Immigrants often compose a large portion of a country’s struggling population. But for Karachi-born and Montreal-raised chef Kim Canteenwalla, success literally came knocking on his door when Buddy Valastro, star of the hit culinary reality TV show The Cake Boss, touched down at the world-famous Las Vegas strip and stopped by his restaurant Honey Salt. The trip sparked a partnership between the two men, which saw Canteenwalla take the helm as executive chef of Italian restaurant Buddy V’s Ristorante at The Venetian.
Article by Teenaz Javat | Tribune Pakistan
So, how did Canteenwalla reach the pinnacle of success in an industry as competitive as food and in a market as challenging as Vegas? “It all begins in Montreal, where I landed as an immigrant with my parents, older brother and twin-sisters in the late 1960s,” explains Canteenwalla. “Growing up, I saw my mother cook for six people every day after work. It was food cooked with a purpose — it was healthy and meant to fill our stomachs. But my love for cooking was inspired by my father who was a weekend cook.” Canteenwalla recalls visiting Montreal’s storied Atwater indoor market as a child to find fresh ingredients needed to create the Saturday suppers and Sunday brunches his father would whip up. “My father knew the precise cut of meat he wanted and would challenge our local butcher to do just that. These early morning expeditions to the butcher, the baker and the greengrocer sowed the seeds of not just enjoying the meal but having fun creating it as well.”
Canteenwalla’s family is of mixed heritage — his mother is British and his father is Zoroastrian-Pakistani. Thus, biryani, chicken and coconut curry chawal were weekend fare in the Canteenwalla home. The chef has paid homage to this culinary tradition by including a version of Nana’s Chicken Curry, a favourite of his son Cole, on the menu at his Las Vegas restaurant Honey Salt. He owns and operates the restaurant with his wife Elizabeth Blau, who is often referred to as Las Vegas’ restaurant maven.
Upon completing high school, Canteenwalla knew he wanted to make a living by cooking. While enrolled in the culinary programme at the Saint Denis Institute in Montreal, his internships took him to the edge of the eastern Arctic where he learnt to appreciate and create menus from ingredients as rare as caribou meat and whale.
Canteenwalla spent two summers in the Canadian Arctic only to realise that his future did not lie in preparing whale sushi and caribou stew. He then took off to travel to the cuisine capitals of the world, from Toronto to Phnom Penh, Bali, Singapore, Dubai and Bangkok in search for the perfect culinary combination that would blend with the melting pot of cultures and cuisines that is North America.
Canteenwalla manages to create 4,000 covers (individual meals) every night, more so on weekends. “It’s always busy in Vegas and when you are part owner and full-time manager of an outlet which carries the Cake Boss’s name, you have large shoes to fill,” he explains. Cooking up a menu inspired by the Valastro family, Canteenwalla is charged with preparing authentic Italian comfort foods such as a 14-layered lasagne made from scratch. The dishes have a simple premise: what would Buddy V’s large Italian family eat at a regular Sunday brunch?
While cooking is a passion, culinary art might just be in his DNA. A Google search revealed that towards the mid-1800s, British rulers of pre-partition India ordered all Indian subjects to take on two names — a given name and a surname. Many opted to add the name of their town or their trade to their given name. A Parsi gentleman, who owned and operated a cafeteria at Cotton Green, the old Bombay cotton exchange from where the British would load their ships with raw cotton bound for the spinning and weaving mills of Manchester, was given the name ‘Canteenwalla’ and the name has stuck ever since. This lineage comes as no surprise to Kim, as he recalls his late father being a fantastic cook, as well as his cousins and nephew, who is a chef in Toronto.
By virtue of Canteenwalla’s Parsi roots, our chat inevitably veered towards the ultimate Parsi comfort food: Dhansak. The brown rice-based dish features a lentil curry comprising vegetables, and chicken or mutton. Surprisingly, Canteenwalla could not recall having had this meal as a child and upon knowing how deeply entrenched it is in Parsi culture and cuisine, he was eager to try it. Of course, being the foodie that he is, he will whip up the traditional dish his way and says he will test out a recipe to see how well it could do on his restaurant’s menu. Don’t be surprised if you spot this iconic Parsi dish offered at a Las Vegas restaurant in the near future.
Teenaz Javat writes headlines, news alerts, tickers and tweets for a living. She tweets @TeenazFromTo
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, April 19th, 2015.