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How Breeding Snakes Made Me a Better Chef

Keeping reptiles is essentially like keeping front-of-house or back-of-house-staff: You've got to nurture them and keep them healthy and happy, or else they’ll want to escape and die.
March 30, 2015, 2:45pm
Photo via Flickr user Tambako The Jaguar

Chef Grant van Gameren is at the top of his game with two perpetually packed Toronto restaurants, Bar Isabel and Bar Raval, which garnered acclaim across Canada and have people lining up for more than an hour every night. The key? Van Gameren's obsessive nature to be the best at whatever he does, whether it's spending months in Spain to research Spanish and Iberian cooking or making charcuterie at home. But before all of that, he had an affinity for reptiles—breeding pythons, specifically—and like all his endeavors, he made sure that when he sets out to do something, he did it right.

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Keeping reptiles is essentially like keeping front-of-house or back-of-house-staff: You've got to nurture them. It's like keeping 50 snakes. I have 75 staff now, so I'm in charge of 75 lives. They all have different personalities and everyone needs nurturing from their proprietor. If you neglect them, they'll end up quitting. Reptiles taught me that you need to treat them right; you need to give the staff parties, you need to give snakes rats. You've got to do whatever you can to keep them healthy and happy, or else they'll want to escape and die.

Photo courtesy Grant van Gameren.

I always had a thing for animals—especially reptiles—growing up. Turtles were a big thing in my childhood, and I always had one or two growing up in Mississauga. My dad would always leave them outside in the backyard and forget about them. Sometimes they'd get eaten by raccoons or a neighbour would post "Found Turtle" signs a few weeks later. About 15 years ago, when I was about 18 or 19, a pet shop opened in my neighbourhood in Parkdale, and I ended up getting this little baby boa constrictor. I'm the type of guy who's obsessive, whether it's about charcuterie, foraging, fish, canning; so when I get into something, I focus my current life on it. I did a ton of research on raising boa constrictors to make sure I did it right. I had the right tank, lighting, heat source, food. The boa constrictor got to be about eight feet. I then got another snake and some lizards, but what I really got into was snake collecting.

I'd take a dead lizard, boil it in water like you're making a lobster stock, puree it, and dip baby mice in there so that these pythons would smell the lizards and still eat the rats.

It became a collecting obsession. The reptile world is filled with as much—if not, more—gossip, envy, and jealousy as chefdom or restaurant gossip. This was the time when online forums were really taking off and we used to geek out and I was an authoritative figure on how to breed blood pythons in Canada. It was this world where we'd talk about who's importing what, who's breeding captive reptiles, who's selling parasite-ridden snakes. You'd dive into the world of designer snakes: the albino, the oddly patterned ones, snakes that have this genetic trait that would cost thousands of dollars. I was getting snakes mostly from South America, and then Indonesia, Sumatra, and Borneo. At the peak I had about 50 snakes in my bachelor apartment.

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I started cooking at Canoe to fuel the snake-buying, and I was the guy at work with a crazy snake collection.

There was some overlap in cooking. I made a lizard stock for these baby tree pythons that ate lizards rather than rodents. I'd take a dead lizard, boil it in water like you're making a lobster stock, puree it, and dip baby mice in there so that these pythons would smell the lizards and still eat the mice.

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I ended up honing in on the red blood python, which is an endangered species from Sumatra and Borneo. I was trying to do some captive breeding and had 40, 50 of them in my apartment, from babies to massive ones. I kept them in stackable cages from floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall. I also had stacks of rat-breeding enclosures in my closet because each snake had to eat a rat once a week, and they'd cost $3 or $4 each, even though they fuck like crazy. I've had snakes get lose in the apartment in the middle of the night. I had one that escaped during the winter and I found it the next morning, frozen between the window and the heater. I thawed it in the bathtub and it was still alive. I read medical books on how to do minor stuff like intramuscular injections and other small home treatments, but years later it got to a point where I kept them so efficiently that it got very sterile. They were no longer kept in these beautiful tanks that I've done up with moss and sticks. It wasn't a financial thing; it was more about creating a captive breeding program for clean, healthy snakes. But they didn't feel like pets to me, which was why I originally fell in love with them, so I sold everything and bought a loft with $30,000 worth of snake sales.

READ MORE: Hong Kong's Snake Soup Heats Your Blood

I learned that you can move on from an obsession when you start passing that information or skill down to the people around you. A big thing for me was teaching [my former sous chef] Brandon Olsen how to make charcuterie and sausages. I learned not to be such a controlling person. Why not let them make the charcuterie so I can go on and develop an interest in the next thing? I have charcuterie under my belt; I can breed snakes, forage for mushrooms. I can pass this down to my guys and figure out what else excites me. A lot of my line cooks are still working 13, 15, 16 hours a day, whereas I get the ability to go out and travel. So when I travel my goal is to expand my development as a chef and restaurateur so I can, in turn, expand their knowledge.

If you're going to do something, you should do it right. To do that, you're going to need money. With Bar Isabel and Bar Raval, you make investments in the oven, the tools, the space. With the snakes, you need heat lamps, $400 cages, thermostat, and humidity controllers. Charcuterie, well…you also have to be mindful of temperature and humidity or else you get an unsafe and shitty product. I just try to excel and be the best that I can at anything I do.

As told to Karon Liu