KARRI SCHUERMANS

 …a beautiful inappropriateness & principum individuationis.  

Curator & Writer | Hakan Burcuoğlu · Venue | Chambar · Gear | Leica

A forlorn moon, and lonely skies befriended by curious constellation. Our night is waning; left is the scent of dying embers, the lingering smoke of ashed cigarettes, and the poignant perfume of potato chips. It’s late. So late we can hear the pond frogs fuck. But what’s an inundation of amphibian virility in the face of revelry? These are the love-children of Dionysus, a ragtag of impish lifers—chefs, industry, and everyone in between. Tightly nestled inside a wunderkammer tucked deep in the wilderness, suddenly, there’s a turn in parlance. Sitting in the corner, his eyes disguised under a cap, a chef renders wax poetic, “Karri and Nico… they were like godparents to me”. A forceful introspect, and a final pour of red. As nostalgia bleeds into wistfulness, we observe our silence. And even though the frogs have come to a halt, we remain sentient, beckoned by daybreak. So I fasten my wings and journey to the Sun. And in an utter reversal of fate, amidst dark coffee and crumbling cake, there appears Helios incarnate—“Good morning. I’m Karri”.

Though I’ve fallen victim to hubris, much like the ill-fated Icarus, the case of Karri, vis-à-vis Chambar, is one that demands heavy concessions to promulgated pontifications. Deeming “West-Coast safe” their anathema, Karri and Nico, alongside their bacchanal-inducing staff, have conjured up a cosmic brand of revelry—a phenomenon they’ve coined Civilized Debauchery—that [still] constitutes the single most unassailable blueprint for operational success in Vancouver today. It’s the telling tale of trickle-down gastronomics, and not a soul feels foisted. Over the last decade and a half, hundreds of Chambar alumni have bid adieu to their lodestar in search of new beginnings, bringing along with them the patois, and boundless bravura, they once helped forge at Chambar. Collectively, they’ve unfucked the complacency out of a town once painted in pastels.

I’m not in the business of lauding restaurants, it’s the people that compel me. And from where I stand, a posteriori, Karri is rara avis—an effusive spirit, a post-modern mother, and a boss [I’m told] you’d prison-shank yourself to work for. We’ve imbibed the Chambar story ad nauseam, but perhaps, this particular rendition of Karri’s life, and lore, proves to be the one never before witnessed.

Welcome to The Curatorialist, Karri Schuermans.

& & &

HB: Let’s start with provenance.

KS: From the beginning?

HB: From the beginning.

KS: My mother’s family didn’t want her to marry my dad because he was a “farmer hippy” who’d been busted for pot. So they shipped her to finishing school in Switzerland. But of course, he followed her there. They disappeared for four years, before returning to Canada, with me, much to everyone’s surprise. My mom was just 24—partying and having fun, as one does, at that age. My dad wanted to get on with it, so he “abducted” me [chuckles], and we embarked on a 5-year long journey through Central and South America.

Karri’s mother, Susan Cross, and father, Lloyd Green pictured with baby Karri. Waihi Beach, New Zealand. 1973.

HB: Those experiences into the unknown must’ve been pretty formative, especially at such a young age.

KS: It was idyllic. We spent quite a bit of time in Guatemala—we lived on a volcanic lake, washed our clothes on the rocks, ground corn… wove with women. I learned how to speak Spanish and ended up becoming my dad’s little interpreter. It was a primitive existence, yet it was so beautiful. The people in those small villages and communities live richer lives than we do in any Western country. I loved every moment of it, and still go back to visit quite regularly.

Karri pictured with her father, Lloyd Green. Ramona, California. 1977.

HB: What was the impetus behind this father-daughter journey?

KS: He was searching… for something. Perhaps some kind of meaning… or some sort of spirituality. I remember canoeing down this river, and then climbing up a hill with this weird umbrella tree where we met this man—in a turban, dressed in black—and a woman, covered in whites, anointing oils around a fire. I feel we all have that in our lives, searching for things we want to believe in. My dad was also in his early 20s at the time, and I don’t know many men that would take on a child, let alone travel with them into the unknown.

Karri climbs a ladder. Ramona, California. 1977.

HB: And then you thought you’d give the Kiwis a chance.

KS: Yes, we then moved to New Zealand, where I grew up on an orchard. It was a pretty idyllic childhood, very much immersed in nature—especially the ocean. Then we moved back to Canada when I was 14, to live in a place called Nanton—a small, rural town an hour south of Calgary. Ranches on one side, farms on another. The number one [Trans-Canada Highway] goes right through it—if you blink you’ll miss it.

Pictured left: Karri’s grandfather, John Green, on his ’44 Harley Davidson. Pictured right: Karri and her grandfather gearing up for a plane ride.

HB: And Nanton was your father’s hometown?

KS: Yes. My paternal great grandparents had come through Ellis Island to get their plot, and it’s amazing they survived, since they settled in this tiny log home, in the middle of the Prairies—a 2-day horse ride from any kind of civilization. They lived the pioneer life, and it was actually my grandfather who took farming operations to a whole new level. Not only was he a visionary, he was a pilot, flying all over, at the peak of the 80s. I used to fly tons with him, they were such amazing experiences.

Pictured left: Barossa Valley, Australia. Summer 1996. Pictured right: The Little House on the Prairie.

HB: What kind of farming was it?

KS: Grain… wheat, barley. He expanded the operations tremendously throughout his years. My maternal grandfather was also an ambitious man—one of the big four that started the Calgary Stampede, and the founder of Calgary Malt and Brewing which went on to become Molson’s. He was the first to import Mexican beer, to supply the pubs during times of prohibition. Eventually they became so indebted to him that he ended up owning them all, still keeping all of the workers under his wing. That family has always done well—all entrepreneurial minds.

HB: What had prompted your move back to Alberta farm country in the first place?

KS: My dad was asked to take over the family farm. And so he did, converting all of the operations into organic. He had that vision, and ethic. My father is a man of many talents, not to mention a masterful carpenter and builder. He built the initial Chambar—he’d come to Vancouver for three weeks but ended up staying three months. [Chuckles] This table we’re sitting at right now—it’s his creation.

The Red Booth, Chambar. 2018.

HB: It seems we both share an itinerant upbringing. My father was a diplomat, so I’ve lived in many different places. I loved every moment, but it was strange for me as a child, losing friendships, lacking those roots.

KS: I never lived in the same place for more than 2 years until moving to Australia in my mid-20s. So I was always jealous of those people who’d known each other since they were babies. I never had that. But it doesn’t bother me as an adult, because I have strong relationships with people. I think it’s the quality of the bond you have, rather than an obligation to stay in touch because you’ve been friends for a lifetime. It’s that ability to find your tribe wherever you go, because you feel a connection wherever it’s strong.

Left: Karri in her first year of college in Lethbridge, Alberta. Right: Karri, aged 17, in Victoria, Vancouver Island.

HB: Veering off the beaten path, flying on top of the world. Even a tiny house on the prairie. It all sounds so free-spirited. Is that also the case today?

KS: I can’t recall all of it, but I’m not a structured person. Even the way I raise my children probably isn’t as structured as other parents. I’ve never had a rigid nap schedule for my kids, simply because I never had one myself growing up. It seems confining, boring, and unnecessary. I get that kids need to sleep, and to be fed, and that the consequences of dropping sugar levels isn’t worth it. I do see nostalgia in regiment—like in Italy, where everyone in the village cooks the same thing on a certain day, and one day seamlessly rolls into the next. There’s something quite beautiful about that, but it’s just not the way I live my life.

Karri & her boys; Maxim, Zach and Nigel. 2016.

HB: It’s funny you say that since I’ve always had this perception of you as a very structured and regimented person. I guess I’ve made the wrong observation.

KS: You’ll chain yourself with structure and rigidity—it won’t leave room for creativity. As a mother, you can’t run a business and maintain rigidity around scheduling. We have values that can’t be rules. It’s not black and white, it’s that space in between, so if there’s a priority my business needs of me today, I’m not going to suffer because I can’t be present with my children. And at a time my kids need me more, I’ll push and not feel guilty that I’m not at work. Certain things can wait, and having that flexibility by prioritizing—it’s almost like running your whole life like a business. If you put good systems in place—ones wrapped in a bow and ready to go—you won’t be a slave to the operations. I like things that are turnkey.

Karri & Nico hold a production meeting. Chambar, 2018.

HB: But I’m certain it wasn’t always this way. It takes experience to systematize, not to mention perfecting those nuances of prioritization you speak of.

KS: It took me 10 years to figure it out—opening Medina and The Dirty Apron, amongst others. It kept getting bigger and bigger. I love to work at a high capacity, but I got bored, and realized it wasn’t what I really wanted. So I scaled things back. If you want to physically manifest your values in the world, a restaurant is not enough. Either you stay in the business—and never get to do that—or create a system that enables others to do so. Hopefully one where people find pleasure, without making them slaves to the things I was trying to leave behind.

HB: And by doing so, they become successful contributors to the model.

KS: We’re all on the same team. It’s not this hierarchical power structure. You have to have appropriate authority for responsibility. If you give people a bunch of power, and not enough responsibility, they become tyrants. Contrarily, too much responsibility without authority makes it impossible for people to get things done. The key became looking at every single task in the business and making sure somebody owned up to it. It’s all about balance.

Chambar Bike + Drinkathon Staff Party, 2008. Persons of interest from left to right; Roger Collins, Paul Grunberg, Pat Hennessy, Josh Pape, Linn Turner, Matt Zuccaro, Mark McNeill, Guillermo Pureza, David Robertson, Tia Kambas, Christopher Merrick

HB: What is it you’re looking for when you’re hiring?

KS: It takes exceptional people to run an exceptional business. If some chain restaurant can have girls dressed with like, not much, I mean… really?! You all happen to be hot, and you all happen to dress with like, nothing on? There needs to be some kind of hidden mandate. But I’ll mandate working with good characters. There’s energy when people have good character—not vanilla—and not high-compliance necessarily, because they’ll push back. They’ll have something to contribute.

HB: Conformity is kryptonite.

KS: A business should have shared values. If I can find somebody who shares our values, they can learn the skills. If they have the tenacity and passion, I’d rather invest in skilling them up rather than hiring someone who’s super easy to manage, who’s never going to argue with me, or never going to stand up for what they believe in. It’s their energy that makes this place. You have to give people creative expression to be who they are. I don’t want robots. When you eat it’s about having human connections, so why would you have people just come in and do things in a very specific way? I’d understand if you’re dealing with multiple locations—that need for consistency in training. But I’m not trying to push people into something. Businesses need to evolve, constantly.

Karri in Ravello. Amalfi Coast, Italy. 2016.

HB: And being able to achieve that takes a certain kind of mind. You really enjoy the meta. It seems you have a knack for the bigger picture.

KS: Yeah, I’m probably like that kind of earth and air without any water in between. I love to put my head in that space, attempting to solve big and complex issues, where you rise up to get a bird’s eye view of everything. I also love to get my hands dirty with intricate details, but what I don’t enjoy as much, is operations. I prefer jumping back and forth between those spaces. It’s like being on a seesaw; when you’re just sitting on one side it’s not much fun, but if you can bounce up and down from one extreme to another, it can become exhilarating. I suppose that’s my kind of balance.

HB: Can you indulge me a little with regards to the nascent stages of opening Chambar?

KS: I’d started an organic clothing line, manufacturing t-shirts with political statements. I was ready to scale, and sought out to raise 5 million dollars in funding, but the partners weren’t ready to go there. Nico was unhappy—he was working under people who didn’t recognize his skills, and it was frustrating for him to work for people who didn’t care. He’s so passionate, and cooking is his art. And I had those skills he didn’t have, so I thought the only thing that would save our marriage, and make him happy, would be to open Chambar.

Karri & Nico at Burning Man. Nevada, 2003.

HB: Seems like your timing was right on, considering the restaurant landscape in those days.

KS: There were chains, a few ethnic restaurants and fine-dining establishments. It was either West Coast—safe—or French fine dining. Lumière was probably the restaurant, but it was so expensive and stuffy—sit up straight… which fork do I use? The formalities seemed so elitist and I felt like you had to be from a certain demographic to frequent those restaurants.

HB: So your intention all along was to achieve a concept that was neither mainstream, nor haute-cuisine—a playful hybrid of sorts.

KS: It was a bore to eat out in those days, and we wanted to take on that challenge—how do we make it fun, and loud, and not have this “look down your nose” attitude in a space that looks like my grandmother’s living room. And most importantly, how do we serve fine-dining quality food for under $20? Though food costs have skyrocketed since we’ve been in business, to this day, we keep our prices under Earl’s.

HB: What was your first step after deciding to embark upon this journey?

KS: I went to the city and researched their development strategy, learning of imminent plans to build 2000 units within a block of Beatty Street. Density was important, if we wanted to achieve our goal of becoming a destination restaurant. Plus, we couldn’t have afforded the then “glitz and glamour” of Yaletown. It didn’t attract me, and I found it on the verge of being tacky and cheap. When we first opened, people were like “It’s scary, don’t park there”. This neighbourhood had that connotation. Now it’s a different story.

HB: And then came penning your famous, open source business plan.

KS: I locked myself into a warehouse for 2 months, listened to DJ Z-Trip’s music for 12 hours a day, and wrote our business plan. I did financial modelling, and embedded into it an extensive marketing plan. I wanted to make things clear for myself—to identify every single risk. And I knew I could get money with it. So we went for it, starting with a $5000 preapproved credit card, and nothing else.

Building Chambar, 2004. Pictured left: Karri’s father, Lloyd Green.

HB: And you recoursed to your father—the master builder—as well as friends to help with building the [old] space?

KS: We basically built it ourselves, with the help of my dad, key trades and some friends that came. Though it took longer than expected, we had a great experience because it was family, not big contractors who were used to working with developers or designers. We’d get dirty and sweaty, and go out for a beer. There’s this crazy bond we have with everyone who became a part of that experience.

HB: You’d once told me “I appreciate things with a lot of effort put into them”. I’m guessing this is what you meant.

KS: It’s true, I do appreciate a mitered edge. I care about aesthetic, and for people who are passionate about their craft. Details matter to me, and when I’m choosing trades, I’m looking for how much they care about what they do.

Karri in Venice. 2009.

HB: I’ve come to learn, and appreciate, the process behind making spaces. Nothing should be arbitrary.

KS: Before visiting Venice, a friend suggested I read Casanova, since Venice was his domain, and the places mentioned in the novel are in existence to this day. So I’m strolling down the streets, searching for these landmarks where these voyeur experiences had taken place. But all of a sudden it started raining and I lost my way. The streets flooded and I was knee deep in water. So I walked into this hardware store for directions. It had this majestic cave filled with pigment, and I’m like [gestures Wow]. There was this unique, deep colour of teal. And I know it’s one of the most impossible colors to achieve. The shopkeeper said it was a color unique to Venice, and that the boat garage doors of underground bars were painted in that specific shade of teal.

The Bar, Chambar. 2018.

HB: That same shade of teal that adorns your bar.

KS: I wanted our place to signify that, to be underground in its mentality—a place where it gets a little wild, and a bit crazy, and where sometimes parties go till late. So much of what’s in here is sentimental, and personal.

Karri helms a production shoot. Chambar, 2018.

HB: Perhaps this is the perfect segway to ask you about your motto, “Civilized Debauchery”.

KS: I was working on a promotional flyer for a New Year’s Eve party and needed some sort of slogan for it. Talking to Quentin [Kayne], who’d started as a server and later became manager, I heard him say “This place is like civilized debauchery”. It instantly stuck. That was it. Those two words perfectly captured our brand of fun. And I like the spontaneity of it as well. It’s like our bartenders on most nights; instead of yelling “last call”, they see people are having fun so they just amp it up for another hour. Wendy [McGuinness] was the best for that. She’d just crank it up, and everybody would follow suit. It’s what we’re about. Sometimes, we can amp it up. [Chuckles]

HB: Apparently you amp it up quite high.

KS: Our New Year’s parties are loose! [Laughs] Right before we moved in into our second [current] space, for our 10th year anniversary, I wanted to throw a big party for our staff. So we scribbled party details on T4 slips, and instead of goodie bags we had a bucket overflowing with joints. What rules are stupid? Those are the rules we should break. I feel like Vancouver has way too many, and they’re made for assholes. It would take way less effort to punish assholes than regulate rules. So I’m like fuck the rules. What can we get away with? I like to push, to see what we can get away with.

New Year’s Party at Chambar. 2015.

HB: Have fun, but don’t be an asshole.

KS: It’s saying how do you responsibly have fun? Like go crazy, go off, but don’t get so mangled you’re beating people up. It happens that it goes too far, but wherever there’s suppression through rules is when things get toxic. If people have a chance to freak out a bit, they’re far more relaxed. And if we’re always constrained by rules, it becomes stifling.

HB: I lived in Montreal before moving here in 2010, and I remember being completely baffled by some of the rules and regulations in restaurants and nightclubs in Vancouver.

KS: Our intention is to be a cultural contribution to this city, so it’s also an effort to push the stupid rules just enough that some of them just go away. Because we’ll realize some are just not necessary. Some rules have changed so much since we’ve opened. Back in the day you had to have this imaginary line, and people weren’t allowed to drink unless they were in that one area. It was like prohibition. If you want to go to church, go on a Sunday, but not on a Friday night. Just drink all you want, and stop treating adults like children. It’s all gone.

Chambar’s Grand Re-opening with Bengamin Lesprerance, Ryan Lyndsay Rossitier, Danielle McAlpine, Lauren Maxwell. 2014.

HB: Lawmakers don’t party I guess.

KS: That’s fine, they don’t have to come. But don’t be the regulators also. I moved here from Sydney, where you can go clubbing at 6 in the morning. I always thought the constraints here were stupid. It felt like this weird social engineering by very conservative people who were making the rules. Sometimes it feels good to get drunk, have great sex, and have a really good time, then you’re going to be so much happier. It’s good for the soul to let loose.

HB: I’m compelled to ask you about some of the challenges of moving into this current location from your first one, just two doors down.

KS: It was pretty rough because some of our staff—who were like family—were disrupted by being in a bigger place and felt it wasn’t as intimate for them anymore. On the contrary, the new staff were overjoyed at the opportunity. But it was disappointing to hear things like “I don’t think I can work here. It’s too big, it’s not Chambar”.

Upstairs lounge, Chambar. 2018.

HB: That must’ve been hard to process.

KS: It is different than what it used to be, but maybe we’ve evolved, and you’re holding onto a nostalgia of what we were. Our values and intentions, the energy that’s here, will continue to have depth, and evolve. So maybe you’re not Chambar anymore. It’s like having children—you give them all your love, and then you have another one, and you’re terrified you’re going to have to split your love in half. But your heart just ends up getting bigger. So coming into a bigger space was just that. One of that staff came to me a few months later and said “I get it. It’s here, the essence is here, it’s just bigger”. I’m like “Yeah”, we’re just spreading the love.

Ben Hawthorne, Tannis Ling, Yacinne Sylla, Lynne Turner, Lauren Maxwell, Josh Pape, Derek Granton, Wendy McGuinness, Rodney Scharf, David Fesq.

HB: I get that resistance. And it seems benign to me, just trying to hang onto something good. There’s culture there.

KS: We’re not just a restaurant. We want to contribute to the culture of this place—showing people how to have good values, take pleasure in their work, and have fun doing it. You should like who you’re working with, and you should also enjoy yourself.

HB: This industry has always had a reputation of being quite possessive and cagey. But you’ve been nothing but the contrary—sharing your business plan, even assisting alumni with their private endeavours.

KS: My favourite thing about this business are the people, and I care about them having success and happiness in life. It’s only natural they’d want more of it. It doesn’t make sense for me to possess someone, or to refrain from sharing information. We can have open source data and open source leadership, but people still need to find their own language of doing things, just like artists find language in art. I’d be kidding myself if I thought people want to be lifers in a restaurant. But for those who want that life, the more the merrier. If somebody worked here and went onto opening their own restaurant, they’re going to raise the bar and make this city better as a culinary destination. I don’t see it as competition, we’re sharing this community.

Chambar Staff Party at Federico’s Supper Club. Vancouver, 2012.

HB: How do you think we fare in terms of camaraderie? Do you feel we’re doing a good job repping our community, and this city, as a whole?

KS: I find the restaurant industry to be a great community, but restaurants are operationally intense and people don’t have time to socialize. You’re lucky to spend time with your family or friends, let alone reach out and do things in your community. Chefs have a lot of ego—the majority of which are men—and alpha-men usually don’t go looking for friends. They’re deep thinkers, and not as social because they’re always exhausted. There aren’t many chefs in the city who are exceptionally social, or charismatic. A few, but not many. The camaraderie exists more within kitchens—sharing in the suffering, and being in the trenches type thing where it’s like “We went to war together, and now we’ll share a beer”.

HB: [Chuckles] Nothing like finding endless pleasure in suffering.

KS: There’s something about human nature, that if you’ve suffered together through some kind of adversity, there’s a deep bond there. That’s why restaurants have this beautiful inappropriateness. We have zero tolerance for racism, or any other malignance—we’re all equal here, we’re human, but we’re also not in an office environment where everybody has to pretend to be so nice and politically correct all the time. It’s refreshing. People are professional because they do their jobs, and work hard, not because they don’t have fun. We’re not these stoic sticks, and I love this industry because it can be so harmlessly inappropriate.

Chefs Alex Ploughman, Deniz Tarakcioglu, Christopher Merrick & Victor Pulleyblank. Photo Credit: Scott Little

Chambar Staff Party on Gambier Island. On chair; Connor Temmerman, with Patrick Monahan, Lauren Maxwell, Jesse Johnson.

HB: What you’ve achieved serves as a benchmark for many people wanting to open up, or improve, their own places. But many go bust. Why do you think it’s such a precarious business?

KS: Restaurants fail because the people opening them have no awareness, or understanding, of running the operations of a business. As a manager, you can be running the business—operationally—but then you have budgeting, financial strategy, concerns around growth capital, layers of marketing, understanding brand, paying attention to the economy—and trends—as well as behavioural change. If you don’t know how to read a profit and loss statement, you have no idea where your cash flow is. The majority of restaurants go under because they’re unable to foresee problems with cash flow, and cannot properly react upon it. It’s constantly looking ahead to see what’s happening, and keeping it all in line. Most people don’t have these skills; say they’ve worked their way from a server to general manager, and they’ve found someone willing to invest in them, but if you’re a GM you don’t have time to do all that. You’re dealing with restaurant operations, not with what’s required from a business standpoint.

HB: What advice would you give to a young chef who’s had it with working under people, and eager to open their own place?

KS: We winged it too, kind of. There was so much we were naive about. But if you have the tenacity to figure stuff out, you’ll be fine. You have to ask people who know more than you, and have the capacity to be vulnerable enough to look stupid, and go get help. You can pretty much pick up the phone and call anyone in the city and ask “Could I have some advice please?”. I doubt anybody will say no. I still, to this day, ask for advice. And I also give my time for others. Just go find the answers.

Karri holds a production meeting. Chambar, 2018.

HB: Looking back, had you ever harboured doubts about where this was all going?

KS: We were betting on business from the hockey games, but the year we opened the league went on strike, which became a blessing because we got to establish our own personality and character, as opposed to being a “hockey place”. I feel we would’ve been defined by that, had it happened. But we had some challenges from the get-go—being short on cash, over budget, as well as an investor pulling out last second. So I had to tell suppliers, “If you shut us down you’ll never see our money, give me the opportunity to pay you back”. And I always showed up with their cash. Overall, it was tiring—we’d fall asleep on the red banquettes after service. At the end of our first month we had $11 left in the bank.

HB: What would you have done had it not worked out?

KS: I probably would have gone back into the corporate world. But I’ve never been concerned about something failing. I’ve always had the mind of “Never think you cannot succeed, but know you could fail”. Keeping that in mind, your risks are in front of you all the time, because you’re actively looking. It’s not a fear-based thing, but you can either keep on top of it, or bleed out the side, then it’s too late you don’t even know it.

HB: What are you most proud of? Is it that you’ve engineered a sound, profitable business, or perhaps something more sentimental?

KS: Beating the stats of actually being open to the point of being considered an institution is a huge compliment, but I feel proudest for being a homebase to people who’ve worked here, and to have had so many meaningful connections with people. Somehow they all loop back, and it’s such a pleasure to see how people’s lives have evolved—having their own families, and businesses, and how they’ve moved into these other spaces. Even if I see them seldomly, I feel that sense of community which is something I’d never had. We didn’t do this for the money. People have a skewed perception of this business, but if they could see the costs, they’d understand how small the profit margins are. I’m most grateful that I can have flexibility with my time—to be with my family, and to travel. Doing those things that are fulfilling to me personally.

Kerala, India. 2011.

HB: You seemed to have really mastered the work/life thing.

KS: When I was stuck in the day to day operations, I had this realization that I didn’t need to be a slave to the business. I felt like I was sacrificing motherhood, and that nothing I was doing was ever enough. I think we all have this insatiability somewhere inside of us, but with what I’m doing now, that has lessened. When you connect to doing something that is purposeful and meaningful, it’s the difference between working to survive, to financial freedom, to giving. I sacrificed a lot, which I can’t get back, before figuring that out. But I can still make up for it.

HB: One thing that becomes apparent is that you’re vehemently opposed to the status quo. And in light of Chambar’s success, what are some new challenges you’re willing to face?

KS: I pulled back from participating in social media because I felt we were adding meaningless content just for the sake of it. It felt hollow and empty, to the point where I said “I can’t contribute to this”. It’s wrong, and we’re wasting people’s time. I’d gone to Italy for an archaeological food workshop where I learned about the origins of, and connections surrounding, food. That connection is still very much in existence there—something I feel that we’ve lost here. At Chambar, we’ve been committed to seasonality from the beginning, so I’ve been compelled to show people how much goes into what you’re getting on your plate.

HB: The anatomy of a dish, so to speak.

KS: To just look at your plate and pause, and somehow expose that the greens are from this beguiling farmer who walks barefoot, and that the mushrooms come from a fiercely protective French forager who doesn’t speak a word of English, who walks around heartbroken. We want to tell those stories—make that connection—and support these passionate people. But also chronicle the process—how are mussels grown? And why we don’t order them from certain areas because of the tides needing to stay cold. We’re creating content around understanding our environment, and food systems, and the efforts of those cultivators. You might have 16 things on your plate, not realizing that each one has a sub-recipe that was prepared separately. The flavour of our lamb is consistent because it’s been the same guy cooking it for over 12 years, who also won’t let Nico change it. [Laughs] I just want people to pause and think, and to appreciate what’s there.

Karri & King Crab. Nuquí, Colombia. 2012.

HB: You’ve also made some noteworthy strides with the Vancouver Economic Commission in the hopes of transforming Vancouver into the leading smart green region in North America.

KS: I went back to school to study sculpture, and was making social comment with my art. I realized it wasn’t so much about social commentary, but about making social change. A lot of that was assessing my relationship to power. To me power is evil and manipulative. But what if it’s not about force, but your capacity to make change? This is an amazing part of the world, and we can say we’re so much further ahead than other people, but I’ve never been one to look around and compare. Leadership is open source now, and we don’t need to go into political type power because I feel like the system’s broken.

HB: And so you felt the urge to become an active force behind this impetus.

KS: I care about the future for myself, and for our children. And this project with acclaimed economist Jeremy Rifkin provided a concrete opportunity for change—the best technical and academic minds of our region creating a transitional roadmap towards a third industrial revolution of achieving renewable energy. We’re in such a bubble in Vancouver; we don’t understand what’s it like to be in places with zero infrastructure. And because of how lucky we are, we have a responsibility to uphold. Where are the climate refugees going to go? They’re going to come here. I like to think about the hard things, and take responsibility for them. I’m ready to lead in that realm, and think this is the way to do it.

HB: You know I’m partial to the Chambar crew. Friends like Deniz Tarakcioglu and Alex Ploughman, who’ve cut their teeth here, have helped us tremendously in growing this platform over the past year. I won’t name names, but I have friends who think of you and Nico as godparents, as well as countless others who can’t stop talking about their time here—be it professionally or otherwise. There’s so much love for you, and for this institution you’ve created. So I’m compelled to ask, how does it really make you feel?

KS: It’s so heartwarming that people can say that, but we’re simply holding up a mirror to what those people are capable of, and perhaps weren’t in a space where they were getting that. Whatever you feel is inside yourself, so we can just be honest with them—of what they’re capable of being. I don’t know who said it, but there’s a saying that goes “If we accomplished what we were fully capable of, we would astound ourselves”. You don’t define yourself by who you are here, you define yourself by who you are and what you do. Perhaps, subconsciously, we’ve also given people a little push—it’s an unconscious part of our culture here.

24 Hour Fundraiser at Chambar. 2016.

HB: Perhaps it’s also a coming of age thing for people—that they get to witness that part of themselves while having worked here.

KS: A lot of people who come here are on the party train—they’re young. Some may run into addiction problems or just peter out, or leave, but they all see the depth that exists in this space—like a bit of a filter—to come through into their own. It’s a natural transition that happens and we get to be a womb for that. There’s been so many people who’ve had these little pivots in their life during their time working here. And I love that, it’s beautiful. But I can’t take credit for it. It’s their age of realizing there’s more, and they just push and do it. People say “I’m sorry but I really want to go travel”, to which I say “As you should”. Not holding onto people is important. It’s always sad when they leave, because it’s the end of an era, or you just love having their company around. But the people you’ve mentioned are exceptional people I truly adore. I don’t get to see them that often, but when I do, I know I’ll start where we left off. Having this extended family is so lovely.

Karri with her sons, Maxim and Nigel.

HB: And finally, what’s the ultimate dream?

KS: I grew up on the beach and sometimes I have this romantic notion of going back to that— just to have this really slow life… maybe garden. [Chuckles] But I’m not ready for that yet. There are just too many interesting things to do. Right now I’m much more interested in leading and mobilizing, than I am in watching.

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