With all of 23 years under his belt, Waterloo Region-native Ben Lillico is the new executive chef of The Rich Uncle Tavern (formerly The Berlin) in downtown Kitchener. He stepped into the role vacated by Jonathan Gushue in the first week of December.
“Age is just a number,” says Lillico of his youthful arrival at The Berlin, a landmark restaurant opened by his one-time Langdon Hall executive chef Gushue. “It’s all about what you know and how you can utilize that. Regardless, it’s humbling and rewarding to be here. I don’t take it for granted.”
Lillico has had a long relationship with food. He participated in the Ontario Youth Apprenticeship Program through Conestoga College and graduated from Niagara College culinary school. He was a 2015 Ontario Hostelry Institute “Top 30 Under 30” and captain of Canada’s World Culinary Olympics gold medal cooking team in 2016. Yet, family and cooking made an impression on him too.
“I always enjoyed making pastries with my grandmothers. I pull inspiration from a lot of different places, but that is certainly one,” he says.
At Langdon Hall for a few years under both Gushue and current executive chef Jason Bangerter, Lillico learned in a culinary crucible at the nationally recognized restaurant.
“That was a fast track in education,” says Lillico. “The experience there accelerates your knowledge of quality very quickly. You learn classical techniques and there’s a vast variety of ingredients that you get to use. The experience really opened my eyes.”
As for what he sees in the food and restaurant landscape in Waterloo Region, Lillico cites development and potential. “I’ve seen an evolution over the last three or four years. There’s a diverse culture that we have here, and it pushes the cuisine to be diverse too.”
A few weeks into the role, Lillico says that building a new kitchen from scratch has been rewarding and stimulating. “Everyone comes in every day to learn and develop. We’re hungry to be better and do more,” adding that the restaurant will stay the course with the style of cuisine as it evolves at the same time it seeks to help bolster development across the industry in Waterloo Region.
“As chefs, we need to make sure we are working collaboratively,” Lillico says. “As a group, we can help grow our culinary and the quality of the food we make here.”
Rapid-fire Round with Ben Lillico:
Explore Waterloo Region: Best thing you’ve ever eaten?
Lillico: Foie gras. I just can’t get enough.
Other career you could have pursued?
Lillico: Engineering. Building and creativity go hand in hand with cooking.
Lillico: For non-booze, it would be coffee. Guatemalan roast with chocolate notes giving it a slight sweetness. It’s a great way to start the day. As for booze, that’s Northern Harvest Rye and crushed ice. It’s a great way to finish the day.
Chef you’d most like to meet?
Lillico: Daniel Boulud. His restaurants are exquisite. Very classical with modern influence.
Best footwear (for the kitchen or otherwise)?
Lillico: Blundstones. No hesitation.
Favourite “international” food in Waterloo Region?
Lillico: The diversity of our region makes it tough to decide. There are a vast variety of options!
What scares you in a kitchen?
Lillico: Improper training. That’s scary to watch.
Greatest failed recipe?
Lillico: Sous vide salmon. It’s a love-hate relationship. When it’s done properly, it’s the best. When it is not done properly, it’s never pretty. Or appetizing.
A favourite teacher you’ve had?
Lillico: Judson Simpson (Executive Chef, House of Commons, Ottawa)
A moment in your life you’d like to have back?
Lillico: Growing up and learning to make pastries with my grandparents when I was young.
Where were you born?
Lillico: The Weeknd. Okay, not really a band but still good.
Who would you like to cook for?
Lillico: Paul Bocuse.
The thing you wish for Waterloo Region?
Lillico: Growing our dining culture in Waterloo Region. There is a wide range of restaurants and eateries. I hope that building relationships between restaurants will help strengthen our food culture.
Go-to late-night snack?
Lillico: Fries. Can’t have enough.
Best thing about being a chef?
Lillico: There are no limits really. We always strive for excellence and perfection, but when we reach that it is no longer perfect. It sets the bar higher for creating new goals.
Lillico: Montañita, Ecuador, where I have visited; London, England, where I want to visit.
Would you describe yourself as sweet or savoury?
Lillico: Balanced. Never stray too far from either. Both will help you grow and succeed.
SEE WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING IN WATERLOO REGION. CHECK OUT THE LOCAL BUZZ!