Chef Duncan Ly and I spoke on the telephone… but I’m pretty sure I could smell what he was cooking in the background. For the full story:
Avenue: Top 40 Under 40, Class of 2014: Duncan Ly
Duncan Ly: “Cook with love”
Duncan Ly was washing dishes at the Wickaninnish Inn in Tofino when he smelled heaven.
“Bowls of West Coast chowder,” he says. “They were coming out of the kitchen, and then coming back to the kitchen—and the smell… the smell was wonderful.” It wasn’t just the smell that intoxicated him. “The presentation, the action on the line with the chefs—I was on the periphery of that, but I could feel it.” In that moment, holding a dirty dish in his hands, Ly decided, “That’s what I have to do.”
He’s been cooking ever since, in apprenticeship with some of the nation’s greatest chefs, on a dogged, upward career trajectory to becoming one of them. As the Executive Chef with the Hotel Arts Group, he oversees the kitchens of the Yellow Door, the Raw Bar, and the Chef’s Table at the Kensington Riverside Inn, award-winning kitchens all. The list of culinary medals, awards and recognitions he’s received in the last three years is almost overwhelming; his six consecutive years of winning medals at the Gold Medal Plate competitions—which raise funds for Canadian Olympic athletes—are a point of particular pride. So is getting the coveted Relais & Chateaux designation—Calgary’s first—for the Kensington Riverside Inn. The R&C group includes some of the most prestigious hotels and restaurants in the world, including many based at European historical sites. Plus, Ly started his career at an R&C property—as a dishwasher. Owning one 20 years later—kind of a big deal.
His first Calgary “gig” was at the Hyatt’s Catch, continuing his gourmet cuisine passion apprenticeship. His next career move flew in the face of conventional chef wisdom, as he left his Chef de Cuisine position at Catch to be executive chef at the Elbow Valley Casino. A casino? Really, Chef Ly? “But I saw it as an opportunity to be independent, to really spread my wings,” says Ly. “And it proved to be an excellent school. It taught me about big volumes, working with a big crew, coordinating different departments—I never would have gotten through the first days at the Hotel Arts without that experience.”
On a peak night, the Hotel Arts restaurants will serve 400 patrons at dinner, having previously fed 250 at breakfast and lunch. There may simultaneously be a 400-person breakfast and a 600-plate function in the hotel’s ballroom—and possibly a 1200-plate off-site function, such as the annual Schmancy fundraiser at the Glenbow. Since launching the enterprise in 2005, Ly and his partners at Hotel Arts have seen the properties’ and restaurants’ revenues grow by 500 per cent, and tripled the square footage of the restaurant space.
Through the Hotel Arts restaurants, Ly is challenging, changing and pleasing—dare he say, occasionally educating?—Calgarians’ taste buds. And, he hopes, doing his bit to put Alberta cuisine on the world food map.
Candidate: Duncan Ly
Job Title: Executive Chef, Hotel Arts Group
What makes him a Top-40: Leading the vanguard of determined, creative chefs who will put Alberta cuisine on the national and international foodie map, Ly takes risk, with his food, his business, and his overall approach to life, and Calgarians’ taste buds benefit.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?
Chef Andrew Springett used to always say to me, “Cook with love.” I’ve taken that to mean that, in whatever you do, whether it’s cooking, building a business, everything, do it with love and passion and put in 100 per cent into it. Anything that I do, I cook with love.
What’s the next milestone of success for you?
Alberta is such a great, growing culinary force, and it would be great to be part of helping tell the Alberta food story and putting Alberta culinary on the map. And, as I’m moving in my career from someone who was mentored by some amazing people to someone who mentors some great talent, an important milestone will be walking into the establishment of someone I’ve helped develop and seeing their success and eating their great food.