Alum of the Month: Lee Cooper

Lee Cooper

Photo credit: Eric Milic

June 18, 2023 - 10:00am

French-inspired and set in a 19th century brick-and-beam building, L’Abattoir sprouted up among the cobblestones of Vancouver’s Gastown neighbourhood more than a decade ago.

The restaurant’s executive chef and owner is Lee Cooper, who graduated from VIU’s Culinary Arts program in 1997. The restaurant’s most recent accomplishment is making the Canada’s 100 Best Restaurants list this year. The listing raves about L’Abattoir’s West Coast-inspired French cuisine and his newish Chef’s Menu, which “brings the culinary experience to new heights.”

“The techniques and ideas are tight and cohesive,” commented judge Mijune Pak.

We caught up with Chef Lee to find out more about his work and career since his time at VIU.

Why did you choose VIU?

Well, the obvious thing is that I lived and grew up in Nanaimo, but I was also aware of some of the decorated chefs that were the instructors for the program. My uncle, Bernard Casavant, who is also a VIU alumni, was a very prominent chef in Vancouver and Whistler through the ‘80s and ‘90s. The opportunity to be trained by some of the same chefs as he was seemed to be a logical step early in my career.

Can you share some highlights from your time at VIU?

There are many! I made lots of friends that I kept in touch with and followed their careers from a distance. Three of my closest friends are people who also graduated from the same program – one of them is even my business partner.

Tell us about your career progression since VIU.

After graduating, I bounced around a couple of kitchens in Victoria before moving to Whistler to work for my uncle Bernard Casavant. After two years of working with him, he told me one of his good friends was opening a restaurant in Kelowna.

I moved to Kelowna and was part of the opening team at Chef Rod Butters’ Fresco Restaurant. I began my apprenticeship with him, and after four years moved on to work at Mission Hill Winery in the role of sous chef. After six years in the Okanagan, I felt I needed to test myself by moving overseas to work at the highest level I could find.

In 2007, I moved to England and secured a position as a chef de partie at The Fat Duck. At the time, The Fat Duck was regarded as one of the world’s finest and most celebrated restaurants. While in Europe, I also had the opportunity to complete several stages before returning home to Canada.

Once I was settled in Vancouver, I held senior positions at the Pear Tree Restaurant and at Jean Georges’ first restaurant in Canada in the Shangri La Hotel. At that point in my career, I felt my training was complete and that I was ready to begin the steps of opening my own restaurant. In late 2009, the concept and location of L'Abattoir was solidified and in July of 2010 the doors were opened.

Any advice for current students wanting to follow in your footsteps?

Stay humble and understand that the learning never ends. I’m more than 25 years into my career and I understand now that I really don't know much about anything at all! Also, nothing trumps hard work and determination. 

What’s your favourite food dish?


What’s the best part about being an owner/chef?

You can make your own rules.

What’s the worst part about being an owner/chef?

Oftentimes, your own rules are ineffective.

What’s next for you?

One foot in front of the other ... still working to make our restaurant a sustainable, profitable, inclusive, intelligent business we can be proud of. The work is never done.

Tags: Culinary Arts | Our Alumni

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