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Chef spices up Country Club (video)

By Melissa Crowe
Dec. 5, 2012 at 6:05 a.m.
Updated Dec. 6, 2012 at 6:06 a.m.

Victoria Country Club's new chef, James Canter firmly believes in establishing ties with local farmers to use fresh produce in his dishes.

Dressed in a black chef jacket and khaki cargo pants, James Canter casually emerges from his office into the bustling kitchen at Victoria Country Club.

A hint of a tattoo peeks from under his cuff, and his earlobes slightly sag from years of gauging out his now non-existent piercings. If not for "Executive Chef" monogrammed on Canter's jacket, one might wonder what he was up to.

But as Victoria's newest chef, who has fed international dignitaries and holds a national title for paella, Canter is out to turn the focus of the Victoria's food philosophy inward.

It's Tuesday about 9:30 a.m. and boxes of fresh salmon, vegetables and other ingredients are arriving. Aside from an order of scallops running four hours late out of San Antonio, Canter's second week is smooth like butter.

He has a list of ideas he wants to improve on, but with the busy holiday season, is pacing himself and the staff. They started last week making creme brulee.

"I want to make the kitchen a scratch kitchen," Canter said. "Everything made in-house."

Canter took over after the former executive chef, Matt Reid, moved to Houston, said Breene Cantwell, the club's general manager.

Cantwell said Canter's arrival is not just exciting for the club, but for the community.

"He's already volunteered to do some cooking for the fire department, and he's volunteered to do the cooking for a charity event," Cantwell said. "Economically, he's trying to buy as much as he can locally."

Cantwell said the new chef has all the personality and poise to become a local celebrity.

Before moving to the Rio Grande Valley three years ago, Canter, now 41, was convinced Texas "wasn't his cup of tea."

In fact, it was supposed to be a stop-over on his way back to the San Francisco Bay area. But a restaurant in McAllen and now the country club in Victoria changed his mind. He's warmed up to the culture, people and especially barbacoa tacos that cost him a pant size.

"I fell in love with Texas," he said. "It's been good to my family."

Canter grew up on the Chesapeake Bay around the culinary world. His grandmother worked as a cook at the county jail and his uncle owned a seafood restaurant on the bay, The House of Seafood.

He had his career narrowed down to three ideas: a marine biologist, a construction worker or a chef. He didn't know he wanted to follow the culinary path.

"It's a way to express your creativity," he said.

He enjoys putting together flavor profiles and making food presentations.

"Food is a common thread that ties us together," he said.

If people can forge lasting relationships through food, he wants to be the person to make it happen.

"People don't realize how important it is to feed themselves or other people," he said.

He got an apprenticeship at an Omni Hotel and worked in kitchens across the country.

Although same days are more trying than others, and he has the kitchen-battle scars to prove it.

His philosophy is one made popular by celebrity chefs Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan: "farm to fork."

In McAllen, Canter founded and managed two farmers markets. He sees potential in Victoria's.

"With food insecurity and the economy a little insecure, more than ever, it's important to invest in local ideas," he said.

He wants to bring international flare to Victoria, but keep the menu steeped in local tradition. Already, he uses Texas-sourced seafood and Lockhart quail in his menus, which had not been done before at the club.

"I want to bring the focus on our community and get back to the nucleus of our community," Canter said.

To Canter, the main difference between a chef and a cook is accountability and awareness.

He holds a national title for his paella, a complex seafood and rice dish from Spain he casually calls his "signature," and brags he has never worked a day in his life.

"You have to have a servant's heart and, of course, experience," Canter said. "It takes 10 minutes to put on a chef's jacket, but 10 years to be a chef."

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