Since the pandemic hit and lockdown began, people have been in need of ways to stay connected with each other, and to distract themselves from the constant barrage of bad news in the world around them.
“When I get stressed out I fall back on cooking,” local Chef Robert Davidson tells the Bulletin from a booth at Buckhorn and Main where he serves as manager.
Back in March of last year, soon after people around the world were indefinitely confined to their homes, Davidson created a Facebook group he dubbed “The Socially Distant Cooking Class,” with the intent of sharing live videos of his home cooking with a “couple hundred buddies” and former clients of the restaurant he used to run in Kimberley, The Village Bistro.
Since then the group has taken on a life of its own and grown a bit in size and scope.
“That’s a bit of an understatement,” he laughs. “I haven’t been on it a ton right now, just with being so busy with work, but I think we’re just flirting with 80,000 members.”
The exact count is 78,200 and the bigger it gets, the more people the Facebook algorithm draws into it.
“It’s got exponential growth. I actually cringe when my analytics start popping up with Facebook and they start hammering the group to everybody, it’s so much extra work. Like now we’ve got to vet everybody. Everybody coming out there, there’s so many spammers and bots, so it’s an absolute frustration.
He describes his role with the group right now as “mostly putting out fires,” and doing admin stuff. He also has an admin and moderator team that helps him out, a couple of them are located here in Kimberley, one’s in Sacramento, another’s in Haida Gwaii.
He hasn’t shot a new video in a couple of months now, but the group has been around so long now, he’s has started doing throwbacks, posting his old live streams for the new people in the group to see.
“And some of that stuff takes off, like my Yorkshire pudding video took off again,” he said. “I miss shooting the videos, they were fun and they were all live, I didn’t tape anything it was all done on Facebook Live, which is even more fun. My personality definitely shone through every once in a while.”
His formula for getting his broadcasts going was “let’s wash our hands, crack a beer and then get at it.” He recalled one stream where he made the Caesar salad from the Village Bistro menu that had over 3000 unique viewers.
Davidson said he wans people to show their stuff off, which is why he doesn’t allow people to post links to the page.
“I want tried and true stuff, anybody can look up stuff on Pinterest, but I want to see what you did with it,” he explained. “Once people get that, there’s the odd bit of friggin’ kick back on ‘why no links?’ and I’m like, ‘because I said so.’ I have a purpose here and it’s not to post a bunch of links, we want to see your own stuff.”
Originally from Moose Jaw, Sask. Davidson said he’s always had a thing for cooking.
“I always cooked as a kid, I loved cooking when I was a kid,” he said. “So I started in restaurants when I was about 15, and then worked my way up.”
He got his Red Seal certification through SAIT in 1991 when he was about 21 years old. At the time, Davidson was working as sous chef at the Lake Louise ski resort. A guy he new at the Banff Centre knew that there was a lot of people who were working up there and had enough hours for their ticket, but hadn’t done any schooling.
He set it up so that this group of about 30 chefs could do all of their courses Tuesday and Thursday nights for about six weeks at the Banff Centre, with an instructor coming up to go over the course material. At the end they wrote their journeyman tests and anyone with over 70 per cent was invited to write their Red Seal.
From there he went to the Banff Rocky Mountain Resort and worked there for a year before heading east to Quebec City and then Ottawa after that.
“When I got to Ottawa I was burnt out. I was 23, 24, and had gone pretty high pretty quick,” Davidson recalled.
“My whole family was in aviation, like we’re aviation nuts, so I ended up getting my commercial pilots licence and aircraft maintenance engineer ticket and all that stuff, so I was working in aviation when I moved back out here.”
Davidson’s uncle Neil was in aviation as well, and so he decided to come to Kimberley to help him out with a project: finishing up his classic aircraft the Tiger Moth, which used to grace the skies above the Remembrance Day ceremonies.
“I came out here to help him finish that up and then never left,” Davidson said.
Davidson went back to the culinary realm and started The Village Bistro with his wife. Moving on from there, he served as
executive chef of The Sullivan Pub.
He was there for about a year when he was diagnosed with stage two colorectal cancer in the winter of 2016. Since then, Davidson has battle incredible odds and still today deals with trips to the emergency room, most recently having to do another complete blood test (CBC) that determined his T cell count was still low.
READ MORE: Fundraiser for Rob Davidson this weekend
However, he says he feels great and has been skiing three or four times a week, and was up on the ski hill at the top of the Easter Lift helping out with the barbecue when Kimberley Alpine Resort’s Northstar Quad chair was on the fritz.
Buckhorn and Main switched to a seasonal model and are no longer open in the summer and fall. Davidson kept busy through the autumn months by taking on the mammoth task of installing all the plexiglass in the resort In the summer he had applied to Top Chef Canada, but he said he “would have been screwed” had they accepted him, as he wound up being so busy here at home.
He said that even though the restaurant, which like all local establishments, has suffered due to reduced capacity limits it’s been a good experience, with predominantly gracious and patient customers who understand all the extra things staff and managers like himself have to do to keep things up and running.
And with a low T cell count, Davidson certainly appreciates the need to keep things safe.
“It’s a lot of extra steps,” he said. “And honestly I take that stuff seriously, because if I keep everybody else safe, I’m safe. That as my whole impetus behind the plexiglass program, I’m like if I keep guests away from staff, and staff is safe, I interact way more with staff than I do with guests. I’m not a huge fan of people. So if I keep those staff safe, I’m safe.”
Through everything he’s has to deal with, Davidson said that cooking has always been an escape and he speculates others agree, which is why his group has been so successful.
“It always has been [therapeutic],” he said. “It’s a place to go to turn your brain off and to just do it. And I think a lot of people see that and use it that way.”
Davidson’s Socially Distant Cooking Class, and the separate page The Socially Distant Cooking School, continue to grow and thrive, giving people from all over the world a chance to escape reality and focus on the joy of food and connection with others.