Interview with Thomas Haas of Thomas Haas – Vancouver, Canada

June 2011

Antoinette Bruno: Why did you become a pastry chef?
Thomas Haas: Well the story is: I was never given a choice! Growing up in the business, my parents, my grandparents, and my great grandparents all owned a pastry business; you just fall into it. And at that time, my generation, you didn’t question it. You just said “OK, this is what I’m gonna’ do.” I have no regrets, you know, making the right choices throughout my career, which made me love what I’m doing. And I keep on loving what I’m doing, so I never look back.

AB: So you’re a fourth generation pastry chef?
TH: Yeah.

AB: Wow. That’s pretty amazing!
TH: Quite single-minded, yeah!

AB: Who would you consider to be your most influential mentor?
TH: I mean, there have been several people along my career, but I do have to say, I’m sorry, but it is Daniel Boulud, I think. I have not learned from him in a sense of “come and teach me how to make pastry,” you know. But just being and working there (it was through the opening of Daniel on Park Avenue), it was probably one of the biggest openings at that time. The intensity, the pressure, and getting to know him, how he runs his business, reading between the lines, I think it influenced me deep down and it still does.

AB: Tell me about why you came to Vancouver and let’s talk about your shop.
TH: Actually, I was supposed to end up in Chicago. I was working at a two-star restaurant in Switzerland, in St. Moritz, and I was approached by the general manager and the executive chef of the Four Seasons in Chicago, so I chose to come and go with them. Me, 25 years old, and the big North American dream, and I was like ready to go and I ended up in Vancouver because I couldn’t get a visa fast enough for the United States. So they offered me, “Hey would you like to go to Canada, to Vancouver?” I checked in with an ex-girlfriend and she said, “Oh yeah, you will love that city.” And so then I ended up in Vancouver, and funny, I did have my big stint in New York to really experience the real big city, and when I came back to Vancouver after that … we fell into the things as they come. My true belief was just do the best you can do every day and things will happen. And so I kind of stumbled into making my own chocolates for a business I was consulting for, and then they grew, and then hotels were ordering this all over the States. Then all of a sudden we are the biggest supplier to most of the five-star hotels in the Unites States. And that’s the way it started. Over the years we’ve focused on retail, and it just has become the force of the business.

AB: Is retail more profitable?
TH: You asked the person who never looks at numbers, you know? I had no business plan; I never look at numbers. I just say, “Hey do good work,” and if the customers come, then you have no worries.

AB: How did you fund this business?
TH: All by ourselves, being humble and grounded, working for four years—without exaggeration—18-hour days. I had a consulting job during the day and whatever we could save from the midnight chocolate-making. We saved over the years, and yeah, we went to the bank and they said, “Do you have a business plan?” And I said, ”No, but this is what I want to do.” And not that it matters but we owned the building; we built our kitchen from scratch.

AB: What’s your favorite tool?
TH: Oh, that’s a tough one. I think it’s this. It’s the hands.

AB: No one can buy your hands. What else can they buy?
TH: For chocolate-making, they should buy a good tempering machine because you don’t need to waste your time tempering chocolates if you know how to, but rather focus and put that time into the quality of your product.

AB: I loved your almond twice-baked croissant!
TH: Oh thank you! That’s our most popular baked item, I would say. The French do them. They call them “croissant d’amande” and they are pretty much standard wherever you go, but they don’t taste that great. So I think we have a little less baggage when we create something.

AB: You don’t have to do it based on tradition.
TH: No, we can start from a clear sheet, and then we create from there. And you can ask anyone in the kitchen and they’ll say, “Oh my god, yeah, he’s coming with crazy ideas, and we start from scratch,” and then we just build on it and sometimes it takes us five times and sometimes it takes 10, and another only two, and this one developed step-by-step. We just put it together. We start with a good croissant, I think that’s important. And you start with a really good almond cream. And we are generous in what we do. So I think there is just the right amount of all those ingredients matching up which gives you crispness and richness and just the kind of deliciousness you need to have.

AB: So how long have you had the shop?
TH: So this one opened a year and a half ago, but the other side of town where our original business is … [we have] two stores. Each store has a kitchen. The chocolates are all made in our big kitchen which is 3,500 square feet on the North Shore.

AB: What’s next?
TH: That’s a good question. I get that all the time, and it’s our new definition of growth. My definition of growth is getting better, and I’m so bored of the places I see and everybody is multiplying and multiplying and they all have the drive of getting bigger and getting bigger. For what motivation? It doesn’t make my life easier. Money has never driven me. So I want to get better, and we want to get better as a business—what we do for our customers, what we can do for our staff, and what we can do for ourselves. I’m really [happy]…to not work over 90 hours a week, sometimes over 100 hours, but 70 or maybe 80 hours, I would be happy.

AB: So quality of life?
TH: Yeah, balance. A certain balance but not letting go of that passion of what we do. So that is our next step, and that is something I’m very determined for.