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The culinary creativity of Sam Harris, co-owner of Victoria’s Cafe Brio

Meet the new owner of one of Victoria’s top dining restaurants
Sam Harris, co-owner of Cafe Brio in Victoria. (Samantha Duerksen/Black Press Media)

Working in several luxury hotels and resorts during his career, Sam Harris has cultivated exceptional expertise in fine dining experiences across Canada.

He’s also proven his knack for being at the helm of successful establishments, helping to open the Courtenay Room, Agrius and Boom + Batten.

Now, Harris brings his talents to Cafe Brio, taking over the business from co-owners Greg Hays and Silvia Marcolini after their successful 27-year run. Having been in its kitchen for the past two years, as he and the past co-owners “auditioned” each other out, Harris and new co-owner bartender Vincent Vanderheide are committed to keeping the restaurant on par for the course.

“We’ve already changed the stuff we’ve wanted to change, which is a unique opportunity when buying a restaurant. I already know the regulars like my food because they’ve been eating it for two years,” Harris said.

Cafe Brio embodies creativity through and through, from the ever-changing menu prioritizing ingredients from local farmers to the gallery walls.

“The farmers are the driving force of our creativity,” Harris said.

The restaurant’s wheelhouse is rustic Italian but conceptually flexible, with items on the menu like Gavin’s Greens, named after the forager/farmer’s weekly contributions, mains that change with the seasons, and sharing plates that highlight Harris’ butchery and salami-making background. (He said there’s always at least five different types of dry-cured pork on hand in the kitchen).

Harris, a creative at heart, seems the perfect fit for a place where the menu is refreshing consistently.

At one time, he considered taking an architecture and design college program, until the chef at his work asked him to consider a cooking program.

“It was like a flip switched,” Harris said. “I really like it. It makes a double-edged sword, it comes with challenges as well. You have to be on every day, you have to be diligent, you have to be like, ‘Okay, guys, for our feature today, we have to use these fiddleheads that I bought.’ So you are always forcing yourself to be in a creative space.”

Harris also prides himself in having simple, approachable food on the menu, which in part stems from his background of “very simple working-class food.” His parents both did shift work so starting from 10 years old, he could cook his own food, starting with tuna melts and grilled cheese.

Simplicity is highlighted in one of his customer’s favourite dishes: the spaghettini with tomato, garlic, basil, olive oil and Parmesan cheese. “People just love it.”

“And then about a third of the menu is weirder, more adventurous stuff. Some people who aren’t adventurous might never go for it, but a lot of our regulars, we’ve earned their trust and they know they can just randomly point at anything on the menu and we’re going to have put a lot of thought into it,” he said.

The Cafe Brio menu also boasts elegant vegan foods, thanks to his younger vegan sister who challenges him to go beyond placating.

Besides his creativity, what makes Harris stand out as a leader is his ability to build a team of other passionate creatives so that it translates into the food.

“The restaurant is great because of the team that we have. I’m not just one person who does all this stuff. If I’m really good at anything, it’s building teams that help me do awesome work.

“It’s definitely a creative, committed team that makes something like this.”

What’s your favourite dish that you make?

Right now, the Scallop Hushpuppy. It’s a brined scallop fried in a cornmeal batter, served with a crispy pancetta aioli, spaghetti squash and fried basil.

Do you have any favourite ingredients that you like to use?

I grew up in Ottawa, so maple syrup is a thing I love that often plays a very subtle role.

We also make wildflower kombuchas that we like turning to reduction, so Nuka Rose and elderflower are two other flavours I really like to have around. We’ll do an extraction and then make a cordial, a kombucha and then use those to make ice creams or to flavour sauces for things like duck breast.

If your mom or partner came to visit, what would you make her?

My partner, Merryn, and daughter come every Tuesday and have dinner. I like to use Merryn as a sounding board.

But my mom, usually I make her fish and chips. A classic, what she wants.

What are your goals for 2024?

My business partner and I want to get our teams to the point where we can take a week off in the busy summer season. So we’ll see if either of us has the courage to try to do that this year and come to terms with our addiction of being here all the time.

It’s really a fun project. If you have a restaurant, your work and hobbies become the same thing.

Are you creative outside of cooking?

I have an almost three-year-old so we get very creative. We do crafts and make art.

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Sam Harris, co-owner of Cafe Brio in Victoria. (Samantha Duerksen/Black Press Media)

Sam Duerksen

About the Author: Sam Duerksen

Since moving to Victoria from Winnipeg in 2020, I’ve worked in communications for non-profits and arts organizations.
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