Black garlic. Wenzel duck. In-house smoked bacon and in-house dry-aged beef.

These are just some of the fabulous playthings in Kris Kabush’s new culinary sandbox.

Kabush, 27, took over the reins as Executive Chef at Burnaby’s  Hart House Restaurant last month, and black garlic — originally a Korean and Japanese fermented health food that’s recently become all the rage with North American chefs for its unusual, intense and sweet flavour — is on the menu in several of his dishes. “It’s delicious,” he says.

Kabush, born and raised in Surrey, grew up in a family of foodies. His mother taught cooking and other home ec arts in the Surrey school district, and his dad, he says, is an avid cook as well, particularly when it comes to barbecuing.

Although he began making pancakes for the family when he was four years old, Kabush didn’t discover a real passion for cooking until high school, when he got his first restaurant job. Once he graduated, he began working as an apprentice at the Wedgewood Hotel, finished the Red Seal program at Vancouver Community College and completed his apprenticeship at Vancouver’s Four Seasons Hotel before working in the kitchens of such highly rated restaurants as Lumiere and Cioppino’s. It was the passion and the drive for excellence he saw in the people he worked with that inspired him to go for the gold himself.

His mission now is not only to update HH’s menu but to obliterate the fusty perception that the restaurant is “a place to take your grandma” as he oversees a range of inventive dishes that are Mediterranean in spirit and flavour — “Italian, Spanish, with a kick of French influence,” is how he describes it. That black garlic? He buys it at South China Seas Market on Granville Island in Vancouver, and the Wentzel duck is  an Indiana farm product he prefers because “I find the quality and flavour of their ducks superior to any other available to me.”

“It’s a dream job,” he says of his current position and though the restaurant industry is often hard on family life, Kabush says he is able to balance things so that he can spend time with his wife, Jill, and their four-year-old son Ethan. “Free time is family time for me. We go shopping, we go for walks or bike rides. In the summer, we’re camping almost every weekend.”

Maybe it’s the intricate and unusual dishes chefs have to dream up when they’re on the job, but when they’re  not working, most find their cravings often run to simpler foods. Kabush is no different. “I love pasta,” he says when asked to name his favourite food. At home, his wife’s spaghetti with meat sauce rates at the top for him. As for “junk food,” his biggest weakness is for chocolate chip cookies,  particularly those “like my Grandma used to make.”

There aren’t a lot of gadgets in the Kabush home kitchen. Give him a good knife, a decent cutting board and a hand blender and he’s a happy man. When asked what we’ll always find in his fridge or pantry, Kabush chuckles: “We have everything in the fridge. We are known as the people who always have full fridges and pantries.”

Cookbooks are also prominent. Kabush says he has about 100 of them in his collection and “I love them all. I love to read what’s new, what other chefs are doing. (My job) is a learning curve that never ends.” He got his first book  — Bishop’s: The Cookbook — when he was 15. He often turns to the books for inspiration, he says, and counts The Fat Duck Cookbook, Daniel Boulud’s Letters to a Young Chef and Ad Hoc at Home by Thomas Keller as those he turns to at the moment.

Here’s a recipe that’s a favourite weekend breakfast treat at the Kabush household. You can gussy them up by sprinkling them with fresh or frozen blueberries, or bananas and chocolate chips after ladeling the batter into a hot pan. For the Kabushes, “it depends on what Ethan’s in the mood for,” he says.

KRIS’S FAVOURITE PANCAKES

1½ cups all-purpose flour
1¾ tsps. baking powder
2 whole eggs, one egg white separated
Pinch of salt
4 tbsps. melted butter
1½ cups milk

Sift dry ingredients together in a medium bowl.

Beat one egg white with a pinch of sugar to soft peaks. Beat remaining eggs with milk. Add to dry ingredients, reserving two tbsps. of the liquid.

Gently fold in beaten egg white. Cover and let mixture sit in fridge for 5 minutes. Remove from fridge and add reserved egg/milk mixture, if batter appears too thick. It should be thicker than regular pancake batter, but not as thick as cake batter. Fry pancakes in melter butter. Makes about  10 3-inch pancakes.

Note: Kris Kabush will appear at Granville Island Public Market in Edible B.C.’s Market Dinners program on May 25, 2010. The dinners sell out quickly. Check at http://www.edible-britishcolumbia.com.