New Westminster's Spud Shack owner keeps eyes on the fries
Dan Close turned his guilty pleasure into his livelihood. But his quest for nirvana continues.
A Red Seal chef and triathlete, Close often rewarded a five-hour bike ride or marathon running or swimming session with a big plate of french fries. On one of those rides he conjured an idea; why not make his own? But lighter, fluffier than the greasy, deep fried frozen starch strips at the local diner or fast food joint.
And so the former chef at the Fairmont Hotel and head of product development at the test kitchen for the Cactus Club set out to make the perfect french fry. In December he opened the Spud Shack, on the upper level of the Shops at New Westminster Station.
Its cornerstone menu item is that humble accompaniment to burgers, sandwiches and steaks from Nome, Alaska to Naples, Florida, the french fry. Or rather Belgian frites, because that's what they were called as far back as the 17th century when the poor inhabitants of the Meuse valley fried cut potatoes to get them through the winter because the rivers that provided the fish for their sustenance had frozen over. They didn't become "French" until American soldiers serving in Belgium in WWI started calling them that.
To play off that heritage Close clad his new venture with 80-year-old reclaimed wood accented with furniture and fixtures in red, yellow and black, the colours of Belgium's flag. Gargoyles peer from the corners, loom from the rafters.
"It's got that gothic European feel," says Close, 42. "It's old-world Europe meets Western Canada."
But to make a truly authentic Belgian frites experience takes more than décor. It takes a lot of hard, knuckle-scraping work that starts late at night when he and his crew hand cut up to 100 pounds of Kennebec potatoes. The strips, with the skin still on, are then soaked in cold water overnight before they're drained and then blanched for an hour in the morning, which will help them cook evenly once they're in the fryer. They're then cooled and allowed to rest before being deep-fried to order in canola oil.
"There are no shortcuts, you've got to do it right," says Close, who tests every batch as it comes out of the fryer and then the shaker to ensure the frites have the right balance of crispness and fluffiness, the right amount of salt.
The frites are served in paper cones that are supported in special holes cut into the hefty wooden tables. And they can be garnished with a choice of 15 sauces like Belgian mayo, roasted garlic mayo, Andalusia and curry ketchup.
Close also serves up the frites as poutine, favouring a firmer "squeaky" cheddar cheese curd that he sources from the Okanagan. And he's looking to enhance his menu with Montreal-style smoked meat sandwiches. It can all be washed down with a variety of craft and Belgian beers.
But in these early days of his new venture, Close is keeping his eyes on the fries, fiddling with the seasoning, adjusting fry times to create the perfect frites.
"It's still a work in progress," he says. "I want to be able to take the humble potato and turn it into an experience."
For more information about the Spud Shack, including a full menu and beer list, go to www.spudshack.ca