Chef Rolf Widmer cooked for thousands of people in many places of the world before his retirement from Kiwanis Garden Manor last fall, including 38 years in Powell River.
His career, which spanned more than five decades, began in the family home where, as a 12-year-old, he liked to go into the kitchen to help his aunt. She was one of an extended family of seven that included his grandmother, parents and siblings.
In Switzerland then, the main meal was at noon with most workers and students going home from 11:45 am to 1:45 pm.
“She was a good cook but very basic, herbs and spices were not her thing,” said Widmer. “My parents liked what I put in the dishes.”
Widmer took a 10-session cooking course after school, learning to make simple dishes such as meat sauce, tomato salad and applesauce. In the summer after grade 10, he attended a “sniffing apprenticeship” at a restaurant.
“You gained an impression of what a kitchen is all about, how it worked,” he added. “I kind of liked it.”
His mother owned a women’s fashions store and two of her clients said they needed an apprentice. One had a hotel and the other a five-star restaurant, which Widmer applied for and worked at for the next two and a half years, at times 54 hours per week.
When he was called to military service, he reported but only lasted two weeks before deserting, leaving a letter in his parents’ mailbox so they wouldn’t worry about him. He hopped on his Vespa 175 motorbike and headed through France and Spain, ending up in Gibraltar. Vessels set sail from there to North African cities such as Casablanca and Tangier, as well as the Canary Islands.
Widmer had worked with a man from the islands who told him to come anytime and he would get him a job. In 1972, there was a “bit of a recession” there, but Belgium had been investing a lot of money.
He started working in a restaurant on the beach, which he described as “easy peasy” with an apprentice doing all the prep work and Widmer doing the cooking. After shopping in the fish and vegetable markets early in the morning, he would head to the beach, then cooked lunch and went back to the beach again in the afternoon.
“I put on weight and a tan,” he said with a laugh. “It was a pretty laid-back life.”
After 11 months, he found things boring and decided to go to Brazil. His brother worked for Swiss Air and had friends in Rio de Janeiro. After two years he headed back to Switzerland and was caught by authorities. He was arrested and spent a week in jail before being fined $500 for deserting military service.
Heading back to Brazil, he worked in a five-star restaurant on Copacabana Beach with a chef who made everything from scratch. He remembers making the last legal turtle into soup in 1977 before it was outlawed.
“Things had changed,” he said.
Widmer’s next move was to North America. At first, he worked as a drive-away delivering vehicles and belongings to snowbirds heading south to Florida. Then he bought a two-month bus pass and travelled all over the United States.
“I learned how to live in a bus,” said Widmer.
He then went to Toronto, where he worked in the Airport Hilton for six months before deciding to take his friend’s advice and move to Vancouver, which at the time he described as “more like a village.” He worked at the Hotel Vancouver.
Circle route leads to varied career
While skating at the Robson Square rink, he looked at a kiosk and noticed a pamphlet about the Sunshine Coast, noting its 2,000 hours of sunshine and mild climate.
Widmer travelled to Powell River via the Circle Route and pitched his tent on the east side of Cranberry Lake. After working at Beach Gardens for six months, he opened Home Town Café, where Genki Japanese Cuisine is now located. He leased the former residence and undertook renovations but decided after a year, at 24, he was too young to be tied down with owning and operating a restaurant.
“I worked at every restaurant in town, including Lund, and taught cooking at Pacific Art Institute where my students included doctors, lawyers and other professionals who wanted to learn about gourmet cooking,” said Widmer.
Ready for yet another change, he bought a nursery south of town that he owned for 10 years but kept his hand in cooking by taking on some catering jobs.
Ten years ago, he was hired as chef for Kiwanis Garden Manor, the place he spent the longest time of his entire career.
“It was a good learning experience. Personally, I grew a lot and my perceptions changed about what’s important in life.”
Widmer said when a person owns or cooks in a restaurant, menu items become favourites of the clientele so they are prepared over and over again exactly the same way.
“At Kiwanis [Garden] Manor, there were 40 tenants with 40 taste buds so I was free to change it up,” he added. “I was able to please most of the people all of the time. It gives you more appreciation of what you do.”
He said the manor was one of the best environments he ever worked in, with a good management team.
“My philosophy was: we’re here for our tenants and everything has to fit that model,” he added.
Widmer has always performed his work in kitchens, large and small, following the motto that “good enough is not good enough. It has to be better with the investment of time, ingredients and effort.”
Looking back over his career, Widmer reflects on all the different people he cooked for, among them astronaut Neil Armstrong; movie star Roger Moore; Herbert von Karajan, world famous Austrian conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic; members of the Vancouver Canucks; Wayne Gretzky; Mario Lemieux; multiple politicians and many others.
With all of that list, he most fondly remembers the tenants at Kiwanis Garden Manor and their appreciation of his culinary skills.