Another installment of our How They Do It series! This time we’re getting into the kitchen with a real live chef.

Ryan Zuvich owns and operates Hilltop Bistro in Nanaimo, BC, but DH and I first met him when Ryan was opening his first successful venture in our town: Markt Artisan Deli. We would oggle his cheese selection and drool over his preserves and imported olives. DH had to work his way through all the meat products (oh, hardship). It was a little slice of heaven for us, going there. And then Ryan started to do lunch: deli sandwiches and sides and other goodies. We took Little e there when she was a few weeks old and she slept in her carrier while we had delicious plates of bread, cheese and sausage. Then Ryan started his dinner series, a monthly celebration of food that focused on a theme cuisine: Italian, French, German, Spanish… One big family-style table, course after course, good wine, good conversation. The whole thing was a hit–not just with us, but with customers all over town. Next we heard rumours of a restaurant, and while we mourned the loss of the deli as it was transformed into the Bistro, it’s hard to complain about something this good: Hilltop Bistro is now our favourite place to eat.

It’s been fun and fascinating to watch this part of Ryan’s career evolve and take off. We’re thrilled to be able to introduce him and his experience crafting delicious and artful food!

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First off, how did you come to be in the restaurant/cooking business?

Once upon a time I applied for a serving position at an up-and-coming restaurant. They promptly hired me as dishwasher. A trip across Canada and a few trips around Europe later, and here we are.

What about your work brings you the most joy?

Joy/satisfaction comes at the end of any day when everything was executed to the best of our collective abilities without one misstep. It’s elusive.

Who is your biggest supporter / cheerleader and why?

My biggest supporter is my wife. A close second would be my family. None of what I do would be possible without them.

What do you enjoy least about your work?

Negative people. Some people just like to complain. It’s hard with something as personal as food. It’s frustrating to send out a dish that’s been developed over months, that we know is good, and have someone compare it to the quality of a box restaurant or greasy spoon and complain about the price. Fortunately, that seldom happens.

What do you have to sacrifice or compromise in order to do the work you do?

As I get older I’m learning to sacrifice less. Though throughout my career I’ve sacrificed everything from relationships to my personal health all in the pursuit of being better.

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When did you know you wanted to do the work you do?

I wasn’t certain until my move from dishwasher to cook. Restaurants have a very social atmosphere and when everyone clicks and works towards a common goal it’s a special thing. A team sport basically. I was sold.

What do you still hope to achieve in your field? Secret dreams!

My biggest fault and greatest asset is my ambition. I feel like I’m at the tip of this huge world of food and wine. My not-so-secret hopes are more restaurants, different concepts, books, teaching, and more.

What quality do you think is the most important for a person to be successful in your field?

Passion. You have to love cooking at an obsessive level to stay, let alone excel, in this industry.

How do you juggle the work you do with your other demands or responsibilities?

“Juggling” is appropriate. Systematic prioritization. I write a list starting with the most important and cross reference that against the things that take the longest, and go. It’s satisfying when I finish a list, although most days it carries over.

Which book(s) made a big impact on your life? Why?

Too many to list, but career wise: Larousse Gastronomic, On Food and Cooking by Harold Magee. Molecular Gastronomy by Hervé This. All these at different times and because they mark turning points in my understanding of food.

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Who would be on your dream dinner guest list?

It would have to include Ferran Adrià, Thomas Keller, Hervé This, Harold Magee, Rene Redzepi…  I think they all have dinner together already though–they just haven’t got back to me with an invitation yet…

The best meal of your life was….?

I’ve been fortunate to have had some pretty exceptional meals, but a simple one that stands out is a pâté a friend and I made one afternoon while doing recipe development. It was amazing with fresh bread, mustard and a bottle of Chardonnay.

What is the most important non-food thing in your kitchen?

My knives. Without them I’d just be smashing things with my hands.

Sum up your life right now in three words.

Work in progress.

What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?

Have patience.

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Thank you, Ryan, for participating in our How They Do It series!

If you want to read more about Ryan’s great work, look  here and here. And if you’re on Vancouver Island, or will be sometime soon (a goal that should be on everyone’s list), drop by Hilltop Bistro. You can tell them Ria sent you. 🙂