Are you the type of person that’s always tempted to steal bites of food from your dining mates because you get bored of your own dish? If so, you need to check out Stage Wine Bar. Located in Victoria’s Fernwood neighbourhood, sharing plates with your companions is the best way to go. I had the pleasure of meeting George Szasz, owner and chef de cuisine of Stage Wine Bar.
Life Before Stage
I was in Vancouver first and then moved to Smithers, BC. We had a restaurant, but the economy wasn’t that great. I didn’t want to move back to Vancouver and Victoria was close enough, so we bought a place called Chez Daniel in Oak Bay and turned it into Paprika Bistro. We opened Paprika in 1999 and ran it for 10 years. Having a fine dining restaurant was getting tough though, very challenging and there were lots of expectations. There were lots of parties and group dinners on top of the expectations that come with fine dining. It was a great run, but we were looking for something simpler… a simpler model restaurant that we could organize without being there 24/7. In a way, opening Stage was a fresh start with new ideas and a focus that we could run with, without evolving into something people expected or wanted.
A Family History
Our family had a deli in Granville for 35 years so I grew up with that. For me to do this, it’s nothing. We had a konditorei in the back, so I learned all about baking and cake-making. I worked on the floor, behind the deli, and then managing the books. This was school for me.
I grew up as a third-generation sausage-maker. My grandfather and father worked in Szeged, Hungary and it’s cool because I have the old recipe ratios and history that I’m working to transcribe right now. It’s fun trying to bring it up to current day standards. This will be from the depths of early last century… I’m bringing stuff back from the dead!
We held back on salami for a while because of the listeria thing, but there’s no reason you can’t do it if you have the skill and sanitation for it. We make our own bresaola, terrines, pâtés, parfaits, porchetta…we also make our own bread and desserts.
George Szasz, the Teacher
We run master classes, so we”ll bring in 200 lb piggies from Sloping Hill Farms and butcher them right here in the kitchen. Everything is used, from the head to the tail. We talk about all the primals and how we’re going to use it… Porchetta from the head or other headcheeses, schnitzel from the loin… everything on the animal is used. These guys in the class learn so much, it’s amazing. Honestly, I feel really good about the cuisine and the effort that these guys put in. My excitement is in teaching and doing what’s necessary to make these people strong and tremendous cooks in the end.
About Home Cooking
Cooking at home is hard, especially for people who live alone. Even I find it difficult to cook at home. I just don’t have all the tools that I have at Stage and I don’t know where anything is at home, but here, I do!
My most important kitchen tool is my carbon steel fillet knife that I have had for years. I bought it for 5 bucks and I use it for everything.
Go Ahead, Even Chefs Do It
My guilty food pleasure would have to be scraping the fond (little stuck on bits of meat) off the roasting pan. Sounds gross, but is so good.
The Dining and Food Concept at Stage
The main focus is on eating smaller because this is how WE like to dine. We don’t like the big plates of protein and sides of veggies and starch. Those days are done. I can’t eat like that anymore. Why serve something when you aren’t really feeling it? Since we’re doing smaller plates, once a plate is ready, it’s on the table. We don’t wait and then push everything out together. That’s not how we play it. So if there’s two of us, when a plate comes out, we both should enjoy it… and when another plate comes out, we both enjoy it. The whole idea is to share. It’s part of dining here and truly a social experience.
Stage cuisine is, without sounding cheesy, global. It’s a version of cuisine that people can recognize and find on the street. There are bits and pieces from all over the world and this is contemporary food that people can relate to. For example, the langos can be found everywhere in Hungary. We do that, but take it to a different level. We make it a little bit North American, but people can get the gist of what we’re doing. We’re so fortunate to be able to procure many amazing things locally… walnuts and hazelnuts are grown on the island, we get our pigs from Sloping Hill Farm and our ducks from Cowichan Bay Farm and, just recently, from Brome Lake Ducks.
What to Try at Stage
We are renowned for our duck confit. I’ve been doing that since the days of Paprika. Any of our duck products really…smoked, roasted breast, preserved legs, rillettes, terrines….Duck is really amazing to work with and Cowichan Bay Farms has some of the best product in the country.
We’re working on packaging up our products… sausages, duck confits… and selling them as Stage Productions. Our products are already in some delis and some hotels buy the product occasionally. I sort of want to get into this because, although I love what I do, I won’t be doing this forever. This is the sort of vein I’d like to get into… the production side. It’s sort of like my career is coming full-circle! I started in a deli scenario: production and manufacturing. Then I went into running a restaurant. Now I’m coming back into the production side of it. I really enjoy it so it’s a big focus now.
We have marinated olives, preserved lemons, sausages, terrines. Our preserved lemons are in Market on Yates, Slater’s, Charelli’s, it goes up and down the island, out to seafood shops in Tofino. We haven’t even touched Vancouver, but definitely would like to.
Cheese, Cheese, Cheese
Our cheese program is exceptional. It’s not easy to procure cheese because there are quotas, suppliers and middlemen. Europe won’t release so much cheese and you have to place your order. Sometimes you get it three months later and forgot what you ordered!
We were in Europe with the girls and driving through the Pyrénées and going through farmers markets… these people are SO committed to cheese. It’s a time-honoured tradition and some people made huge sacrifices to make their product in Europe. Why compete against thirty-seven generations of people making cheese? There’s no way. There are some pretty good cheese made in North America, but for the most part, it’s nowhere near.
It’s like having a beautiful bottle of port and you know there were three or four generations involved in making that bottle. So when you’re sitting there, you’re thinking “What was it like back then?”. It’s like drinking history… Not only the product itself, but understanding what was going on in the world at that time.
Victoria Versus Vancouver
Vancouver has an intereresting base of incredible restaurants, but Victoria only has a handful that I would say. It’s a different attitude and slower pace here. The competitive edge has nothing on Vancouver, where it’s very cut-throat and competitive all the time with people jumping ship. They also have big name players and want that new something that’s going on, whether it’s New York, L.A., San Francisco… but here? No.
When we were at Paprika Bistro, we tied in closely with B&B’s and they would shoot us business. These are the people that aren’t afraid to try things and go away from downtown. The tourists off the cruise ships stay mainly up and down Government St. In Victoria, reputation really helps. If you’re in the industry for a number of years, word of mouth gets around and Victorians like restaurants players that have been around for a long time.
The Truth about the Restaurant Business
Opening a restaurant should be fueled by passion, not by monetary increase. You just can’t do it and make a killing. Corporate restaurants have a formula and have huge buying power, but for a smaller restaurant, you don’t have as much purchasing power. You have to be a little more savvy in knowing where to go. It’s challenging and difficult even without opening up the doors to people. We try and show people that to get that pork dish sitting in front of you, it does take time. Getting the best pork, respecting the animal, working with it and teaching the students how to use it properly takes time. Being a chef is not an easy career, but you get gratification from the people who leave with smiles and memories of amazing meals.
My interview with George was really interesting, he has a lot of enthusiasm for his history, family, food, and doing good for the environment. Hearing him talk about all the things growing in his garden makes me want to start one on my own! He believes that if everyone had even a small table-size plot to grow a bit of their own, the world would be a much better place.
You will likely see George’s wife, Linda, behind the bar and keeping things in order. She handles many of the things that come along with running a restaurant, but leaves the cooking to George!
Next time you get a chance to visit Stage, check out their bar countertop…
… It’s reclaimed flooring from a closed-down Victoria bowling alley!