The Comeback: Legendary Rob Feenie Prepares to Open New Restaurant

Fifteen years after losing his celebrated restaurant, Lumiere, Rob Feenie plans to open another.

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After the spectacular loss in 2007 of the restaurant he founded in 1995 when he was 29 years old, Rob Feenie is ready to open another.

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Anyone who has been smitten by the food at the long gone but not forgotten restaurant Lumiere and its casual companion, Feenie’s, will remember their dramatic ouster by a business associate. He says he’s over it. Further he tries not to talk about it.

Lumiere had redefined fine dining in Vancouver and was unparalleled in its stunning aesthetics and controlled flavors. He later closed, in 2011, even with New York heavy hitter Daniel Boulud involved.

Rob Fenie.  Photography Paul Wilson.
Rob Fenie. Photography Paul Wilson. jpg

On the cusp of kicking off another opportunity to run her own show, it was time to catch up with Feenie.

Over the years, he has been the “food concept architect” at the Cactus Club chain, where he and his team brought food to the top of Vancouver’s competitive casual fine dining scene. It was hard to leave what became “his family,” he said, but he did in June. From a macro perspective, there were positives to his previous crash and burn. The 2008 recession hit shortly after he left, sabotaging diners with expense accounts and destination dining experiences. He has earned respect for the business end of things. And he has matured.

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“The few years I had intended to be at Cactus Club turned into 15,” he says. “Working in a company with 4,000 employees, I learned very quickly.”

Not just about business, but apparently about humility and perspective.

“I learned that it is important to be humble, hungry and smart, and to recognize and respect your people. You can’t get anywhere without them. I was picky and I still am picky, but I want to make sure I treat people with the utmost respect in a fun environment that they enjoy and don’t feel constantly watched,” she says. “I know that perfect is not possible. But excellence is.”

His new The restaurant opens sometime next year, but it doesn’t have a name yet.

It will be a part of my name. Feenies 1.0? From Rob Feenie? he asks rhetorically.

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And he doesn’t know where he will land.

“It’s the million dollar question. Most people prefer the West Side. This could also be where I live in White Rock. The city is so diverse these days that it could be anywhere.”

Wherever it is, the dining room will have the clean and sober lines of Lumiere. The food will have similar simple, clean and bright flavors with French, Japanese, Italian and Southeast Asian influences.

“I will do some different things, and some things that are familiar to people, and listen to what customers want, but my philosophy hasn’t changed. I don’t want to reveal my concept yet. I still want people to be surprised.”

From Instagram posts of dishes been trying, seems to be Lumiere’s ethereal food, but more casual. They have included branzino fillet with chanterelles, cauliflower puree and salsa verde, Chilliwack rack of lamb with compressed potato fondant, spinach mousse, cippolini onions and lamb jus, and green pea and mascarpone ravioli with grilled scallops and beurre white of truffle

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“I have been doing this for a long time. I know putting in long hours is hard on relationships,” she says.

After two marriages, he is now in a relationship with Amber Raynier, a “foodie”.

“You don’t have to work 14, 15 hours. You have to have balance and take care of yourself and your mental health. I need people to feel good,” she says.

He also learned to listen. In an operation like Cactus Club, “there are many more opinions, and that it makes you a better chef.”

Plus, these are nervous times for restaurants, with employee shortages, supply chain blunders, inflation, and a bear market putting the brakes on destination dining. And of course there have been some very good chefs cooking amazing food since his time at Lumiere. That would include JC Poirier, who once cooked for Feenie.

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To avoid the mistakes of the past, Feenie has relied on advisors to back him up, including Bob Matheson, a partner at the accounting firm DMCL and a veteran of the restaurant industry, and Jim Stewart, a former vice president and now an advisor to the Cactus Club, who turns out to be being the son of former Vancouver Police Chief Bob Stewart.

Branzini with chanterelles, cauliflower puree and green sauce.
Branzini with chanterelles, cauliflower puree and green sauce. jpg

He has been super careful with investors, be it a group or individuals.

“After the David Sidoo scenario, I want to make sure it’s a good choice. I want to have people who support me,” he says of his previous disastrous partnership.

“Right now, I’m looking for a good GM up front and a strong co-chef to work with me. Now there is nothing easy in the restaurant business.

His sons, Devon, 18, Jordan, 17, and Brooklyn, 14, are definitely a support troop. Devon is currently a cook at Cactus Club.

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“They all cook and are very skilled with food,” he says. “They want to be involved in some way. They would love it. None of them had a chance to participate before and I think they are more excited than I am,” she says, adding that they are aiming for a Michelin star. Or, two, depending on where it takes you.

“If that happens to me, I will be eternally grateful. I have dreamed of being a part of this, but I will be the first to congratulate others. I am excited that Canada is receiving recognition. It shows talent and it’s a good thing for all of us. Many restaurants have deserved it for a long time. But yes, it will reinforce kitchens for sure. People will want to execute more consistently.”

Feenie is thankful that the passion hasn’t waned and seems to have a deep drive. He spent his life as a child chasing the dream of being a professional hockey player.

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“I played with (ex-Vancouver Canuck) Cliff Ronning in Burnaby. I tried and I tried and I tried and I couldn’t do it,” he says.

She then moved into the kitchen, thanks to an alchemy forged from her mother’s kitchen, her aunt’s cherry orchard, childhood memories of a neighbor’s Japanese kitchen food, and a trip to Sweden when she was 16. .

“I love the cooking part, but what I like the most is the satisfaction of making people happy,” he sums up.

There’s no shortage of people looking forward to those “blissful” moments, judging by the number of strangers who come up to him when he’s away, excited to support his next adventure.


FITTINGS

On August 21, the BC chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier will hold a fundraiser for women in hospitality and BC food banks, receiving 50 percent of the proceeds.

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It’s as simple and fun as buying a picnic for two at participating restaurants in Vancouver, Penticton and Kelowna and enjoying a picnic in the sun with an entrée, two sides, dessert and wine, beer or cider, depending on the location.

Participating restaurants include L’Abattoir, Popina, Provence Marinaside, Published on Main, Fresh Ideas Start Here, Vij’s and others.

“Our industry has worked hard over the past few years to stay strong and now we want to show our support,” says Stephanie Jaeger, Escoffier’s board liaison. “Let’s raise a glass and have a picnic for a cause, supporting scholarships for women, the food insecure and the hospitality industry we couldn’t live without.”

Tickets can be purchased in advance through lesdames.ca/picnic-and-bubbles. Pickup is between 3:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. from restaurants.

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