointed from what Belinda had instilled in me, back on Salt Spring. I definitely picked up skills that translated— knife skills… a sense of urgency. You still rely on those skills, you’re not always on an island.
HB: Well you’re definitely not doing any super dated crap now. In fact, it’s as fresh as it gets.
MW: I really like cooking Italian food. It aligns with what I believe is the way, and it’s also how I like to eat. There’s a purity to Italian food, it’s not fussy, it’s very seasonal. Seasonality is key. If tomatoes aren’t in season, why are you using them?! There’s no flavour, nothing. But I don’t want to cook Italian food forever. There’s so much more out there that I’d like to explore.
HB: Is it more you cooking for yourself, or catering to patrons’ expectations? There’s always that artist’s dilemma.
MW: It has to be both. I’ve seen a lot of cooks that do this jerk-each-other-off sort of cooking, pushing the boundaries so hard that their food ends up being not delicious. That’s the only thing I’m after—is it delicious? Sure, it looks really cool but does it fuckin’ taste good? It’s always on my mind. It doesn’t have to be the next coolest technique, or the most trendy plating. Like, is it shrouded?! “Shrouding is sooo cool”. That’s not me, and not the way I impress people.
HB: It’s gotten to a point where the visual depiction of something trumps its essence—it’s flavour. We’re used to eating with our eyes first now. Would you agree that people’s first impressions are primarily shaped by what a dish looks like?
MW: I don’t agree. Maybe that’s why I’m drawn to Italian food in the first place. Because you can have the ugliest dish, and it can be so delicious. It’s a cheeky thing and I kind of love that. But at the end of the day, I do just cook for myself. It has to be perfect for me.
HB: I still think one should never [ever] disguise the main component of a dish.
MW: So you’re not into shrouding then?! [Laughs]
HB: Perhaps it’s a copy issue on menus that’s become a pet peeve of mine. If it’s tuna, let me see the fucking tuna.
MW: That makes sense. You don’t want to immediately disappoint someone either. I love making food look pretty, but don’t think it should be the number one consideration—it’s not my end goal. I don’t want to spend 10 minutes plating a dish, and then have the guest eat it, and just be like “How pretty”.
HB: There’s definitely a finesse to cooking, regardless of what something looks like. Then again, most Chefs are [recovering] perfectionists.
MW: There’s a sweet spot, and it’s so hard to get to that—that point where you’re truly happy with a dish. It rarely happens, but when it does, it’s euphoric—like a drug. I love that feeling, and it’s so difficult to achieve.
HB: Is that how you’d describe your time in Montreal, euphoric?
MW: [Chuckles] I just needed an adventure, a break from the island. I took French language classes and worked full-time. I feel there’s much more of a dining culture in Montreal. People are just willing to eat, experiment with food and taste different things. I feel they’re more open-minded.
HB: Would you say that mentality was also evident in the kitchens?
MW: My first job was at a shitty wine bar on Rue St. Denis. I hated working there, the owner, as well as the food. After a year I started working at Lawrence—the chef was British and we’d get in lots of whole animals, and make takes on British classics, which was really cool. It was really different, in a good way. I loved working there, and became the sous chef. I stayed there for two years and eventually made my way back to Vancouver. I missed my family.
HB: And here’s where our stories converge, just a tiny bit.
MW: [Chuckles] I needed some money; I was just off the plane. My sister worked in film so I got a job on a film set as a production assistant. It was the Metallica movie, called “Chaos 3D”. It was awful. Apparently, I’d done such a good job that the location manager decided to hire me again for their next project.
HB: I know where this goes.
MW: So I go to the address on the call sheet, and find myself at the entrance of this huge graveyard. My job was to guard the entrance, to prevent these cars from coming into visit their loved ones’ graves. People were so sweet, and they’d curiously ask “What’s filming?” and I had to tell them it was a TV movie called Restless Virgins. [Laughs hysterically]
HB: That’s a wrap on your film career.
MW: Exactly! I only did it for a couple of days. Soon after I walked into Wildebeest, off the street with resumé in hand, spoke with Dave Gunawan—the head chef at the time—who offered me a stage, and then a job.
HB: How’d you take to it?
MW: Wildebeest, at the time, was a crazy kitchen to work in because everyone rotated stations, and Dave believed in cooks working together, on an equal plane. So everyone performed similar duties—less hierarchy. We’d all rotate stations, and get to do a little bit of everything. It was a great learning experience.
HB: Must’ve been nice, being welcomed into this family after your graveyard gig.
MW: It was intimidating—there was something like 8 Michelin stars amongst all the chefs on our team. Dave was fresh out of In De Wulf, so there was a lot of Nordic influences on the menu. We had such a good team—Josh Blumenthal, Ashley Kurtz, now the head chef at St. Lawrence, my friend Brigitte Guerin at Railtown, as well as Wesley Young—the sous-chef at the time, now helming Pidgin. It was the hub of these young Vancouver chefs that are now blossoming into this Vancouver world. It’s pretty cool to see, and the whole experience was very eye-opening.
HB: Must’ve been a formative experience, being in an environment with that many epaulettes. And now that you’re the first woman to grace our presence [finally], I’m compelled to ask you about the problems women are facing in kitchens today.
MW: There’s a lot of problems for a lot of different people. You try and think of head chefs in Vancouver who are female, or identify as female, and there’s not a whole lot. A lack of female leaders is a big thing, specifically in Vancouver, I feel. And with that comes some problems. It’s a tricky thing for me to talk about because I’ve been very lucky—I’ve never had any major issues as a woman.
HB: I don’t know enough women in the industry to warrant your “luck” as an anomaly. The things I’m reading sure make it seem that way though.
MW: I get really confused about gender politics, and about how I should be treated—striving for equality in kitchens, yet being put on this pedestal of “You’re a woman, hence automatically at a disadvantage”. I get really confused and stressed out when I talk, or even think, about it. I don’t know how I should be; Should I be pushing for women to have more of a break in the kitchen? That doesn’t feel right either. I just want everyone to be treated the same. It’s hard to find a balance of how everyone should be treated.
HB: Have you had, or witnessed, any malignant experiences?
MW: If anything, it’s the opposite, like being coddled, or babied, like “It’s ok, you made a mistake”. Especially after seeing how some men were being treated by the same exact people. Why did this guy get reamed out, and I instead got babied?!
HB: Blatant, preferential treatment.
MW: It happens all of the time. Some women struggle, or are even bad at their jobs, and there’s this “She’s a woman, let’s cut her a break and nourish her a bit more into this role” sort of attitude by male chefs. If she can’t do it, she can’t do it. We’ve come to the point where it’s a little too much. Is that crazy for me to say?!
HB: I feel not. I’m certain many women in the industry would empathize with that view.
MW: If you call yourself a feminist—and I’m no seasoned feminist—and are pushing for equality, that’s not how I’d want to be treated. I don’t want to be babied. This is a kitchen, it’s fucking hard. You have to be good, you have to be strong, and you have to be able to do the job.
HB: And also deal with predispositions every fucking day.
MW: What I get all the time, is people not recognizing me as a leader, or as a boss. People would just assume that I’m not… Another thing that keeps happening is people walking up to me and thanking me for their dessert, which is so weird. Funny, because I actually made you dessert today! [Points at her Muscovado Steam Cake she prepared for an upcoming recipe for The Curatorialist]
HB: [Chuckles] Well, “thanks for the dessert”. I’ll have another bite actually! You’re fucking killing me with all that shaved butter though.
MW: [Chuckles] Please eat! I love baking, and dessert, but I’m not the pastry chef. Someone else is the pastry chef. It’s happened so many times. And I’m certain it’d be equally as frustrating for a male pastry chef. Nobody would suspect them as being a pastry chef. I had to write a bio for something once; this person sent me an outline and the first question was “When did you decide to become a pastry chef?” I’m like “Whoa, what the hell!”.
HB: Did you ever feel the need to overcompensate, supposedly to live up to certain expectations?
MW: You can’t be seen as weak. You have to be able to hold your own in the kitchen. You have to be able to lift things. It can be hard. I’m a girl—of course I like to be pretty. Girls are raised to be polite, and you want to be liked, but you have to push all that aside when you’re in the kitchen. You can’t be seen as someone that’s not serious, who’s not willing to put in the work, right?
HB: You seem pretty stoic on the line, I’ll say that much.
MW: I try to be really cool and calm when I’m on the line, and it’s an open kitchen, so I have to be. When I’m running service I really try to keep things even. I try not to raise my voice, just be even.
HB: So how is the change going to happen, in your mind?
MW: I think it falls on all of our shoulders. It’s not fair to say that the problem is men or women. It’s so complicated. I feel owners and chefs need to step up and shut that shit down. A zero tolerance policy for any of that shit. I’m getting to a point in my career where I’d like to practice what I preach—having that opportunity to be someone else’s mentor, and make a difference in their lives.
HB: I have a feeling younger cooks have a skewed perception of the industry. And mentoring would be the best way to break those preconceived notions.
MW: It’s definitely not a glamorous job. It’s gross—you’re dealing with fire, knives and burly dudes with tattoos. It can be intimidating for a woman. It can also get pretty dark. Time is my fucking thing—my heart of darkness. It’s so valuable, and I don’t have enough of it.
HB: What keeps you going then? What’s in it for you, ultimately?
MW: I love cooking, obviously. It’s a passion, but sometimes I wonder why I’m doing this, to be honest. [Chuckles] I have a friend who sort of gave up cooking and went into a 9 to 5 job. He kind of got burnt out, and now he’s working in an office. He always looks so relaxed.
HB: [Chuckles] You’ve made it so obvious that you’ve never worked a single desk job in your life.
MW: [Chuckles] It’s the grass is always greener scenario! You just get caught up in it sometimes. But I love what I do—constantly creating things. There are some days where I get to experiment with things like making mozzarella from scratch. Who gets to do that?! I’m always learning.
HB: I’m guessing your restaurant takeover in France was one such learning experience?
MW: It was an amazing experience, but very challenging. My friend Lina, who’s rising up the ranks as a chef in Paris, invited me to do this restaurant take over at a restaurant called Le Chardon in Arles, in the south of France. We had to navigate the market and figure out what to cook in just a couple of days.
HB: Isn’t France grand?
MW: I was thinking about moving to Paris for a hot second. I’m a little bit of an introvert, so I found it overwhelming to be in social situations. It’s a little too much sometimes, right?!
HB: I’m glad you didn’t join the mass exodus. It’s becoming a little frightening.
MW: Anyone who’s a quality cook will leave Vancouver… it’s almost guaranteed. It’s really sad, but that also means there’s a lot of room to come in. There’s so much that we can achieve, it’s just so unfortunate that it’s so goddamn expensive.
HB: How do you think Vancouver’s faring?
MW: I think we need more creative businesses. Money is a big problem. I almost feel like you can’t really afford to be a creative restaurant in this city because it’s too much of a gamble and it’s just too expensive. When you look at places like Montreal and Toronto with lower costs of living, you have that freedom to take risks. That being said, look at JuiceBar. It’s this underground thing, and it’s blowing up.
HB: Comradery and community are paramount.
MW: I love it here; I’m growing up with my peers and it feels really cool to have this network now. I love my community. I recently participated in this Greasy Spoon Supper Series with Eva Chin [Royal Dinette] and loved that brand of camaraderie. I’m not ready to give up on this city yet.
HB: I’ve spoken to some chefs who aren’t as impressed, or shall I say content, with community dynamics.
MW: I’ve also heard about that, but have never understood it. You can’t just expect there to be a community around you, you have to fucking build it, work for it. Do silly pop ups, cook on the beach for your friends, meet your neighbour, have a block party. Stop fucking complaining.
HB: And finally, what’s the dream?
MW: I don’t know if I ever want my own restaurant. If I did, it’d be a small scale thing. I want to have a family… kids. Is it possible? I don’t know. But I’m not going to die for cooking. I’m not going to kill myself. There’s a line I’m not willing to cross. And there’s some guilt that comes with that feeling. Regardless, we need to start talking about those things that we love. There’s so much room for everyone… so much potential.