Food with an Attitude

The new Mad Chef Café offers casual dining with an edge.

To Beverly Chalk, no matter what kids go on to do in life, an early exposure to the performing arts is a huge gift.

Chalk, recently appointed president of the North Island Festival of Performing Arts (NIFPA), sees first-hand how beneficial the arts can be. “If gives self-confidence, they have to find their strength and inner core and young people do that intuitively when they engage in learning a piece of prose, a hip-hop routine, a tune—whatever it is,” she says. “The sooner they start the better. If fine arts are introduced later in life, too often teenagers are blocked from their creativity because of self-consciousness, a feeling that it’s not ‘cool’, which isn’t there in young children.

“I see the positive attitude that all these young people have, the huge sense of accomplishment they feel after their performances,” adds Chalk. “I think performing arts can help a young person form their ideas of who they are, before something else comes along to do that.”

The North Island Festival of Performing Arts provides an ideal opportunity for kids to get their feet wet performing in front of audiences and adjudicators. A non-profit society, NIFPA has been dedicated to providing this annual festival for students of the Comox Valley and surrounding communities for more than 30 years. Last year 17 students were chosen to represent NIFPA at the Provincials. The adjudicating portion of the festival takes place in February; following this are two grand finales—an Honors Concert, which will be held February 26, and the Dance Gala, to be held February 27.  These concerts also act as fund-raisers for NIFPA bursaries and scholarships.

NIFPA’s goal is to advance, promote and develop the performing arts in its various forms, and to encourage performing arts as an adjunct to community life.   Performing arts include Ballet, Stage Dance, Modern Dance, Brass, Woodwinds, Strings, Ensemble, Speech Arts, Choral Speech, Piano, Voice, Choirs and Fiddle.
Chalk, along with fellow board members—including Carol Martin, who recently took on the role of education and publicity—are keen to have more local involvement in NIFPA. “We want to get the word out that it’s a friendly, supportive festival, open to anyone who has the desire to perform a piece of prose or poetry, tell a story, play an instrument or dance,” says Chalk. “That includes adults too! Anyone is welcome to enter and it’s not necessary to be given a mark; a few adults enter just to have the benefit of the critique from the adjudicator.”

Small wonder, as there are many highly experienced and qualified actors, musicians and dancers sitting in as adjudicators, offering a wealth of knowledge. Jonathan Love is a stage and screen actor who has also dubbed for cartoons. Professional ballerina Erica Trivett, who has recently returned to Vancouver after years in Europe as a soloist and choreographer, will be sharing her insights with young dancers.

So You Think You Can Dance, the popular TV show, is possibly the biggest spur dance has had since the days of big bands, when everyone went out dancing. Sherrie Scherger, assistant choreographer to Sean Cheesman—who gives the dancers their moves for the show—will also be in Courtenay as the adjudicator for Stage, along with hip-hop professional Kim Sato. Sato likewise has a long list of credits to her name, both live and in movies and videos.

“It’s a tremendous opportunity for any performer, particularly if there’s a desire to go on and be a professional,” says Chalk. “These adjudicators are living proof that it is possible to make a living in the performing arts. We want to encourage anyone at all to enter and get the benefits of both performing, then having a critique afterwards. We want to encourage performing arts as an adjunct to community life.”

Participants come from as far north as Port Hardy, south to Parksville and east to Port Alberni. In February the Sid Williams will be buzzing with Festival performances. Speech Arts begins on February 1; the following week is strings, guitar and piano; the third week ballet and modern dance, with stage and hip hop the fourth week.

Audience drop-ins are invited throughout the Festival with the understanding that they will be seeing a series of performers who will be adjudicated—different from a show, with lights and non-stop performance.

Well established in the Comox Valley, The North Island Festival of Music was formed in 1977 by piano teachers from the Comox Valley and Campbell River. The name was changed to North Island Festival of Performing Arts in 1992, to better reflect all the disciplines involved. The organization is part of a not-for-profit charity under the umbrella of Performing Arts BC, which was established in 1964.

Many families are involved with parents and children attending the Festival, keen to participate and display their talents. One family travels from Campbell River weekly to receive coaching from someone who has been instrumental in the high standards and success of the Festival.

Eleanor Philips, despite being in her 80s, is still a dedicated teacher in speech arts. “The success of our children in competition has to be shared with Eleanor,” says parent Loreen Johnson. “She’s been marvelous.” All Johnson’s four children are currently involved in performing arts and are keen Festival goers. Carter is 13 years old and won the piano prize in the BC Provincial Festival last year; brothers Spencer 11, and Caleb, 5, and sister Sophia, 8 all compete in the speech arts, with the two oldest boys competing musically as well. This year, Spencer is part of a guitar group ensemble and is also playing two solo pieces. He has been playing for four years and thoroughly enjoys both practicing and competing. “I like being on stage,” he says simply. “I like performing in front of my parents and grandparents and all the other kids.”

Caleb is working on two poems, as well as a piece of prose and a monologue for this year’s Festival. “They’re funny, and I like making people laugh,” he says.
Their mom is enthusiastic about the benefits of performance at a young age. “It really imbues young people with a sense of confidence,” she says. “I think public speaking is the best gift to give kids. As well as building their confidence, it enhances their verbal skills.” The Johnson family is perhaps the most prolific in terms of entries and this year the Johnson children will participate in 21 categories at the Festival. Last year they carried off 15 firsts out of the 17 categories they entered in.

“The Festival isn’t just about picking the best though,” Chalk points out. “Sometimes a child may not be chosen for first place, yet the adjudicators recommend they go on to participate in the BC Provincial Festival. If they believe that the child will benefit from wider exposure to the artistic world, then that child goes on to the next level of competition.

This indirect education is an important part of the Festival, Chalk adds. “It’s not just about choosing the best. I like to see children given opportunities and I’ve been battling this in the schools systems. Too often the same children are given lead roles, time and again—why? It should be a place for encouraging and grooming children’s desires to do well and participate in the arts. How is little Janey or Jimmy to know whether or not they like being on stage—and most children do—if they’re not given the opportunity?”

As one might expect, Chalk’s own children all participate in the performing arts. Kaitlin, now 16 years old, and a past performer in dance, is a volunteer at this year’s event, time-keeping being one of her tasks. Her younger sisters Courtney, 14, and Cassidy, 8, will be dancing.

Chalk herself grew up in a family that sang and played devotional music. Her dad was a band teacher with the Salvation Army and as a young girl Chalk was more than happy and willing to go to band boarding school for three weeks in her summer holidays. “I began playing an instrument in Kindergarten and music was always a part of my upbringing,” says Chalk, who performed in her first musical when she was six years old.

“If young people aren’t ever exposed to piano playing, singing, dancing, whatever, how can they know they have a desire to do it? If they’re lucky enough to have a music teacher in primary school they can be part of a show or a concert, but that’s a bit hit and miss. Sparking that creativity at an early age is crucial, I think.”
President of NIFPA for a year, Chalk recognizes that she is able to build on a strong foundation built up by past president Collette Marshall, known to all as Sam. “Sam was the president for 12 years and she and the board have established the Festival of Performing Arts as an organization with high standards of excellence. I’m pushing the envelope a little further, by reaching out to the wider community of the North Island to participate and support this Festival. I could not be enjoying what I’m doing right now if things had not been brought along to this stage.”

To that end, Chalk and the board are changing things slightly this year. “There is a re-definition of the categories—musical, vocal and speech arts are no longer lumped together; they each have a separate category. With the adjudication, we’re getting the word out to participants through their teachers that it is only one person’s opinion—we all have our pet likes and adjudicators are no different.

“We’re seeing this as an interpretation of a performance piece, and marks are never publicly announced on stage. I sensed that the public was a little intimidated by the process, and we don’t want that. We want to be seen as the organic, approachable living organism we are, rather than a staid and rigid body. The adjudication process is that after the performances in a particular class, all the kids are called back to the stage and the professionals in their field will give feedback to them all. The classes are broken into age categories as well, and professionals are not eligible for grants or bursaries. Placements will also not be announced at that time. We want to change the focus of the kids from being first to participation. Too often they don’t hear any of the remarks made by the adjudicators once they’ve been told their mark,” says Chalk.

“Dance is generally a group activity, but more often the music and speech are individuals. There is now going to be a grouping of kids who don’t want to be graded or given a mark on their efforts, but only receive adjudication. It’s all about the kids and educating them. I don’t want to water down the competitive aspect—I believe competition to be healthy and a growth process—but I realized that within the scope of where we live, we want everyone to get up and compete. This innovation allows for that, and it will be completely unknown to the other participants.”

All the marks of the competitors will be online as well as posted in the lobby of The Sid, but not announced publicly.
Most entrants to the Festival are part of a studio, or a group. Dancers have to be part of a studio to enter because of insurance liability, but individuals can participate in the other disciplines. Quite a few home-educating families take advantage of the Festival with its opportunities to learn from highly experienced professionals. Two of the Johnson children are home-educated in fact.

“Most of the teachers in the Valley are familiar with the Festival, and without their hard work that has been going on for years, we certainly wouldn’t have the high standards we do. Kymme Patrick does wonderful work with young people in the dramatic arts, as do the drama teachers in the high schools,” Chalk says.
Chalk, too, continues to learn in her role with NIFPA. “One of the most surprising things to me has been how much I’ve enjoyed hearing and seeing players in disciplines that didn’t interest me before, particularly,” she says. “I hadn’t paid much attention to strings and vocal in the classical field, so it’s been a delight for me learning more about that. The adjudicators can demystify areas of the arts that perhaps we aren’t so familiar with.”

The winners, as well as other participants recommended by the adjudicators, go on from the North Island Festival here in Courtenay to the BC Provincial Festival. This year it is to be held in Duncan, and it moves around the province each year.

One of the participants last year was John Rim, a 14 year old whose family now lives in Comox. Rim moved here in 2005 from South Korea and has been a violin player since he was four. He took the strings award and went on to the BC Provincial Festival. Rim also plays clarinet and Korean drums in the Mark Isfeld school band. His particular favorite composer is Vivaldi, whom he likes because his works can be played quickly and energetically. Rim has been chosen as an adjudicator this year in the strings section. As well as a classical strings component, there is also a fiddle section.

“We’re hoping to expand the repertoire of the Festival locally to include things like jazz and rock-a-billy,” notes Chalk. “They may remain outside of the National Festival scope, but they could be adjudicated within our own local region.”

As fine arts are now under severe threat financially in our school, and the position of fine arts coordinator may be chopped by the school board due to lack of provincial funding, the Festival of Performing Arts may take on even more significance. But it’s obvious that under the direction of Beverly Chalk and the board of NIFPA, there is a dedicated commitment to educating and encouraging young local performing artists.

For more information go to www.nipa.org. Admission to each adjudicated session is $2, or $10 for the month. The Festival Variety Showcase will take place Friday, February 26 at 7:00pm and the Festival Dance Gala on Saturday, February 27 at 7:00pm.

When Kevin Munroe and partner Shelley Bouchard opened the Mad Chef Café in Downtown Courtenay last November, this site
their mission was nothing less than to shake up the Comox Valley dining scene. Barely two months after opening their doors, unhealthy they’re already off to a good start.

The Mad Chef Café has quickly become popular with those looking for a casual dining experience with a bit of an edge, mind
or at least one that’s different from what’s currently available. Its menu features such original creations as “The Boom! Boom! Steak and Prawn Stack,” a hearty soup known as “Sweet Curry Meets Fruit Fury” and, for those who don’t mind a little spice, “Rectum Sensation” chicken wings.

Even more controversial is the name of Munroe’s most popular sandwich: “Animals Taste Good.” But while the name may be as offensive to the militant vegan set as a leather-clad Republican cowboy on a dude ranch, Munroe insists that he’s not out to offend.

“It doesn’t matter what it says on the menu, as long as it tastes amazing,” says Munroe. And besides, when grilled chicken, crispy bacon and piles of shaved ham are topped with pepper smoked Brie and “crazy” mayo, animals really do taste pretty good.

“It’s insane food with attitude,” declares Munroe, a red seal chef who’s worked the kitchens of Valley hot spots like Atlas Café, the Kingfisher Resort and the Pier Bistro. “It’s not your ordinary menu. It’s not Italian, it’s not Mexican; it’s just awesome food with no pretension.”

Almost as popular as the food itself, says Munroe, has been what he calls the “attitude.” Each item description on the menu is followed by a clever quip, like “Welcome to the jungle,” “Who’s your Mad Daddy?!” or, in the case of Animals Taste Good, “Snort, growl, bark, moan or just do whatever it takes to get this one down!”

“Everybody’s been loving the attitude,” says Munroe. “With so much negative going on in the world today, this is a place where even the menu can make you laugh. No one laughs as much as they should.” That, perhaps more than anything else, is what the Mad Chef Café is really all about.

“We believe in fun dining,” says Bouchard. “There’s nothing worse than going out to a restaurant where you just don’t feel comfortable; where you have to watch how you sit and which fork you use. This isn’t that kind of place. It’s a place where you can relax, be yourself and just enjoy great food with great friends.
And the Comox Valley certainly has been enjoying it. In its first month of business, Bouchard says the Mad Chef Café was consistently feeding more than 100 hungry customers a day. In a cozy space that only seats 26, tables were being “flipped,” or re-sat, as many as five times during a single lunch service.
“Business has been phenomenal,” says Munroe. “So far we’ve done much better than we expected we would do.

“A lot of people have been coming in from out of town,” he continues. “We’ve had so many questions about whether we’re a chain, and everybody wants to know if we’re in their city. Even the Mad Chef Wear has been taking off!”

Munroe’s Mad Chef Wear clothing collection, available exclusively at the Mad Chef Café, includes toques, hats, onesies (in “Chick Pea” and “Bean Sprout” varieties) and t-shirts featuring memorable captions like “Tofu Ninjas Kick Ass” (the graphic depicts three SpongeBob-esque tofu nuggets kicking, punching and hurling carrot nunchuks at a defenseless donkey).

“We had 20 Animals Taste Good t-shirts made and only three of them were left after Christmas,” says Bouchard. “We’ve had a lot of people buying them for their vegan friends or vegetarian friends.”

So what’s the secret to the Mad Chef Café’s early success? Part of it surely has to do with its feisty and slightly irreverent brand, and opening up just in time for the Christmas rush likely didn’t hurt either. But what some may be inclined to chalk up as fortunate timing is at least partly due to the buzz generated by an incredibly effective publicity campaign before the restaurant even opened.

For starters, Munroe and Bouchard had been driving around the Comox Valley for months in trucks emblazoned with “Mad Chef Café” in a vibrant green font, with “Coming soon” printed just below.

“I’d have people stopping me at red lights and yelling at me, asking when we were going to open,” recalls Munroe. “People were so excited by the name; they were like, ‘What is that?’”

Young and web savvy entrepreneurs as they are, Munroe and Bouchard were also quick to take their budding venture online with a Facebook fan page. On the world’s largest social media site, the duo posted updates, photos and teasers as their building was being renovated, attracting more than 400 followers before they even opened. (Munroe and Bouchard just awarded a free cheesecake to their 500th fan last month.)

Now that they’re open, Munroe and Bouchard continue to use Facebook to share photos, stories and, perhaps most notably, their daily specials.

“We’ve been getting lots of orders for our free downtown delivery, and a lot of it is because of Facebook,” says Bouchard. “There are so many people working downtown who call or come in for our specials. We don’t even have to tell them what the special is, they already know.”

The budding realm of social media marketing is one thing, but isn’t this the ultra competitive restaurant business, where the cardinal marketing rule of “Location Location Location” rings truer than ever? Maybe so. Either way, the owners of the Mad Chef Café, which sits on Fitzgerald Avenue just an aggressively flipped burger away from Fifth Street, feel they’ve got that one covered too.

“If I were to open up anywhere in town it would be this location,” says Munroe. “It’s the perfect size, and we’re visible from one of Downtown Courtenay’s busiest intersections.” The restaurant occupies the former site of Orbitz Pizza, which closed down after a fire ripped through the building and forced several businesses to relocate due to smoke damage.

“I think that more than anything this corner needed to be reactivated,” says Bouchard. “A lot of the businesses that we’ve talked to on the block said that this part of Fifth Street has been dead since the fire. There was no foot traffic; you’d never see anyone on the block.”

While the growing popularity of the Mad Chef Café is certainly starting to change that, Munroe and Bouchard hope to do even more to breathe new life into the block.

Once the weather allows, the Mad Chef Café will feature a long, 18-seat patio along Fitzgerald Avenue that Munroe and Bouchard hope will become a popular summertime hangout for local urbanites. And with the Broken Spoke Coffee House, located just around the corner, planning to open its own patio in the spring, the Mad Chef Café could become the hub of a hip new urban strip.

With all the buzz and anticipation surrounding the opening of the Mad Chef Cafe, I was excited to finally try it out for myself.

As soon as I stepped through the door for my first Mad Chef experience, I knew that this would be a fun place. The vibrantly painted walls, in funky green, orange and grey hues, reverberated with the hum of the lunchtime crowd. My wife and I were fortunate to snatch the last remaining table, and so we hungrily grabbed our menus and began perusing.

If I’ve learned anything about Kevin Munroe, it’s that he doesn’t do anything half-assed. So instead of a simple one-page offering of standard fare like you might find at another brand new restaurant, we got to leaf through seven pages of soups, salads, “clubwiches” and lots more. Luckily, there was plenty of “attitude” to keep us entertained along the way.

Munroe is especially proud of his unrivalled selection of 10 different burgers—er, I mean “Crazy Mental Psychotic Insane Mad Chef Burgers”—which include chicken, duck, lamb, seafood and two vegetarian varieties. Then there are the seven ciabatta-bread pizzas, including the “Hawaiian Hammer,” the “Double Ducker” and the “Chicken Chicka Wow Wow.”

My wife, who’s a celiac, found several gluten-free options and eventually chose two appetizers, the spicy and flavourful Tongue Tantalizing Tiny Tuna Tacos and the Stuffed Alligator Pears (an avocado stuffed with fire roasted red onions, smoked corn, fresh cilantro and three cheeses).

As it turns out, the Mad Chef Café is quite accommodating of guests with dietary considerations, such as celiacs and—despite all the “Animals Taste Good” rhetoric—vegetarians. In fact, since our visit the Mad Chef Café has created a special celiac menu, highlighting items that are gluten-free or can be easily altered to be so.
The restaurant is also becoming a quick hit with kids, who receive a paper Mad Chef’s hat that they can color and wear, as well as a dish of homemade cotton candy with every meal.

As a young boy studiously colored his chef’s hat at the next table over I finally decided to try the Mad Chef Burger. My decision was made partly because of the way the menu dared me to try it (“Are you MAD enough?”) and partly because whenever Munroe talked about his signature burger he’d be overcome by the sort of giddy excitement normally reserved for high school boys who inadvertently discover a Victoria’s Secret catalog in their mailbox.
Once I tried it, I could see why he was so excited.

Several years ago I set out on an informal quest for the best burger in the Comox Valley. If the Mad Chef Burger had been around back then, it would have won hands down. The garlic and green peppercorn all-beef patty would have won the contest on its own. The piles of shaved ham and the ice cream scoop of Munroe’s homemade “kick-ass beer cheese” that slowly oozed across the patty put it over the top.

As we dined, our waitress sauntered past with a massive chocolate brownie laden with sautéed Kahlua bananas, fresh mango and ice cream. It was the Mad Chef’s most popular dessert, the Chocolate F Bomb, and it was unfortunately destined for another table. Even more unfortunate was the fact that, once I’d worked my way through my burger and a side of brick-seared yams, there was no way I could even think about dessert.

The Mad Chef Burger is certainly the best I’ve ever eaten in the Comox Valley, and it rivals the best I’ve had anywhere in the world. But Munroe and Bouchard are getting used to this sort of praise. A local food critic recently recognized the Mad Chef Café as home to the best salmon burger he’d ever eaten, and three separate Facebook fans have voted its caesar salad the best in the Valley.

Nonetheless, the Mad Chef shows no signs of complacency. Every day Munroe comes up with new features for his fresh sheet, and he’s continually experimenting with exotic new creations, much to the satisfaction of his partner.

“The other day Kevin was experimenting with a “cheeseburgerrito,” says Bouchard. “It was a cheeseburger, bun and everything, wrapped in a tortilla and baked. It was so good! Another time he made these taco shells out of asiago cheese and made beef tenderloin tacos. I could have eaten those all night!”

The Mad Chef Café is expected to celebrate its official Grand Opening sometime in February. In the meantime, it’s open for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday at 492 Fitzgerald Avenue in Downtown Courtenay.

To browse the Mad Chef Café’s menu online, and for other information, visit www.MadChefCafe.net or become a fan on Facebook.