When Stu Irving’s restaurant closed last year, the chef started spending more and more time at No. 5 Orange, a gentleman’s club on the edge of Vancouver’s hip Gastown neighborhood. He would arrive early in the morning and stay long hours, leaving only after the last customer tripped out of the door, as the girls changed back into their sweatpants and wiped the glitter from their eyelids. But Irving wasn’t a client. He had been recruited to revamp the menu.
News of this oddity—haute cuisine at a strip club—made for a brief media flash, but it’s worth a closer look. After all, there are some 4,000 strip clubs in the United States, and every day more and more unemployed chefs—many strutting out of culinary institutes. Why not pair them up? Especially because, as the Bureau of Labor Statistics notes, chefs make a median income of just over $40,000, and dancers can make, well, a lot more than that. Canada is as progressive on stripper issues as anywhere (at least until they were until they discontinued the stripper visa). So I met up with Irving in Vancouver to get his best tips for making the strip/steak combination work.
Tip 1: Get Over the stigma
Irving won awards for his innovative cuisine in Vancouver at Wild Rice and later at Cobre, which he opened in 2007. His specialty was intense Latin American flavors: he was known for using 10 different kinds of chiles in his menu. But like many good restaurants before it, his had to close last year after its lease came to an end. The stigma of taking his skills to a strip club—even for what he knew was an interim challenge—could have bothered some, but Irving is tougher than most. He’s tall and tattooed and his business card reads “Unfrozen Caveman Chef”—a bit of humor about his rustic cooking style. He seems an unlikely type to worry much about wagging tongues. For him, the prestige is in the patrons: food sales have tripled over the four months he has been in charge.
Tip 2: Learn to cook for people who didn’t come to eat
Up until now, No. 5 Orange’s owners counted only on the girls to feed some very different appetites. “The expectations are very different,” says Irving, adding he’s only ever cooked for people who are stomach-hungry. “Eating isn’t why people are here, it’s more like an afterthought at this place.” The solution? Stick to very simple, well-sourced and straight-forward dishes. Surprisingly, he was able to keep the prices the same as the “mostly frozen and reheated nasty stuff” that was previously available at the strip club.
Tip 3: Revamp the kitchen first
Before he could put his new menu to the test, Irving had to deal with the kitchen. He had been given a tiny, grimy kitchen that would have given nightmares to health inspection officials. The first thing he did was to renovate the space. No need to amplify the ‘ick’ factor.
Tip 4: Do your prep work off-site
No. 5 Orange’s kitchen is a one-man operation, not designed to feed the 120 customers that can fit in this place. Irving had to find ways to keep up with the demand. “We had to make food in a commissary kitchen off-site” he says, “like the meatballs and things like that, which we would reheat for the sandwiches. It’s the way it had to be, but there’s no reason why that had to be a drop in quality. If you’re smart about it, you know how to do it, it works out well.”
Some people do find it awkward eating a big meal at a strip club.
Tip 5: Work the floor
Though he had to learn to work among drunk customers, Irving says he enjoyed the direct contact he had with the people who ate his food. He would walk around the floor during breaks and serve the food himself—a perfect way to get direct feedback. No word about whether they stuffed dollars down his apron, but the reactions, he says, were positive, from the staff to the regulars to the one-off visitors. Popular items at No. 5 Orange now include the Philly cheesesteak and the (suitably phallic) German beerwurst Reuben dog with Montreal smoked meat, sauerkraut and hot mustard.
Tip 6: Don’t interfere with the show
“Some people do find it awkward eating a big meal at a strip club,” admits Irving. Serving that meal to customers leering in what’s known as the pervert row or sniffers’ row (two delightful industry names for the seats closest to the stage) is equally fraught. “But some seats are in the back and the girls are just kind of in the distance, in the background,” says Irving. “So I think there’s an opportunity for everybody to dig in, feed both things—or just casually relax and enjoy it in a shadier part of the club.”
Tip 7: Get back into real restaurants
Irving’s new restaurant, Cuchillo, just opened at the beginning of August. It serves simple yet modern Latin American cuisine, flavors he’s been working with for years dating back to his during his days at Cobre. On the menu: everything from glazed pork belly with plantain chips and chicharrón to duck crackling tacos with roasted garlic and blackberry habanero jam. The reviews have been good and the opening is a success thus far, says Irving. But that doesn’t mean his strip club days are over. Every morning, he parks at No. 5 Orange, located just down the street from Cuchillo, and checks that everything is in order. He’s hired a cook in his stead, someone he trusts will keep his vision going and sales up. But he has no illusions about the one hard truth of cooking in strip clubs: “People are going there,” he says, “mostly to see naked women.”