Chef Ruth Ellen Wigman of Bistro Sofia in St. John’s was born in Vancouver and grew up in Nanaimo and on BC’s Sunshine Coast. She knew from a very early age that one day she’d be a chef. The thought of being anything else never entered her mind.
Wigman graduated from the culinary arts program at Vancouver Island University in 2001. Her career since then has taken her to Alberta, Bermuda and Newfoundland. Despite the small number of moves Wigman still managed to cross paths with heavyweights like Anthony Bourdain and the current head chef of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York, David Garcelon, who attended her Murray’s Pond wedding to Newfoundlander, Chef Matt McDonald.
I interviewed Ruth Wigman recently about her life, work and aspirations. Our conversation was long and wide ranging. What follows is a condensed version of the interview.
When did you first develop an interest in cooking?
My sister and I lived on the Sunshine Coast of BC for four and a half years with my grandparents. I remember at their house there was a whole bunch of gardens and we grew everything. Everything we ate we grew. They also managed a marina so we used to spend our weekends fishing for salmon, cod, lingcod and rock cod. And with all of the different people that lived there you could try out so many different cuisines growing up: Chinese food, Japanese, Indian and so on. My Granma used to make lots of different things. My Mom’s not so much a cook. She mostly was just happy that I was doing it. Then she got to try it. She was always willing to sample.
I started cooking for myself when I was in high school. My sister, my mom and I would always watch the cooking shows. I don’t think we had the Food Network back then. We had the Urban Peasant and that kind of program. So we used to watch all that stuff and then I started making things. The first thing I made was potato rostis with sautéed spinach and sautéed mushrooms. I grated the potatoes and mixed them with butter. Then I formed them into these little cakes and cooked them. I saw it on TV.
Tell me about your time at Vancouver Island University.
It was a yearlong program and at the time we had some of the only Master Chefs in Canada there. They were all pretty Old School chefs from Switzerland and Germany. It was a great place to learn. There was Chef Scheck and Chef Wagner. We also had a pretty cool guy from Ireland and he was the butcher. The university only brought in whole fish, whole cows, lambs, chickens et cetera. Everything came in whole so what we did was butcher everything for the cafeteria. We did racks of lamb and all that. They never spared any expense.
I really enjoyed it. I went for a two-week work experience at the Pan Pacific Hotel in Vancouver. At the time I thought I was really interested in pastries so they sent me on an early trip just to see if I wanted to do pastries and then I realized that it was not completely for me so I went up to their Five Sails restaurant where I did more work experience. I didn’t like pastry because of all the measuring. I like to be more, a little of this, a little of that. With pastries you really have to be exact. I liked the decorating but when it comes to the measurement it’s not for me.
What happened after you graduated?
I went to the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge. I roomed with a girl from Newfoundland there. Her father used to be a fire chief here, the Corbett family. They recruit from a lot of the culinary schools – same as Kananaskis, Lake Louise, all of those spots. David Garcelon was head chef in Jasper. He’s very knowledgeable and had great advice. Now he’s the head chef at the Waldorf Astoria in New York.
Then I went to Bermuda to work at the Fairmont Southampton. Michael Scott was one of my chefs in Bermuda, a Scottish fellow. He’s probably one of the most fantastic people I’ve ever worked with for his knowledge and trust in you as well. A lot of times the chefs want you to do it a certain way and that’s it. He would say, I want this and just make it. And you would just go and make it. It was so nice to have that freedom and trust. And the team that he created from all of us was a full on team. Nobody left anybody in the soup or anything like that.
I met Anthony Bourdain while I was working there. He came down to Bermuda one time to guest chef and he was just so easy to talk to and that was really nice. And his food, when he was cooking was simple and he’s very knowledgeable about all the different cuisines as well. I like his show because he’s honest about things.
I met my husband, Matt McDonald, in Bermuda. We both worked at the Fairmont Southampton. I worked at the restaurant there and Matt worked at the steakhouse.
So, after Bermuda we moved here and I was at Blue on Water for three or four years and finally came over to Bistro Sofia. I don’t move around very much. I usually spend three to four-and-a-half years in one place. But with the big hotels, if you change departments it’s like a new job. That’s one thing I like about hotels.
How has your food evolved and how would you describe it now?
I’ve always stuck to simple things. That’s what I’ve always liked – a little more rustic, not too mucked with. Sometimes I find things too puréed up and formed into something. I like my carrot to look like a carrot. Take molecular cooking for example; personally, it’s not for me. I’d rather food be in its natural form. I think it’s weird putting what looks like a piece of paper in my mouth and having it taste like steak. Some of it looks beautiful but I think before someone ventures into molecular cooking they’d better make sure they’ve really honed their craft in the traditional ways of cooking things. Before you rely on that thermal circulator you’d better make sure you know how to cook a very good steak or a perfect piece of chicken. Then you can venture into molecular cooking. But again, I think if you’re working with a really beautiful product it’s not meant to be fooled around with too much.
I’ve always stuck with that idea. But as for my food evolving, with the different cultures I’ve been exposed to in my work, at different restaurants, I’ve learned a lot about using spices and herbs. So now there’s more depth in my flavours. Currently I’m at Bistro with Bulgarian chefs and I’m learning still more from them about their culture and their tastes. It really changes your palate a lot.
Finally, what would you like to learn more about at this stage of your career?
I enjoy doing charcuterie. It’s a pretty big art in itself. I can do terrines, pâtés, rillettes and all that stuff but I’d like to be able to work with the big equipment to do the big sausages and so on. I love that stuff. I love how it tastes and having said that I like the accompaniments that go with it. I love pickling things. I love mustards, and just lately I’ve been making different flavours of mustards and playing around with that. So, that’s also something I want to learn more about, the different recipes and putting my own spin on it.
I’d also like to travel in Italy and Spain and get a feel for the real food of those countries. I love that type of food. They have that authentic, old school way of doing things. I just hired a Venezuelan guy at Bistro and he was telling me about some of the cool stuff they have there. It’s just all around me and I’d just love to travel around and learn all about the different cultures, the food and wines. And to understand why their food is the way it is.