Vintage Chophouse chef Andrew Keen cooks perfect steaks served with simple sides for a delicious dinner everytime
Andrew Keen isn’t the kind of chef who cares about flavoured salts, molecular gastronomy or other fussy food trends. Fancy tricks and newfound exotic ingredients just aren’t his thing. For Keen, the perfect plate consists of a quality piece of meat cooked precisely to order, and a couple of classic sides like sautéed mushrooms or spinach gratin. As the new executive at the Vintage Chophouse, one of Calgary’s most beloved and luxurious steakhouses, Keen is able to spend his time focusing on quality and simplicity, and as a chef he wouldn’t have it any other way.
Although he was born in Canada, Keen was raised in the U.K. on a rural smallholding, so the meals of his youth were all about fresh, homegrown ingredients. Keen says that his upbringing greatly influenced the cooking philosophies that he’s carried through to his career as a chef.
“There were always lots of local fresh ingredients — we raised chicken and beef and quail,” Keen says. “Homesteading right out of the garden into the kitchen is part of my background, so it really feels natural to use the freshest ingredients. Going to the big supermarkets is not how I was brought up.”
Keen moved to Whistler, BC in 1992 to begin apprenticing as a young chef in some of the affluent mountain community’s finest restaurants. Because of the concentration of high-end restaurants and transient nature of much of the staff in the area, Keen was able to get a foothold in the local restaurant scene and hone his culinary skills. He brought that fine dining experience with him when he arrived in Calgary in the early 2000s to open Living Room, where he was a partner as well as the original chef. From there, Keen went to the CA Restaurant Group, where he worked his magic at Murietta’s, the Trib Steakhouse, and the Parkerhouse Grill and Winebar. Seven years later, Keen made a career shift and moved into the world of being a corporate chef, taking over the Corporate Executive Chef position at the Chop and Shark Club restaurant chains.
While Keen enjoyed the change of pace and challenges that came as corporate chef for a multi-unit operation, in December of last year he left that position to join the Vintage Group, and is now the Executive Chef at the Vintage Chophouse. With eventual plans to expand the Chophouse brand to additional restaurants, the new job gives Keen a chance to combine his experience as a corporate chef with his love of working hands-on in the kitchen. And, as a lover of simple, high-quality food, the fit is perfect.
Since coming onboard at Vintage, Keen hasn’t overhauled the menu or implemented any drastic changes, mainly because he hasn’t had to. The Vintage Chophouse has a loyal customer base for a good reason — the restaurant is an elegant and classic steakhouse that serves iconic steakhouse fare. For Keen to revolutionize the menu just for the sake of appearing more modern or on trend would be to go against what both he and the restaurant itself stands for. Just like before Keen’s arrival, Chophouse’s menu is made up of simple cuts of meat, classic sauces for those who like a little béarnaise, blue cheese, or peppercorn with their steak, and rich vegetable and potato sides to complement the meat. Customers who are not in the mood for a steak can choose from equally delicious seafood, chicken, or lamb options, but everything from the appetizers and the salads down to the desserts is absolutely classic, and Keen is not one to monkey with what has already been proven to work so very well.
“We’re true to who we are, that’s really what it comes down to,” Keen says. “I’ve been in Calgary since 2000, so this place opened just after I’ve got here, and it’s been the same. It’s evolved, but the feel and integrity of what this restaurant is has remained very, very loyal, which is why it’s a success. We don’t try to be fancy or do anything different — we try to cook a really good steak to the customers’ preference and a perfect side in an upscale, but not too old-fashioned, setting.”
Keen may be overly modest in his claim that Vintage isn’t doing anything different, because as simple as they may be, the steaks at Vintage certainly outshine much of the competition. Keen starts by bringing in the best cuts of meat he can find, be it more standard rib-eye, tenderloins, and New Yorks, as well as specialty cuts sourced from local producers. Servers bring raw cuts of meat right to customers’ tables on a butcher board and carefully explain the selections so that diners are fully educated on options that they may not have seen at other steakhouses. It’s an impressive touch that many steak lovers appreciate.
“We’re really trying to tap into niche markets to give customers something a little more interesting and unique,” Keen says. “We’re doing bone-in tenderloins and bone-in New Yorks. Those cuts have to come from a specialty cutter because they have to take the carcass and do something different with it. We’re bringing in some nice Wagyu and other kinds of meat from smaller suppliers as well. There are a lot of great boutique suppliers in Alberta and BC as well that don’t hit the main herd.”
As for the actual cooking, Keen says he continues to be fascinated by the intricacies that come with something as simple as cooking a steak. Mentoring his staff and cooking steak after steak after steak every night never gets boring for him — in fact, Keen says that when he goes home and makes dinner for his family, more often than not he gets behind the barbeque and puts some steaks on the grill.
“It’s a piece of steak, but so much goes on when you’re cooking it,” Keen says. “But really, it’s the simplicity. You’ve really done nothing to the meat. You take out the cut and then you age it, you season it, and you cook it — that’s really all these is to it. There’s no pureeing there’s no other things to go with it. And simple food is, to me, the toughest to cook. When we’re 200 steaks deep on a Friday night and the grill is going and every single one is cooked to order perfectly, it’s pretty amazing.”
In addition to making sure those steaks are cooked perfectly to order, Keen sees his role at Vintage as being about maintaining consistency and passing his knowledge down to his kitchen staff while also encouraging them to put some heart and soul into their cooking. He will be in the kitchen — as opposed to behind a desk in a more corporate role — as often as he’s needed at Vintage, to ensure that the food lives up to his standards.
“I’ll always have a really hands-on role with the food and the staff,” Keen says. “Food is food. Everyone can cook or follow a recipe, but what makes it special is when it’s got that real love put into it. It’s not just a food factory. There has to be consistency throughout, and that’s where the corporate side has got it down pat. But hopefully I can bring in a little bit of my creativity and start blending it in.”
And once again, that creativity won’t be about doing anything too crazy with the food or interfering with the natural deliciousness of the meat. If anything, Keen sees the return of classic dishes as the latest trend in cooking, so he can remain fashionable without sacrificing simplicity. Ultimately Vintage Chophouse customers are looking for dishes they recognize, just tweaked slightly to appeal to a modern palate.
“Even if we’re changing the names, the classics are really coming back. Just doing them is new and creative again,” Keen says. “If it’s tried and true and tested and has survived 60 years, it must be a good dish. You can only reinvent so much. Everything’s been done, so we wind it all back a little bit and go back to our roots and start from there. That’s been my thought on food for quite some time.”
Photo by Ingrid Kuenzel