Before becoming a restaurateur, Albert McKewan (b. 1929) worked as a chef on boats and tankers- including one job that that ended in a catastrophic shipwreck.
I was born in North Vancouver in 1929, and with the Depression my family moved to Strawberry Hill in Surrey, and then in a series of camps on Vancouver Island where my dad was a machinist. We lived, and I went to school, at Cowichan Lake, Youbou (a sawmill town) and Camp Six (a logging camp). There were only about 12 children there.
My first experience cooking was with my mother at one of these camps where we lived in a float house. She and I collected dirt and mixed it in a bowl with water, poured it into a cupcake tin which we decorated with rocks and leaves. Then we “baked” them in the oven.
When I was 10, we moved to Vancouver, on Porter Street at Victoria Drive. My parents feared my sister and I would be or marry loggers, and being city people, they wanted more for us.
The area we moved to was called Cedar Cottage which is approximately 22 Ave to Trout Lake, to Fleming or Clark Street. The Interurban station was at Vaness Street and Commercial Drive, and this tram went from Hastings St to New Westminster, following what is now the SkyTrain route. The #4 streetcar also traveled along Commercial from downtown. They were both electric systems.
I went to Lord Selkirk School until Grade Eight. My parents bought an old house on four lots for $1500 down and $25/month. My father built chicken coops and we kept two horses and some chickens. Our neighbour, Mr. Taylor, a dour Scotsman who worked for Buckerfield’s Country Stores, brought my mother feed for the chickens and oats for the horse. Occasionally, he brought turkey eggs which my mother would put under a bantam hen until they hatched, and then we would raise a couple of turkeys for Thanksgiving. That area had once been an orchard, and there were fruit trees across our property. I sometimes rode my horse to school, and I tied it up in the vacant lot across the street, where I could see it from my classroom window.
The war was underway and businesses were short of men, so they sought other help. Women were hired, and a number of boys at our school were hired by the Woman’s Bakery at 18th Avenue and Knight Street and trained to do the required work. We started at about age 12. It was a two-level building, and a woman upstairs would pour finished dough down a chute to us at the bottom. We’d grab the dough and heave it to the girls who cut it into loaves and put them into bread pans to be baked. Mr Herman Borkent taught us how to roll loaves and make dinner rolls, one in each hand.
I also had a job as a delivery boy for Davis Meat Market on Fleming Street by the end of the #4 streetcar line. It was a one-man butcher shop, so I learned how to link sausages and cut beef stew and little jobs like that. They had a full-time delivery boy, and I helped on Saturdays. I was about 14 years old and made 50 cents for the day and, at the end of the week, Mr. Davis gave me a pound of hamburger for my mother and six wieners or sausages for my two brothers and sisters. After the other delivery boy went to work on the tugboats, I worked after school and all day Saturdays. I also helped out at Bader’s Dutch Bakery on the Drive.
By the time I started my cooking course at Vancouver Technical School, I was prepared in the basics. Van Tech didn’t have fancy equipment, but it taught me the basics of cooking. When I was there, it was a two-year course for boys only. I remember Mr. Read who taught cookies and cake.
I started the school year at Van Tech in September 1945, and one day the following June, I came home and my mother told me that Mr. Price, the instructor chef, wanted me to call him. I was concerned about this because he was good but also a task master. So I called him, and he said a company called Home Oil needed a cook for three days. There were only six men on the tanker, so he thought I was the person who could help them out. A taxi would take me to where the tanker was docked in North Vancouver, so I gathered some cook books and a change of clothing and took the taxi to North Van. The diesel engine was running on the small (85 foot long) wooden tanker. I found out later that it had been painted grey for the war which had ended a few months earlier and was just out of Jones Shipyard in Coal Harbour, where it had been repainted in its usual red and white non-war colours. The mate, taking my bag, told me to climb down the ladder. As soon as my foot hit the deck, they dropped the ladder, cast off the spring lines and we were off. They had been waiting for me.
We were delivering oil and gas to all the logging camps and outposts along the coast. After the third day, my mother called the Home Oil office at 555 Burrard to find out when I’d be returning. the Home Oil receptionist replied: “Oh, the Dynamac, that’s out for six weeks!” Someone had thought that, if I’d known the truth, I wouldn’t have gone out for such a long time. I had just turned 16.
So I cooked three meals per day, seven days per week, for six weeks. The captain and mate each had a cabin, the Chief and Second Engineers shared a cabin, and the deckhand and I had a cabin. There was a small toilet, one hand basin and no bath or shower, so, after six weeks, we were ripe! We changed out socks by putting our left one on the right foot and the right one on the left foot. We went in every fishing camp, logging camp and town all the way to Prince Rupert, where we loaded up with fuel again and went to the Queen Charlotte Islands to fuel all their customers on Masset and Sandspit and many camps with no names. By that time, we were empty again and went back to Vancouver. Then, after a sleep in our own beds for one night and a good bath, I’d stop at Spencer’s grocery store on Hastings and the Ferry Meat Market for new supplies which were delivered, and we’d head out again that day for six weeks.
On one trip, we rode up on a rock 100 miles south of Prince Rupert and broke the keel. We didn’t take on any water, so we continued our route and took the tanker back to Jones Shipyard where she’d been built. They bolted a couple of timbers 18” inches square on either side of the keel, and that fixed the problem. It was a slow tanker, doing only about 7 knots.
I stayed with Home Oil for almost a year and then started work for H.R. Macmillan’s Canadian Transport Company where we took timber and mixed cargo to England. On my third trip, we took timber, grain and produce to Durban, South Africa, and Lourenço Marques. I was with this company for about 18 months.
Then I worked in a Kerrisdale restaurant until a man named Ted LePage came to see me. He and couple of other men were starting a company running passengers and light freight from Vancouver to Gibsons to Sechelt, Pender Harbour, Texada Island, Powell River, Blubber Bay and, finally, Savary Island, and back to Vancouver, and they needed a cook. They had three boats: the Gulf Mariner, the Gulf Wing, and the Gulf Stream; I worked on all of them. The Gulf Line provided a faster service than other lines on similar runs so proved to be a boon to travelers who could now reach their destinations in one day instead of two or three days.
The Gulf Stream met with a tragic accident on the night of October 11, 1947. We had just left Powell River on our way to Savary Island with 21 crew and 15 passengers. We were just a little off course and hit Dinner Rock. We were stuck there on the rock, and then the boat rolled over on her side, and the stern sank. Five people in the stern drowned, and that was the end of the shipping company.
It would have been finished soon anyway, as they had started building roads across to the Sunshine Coast, so people had an alternate way to get around.
I went back to dry land and got a job at a restaurant on Pender Street at Burrard Street called The Samoan Coffee Shop. I worked there for a while and then became a partner, and after my boss retired, I bought him out. We were in a very old building and we were going to renew the lease, but then I saw it had a demolition clause which would have given them the right to demolish our building with a 30-day notice. So we opened a new restaurant called Albert’s. It was a successful restaurant; I married the cashier, and we sold the place in 1970.
My father worked for Tyee Machinery on Granville Island in 1940. He left there to work at at Burrard Dry Dock as a machinist on propellers during the war. They had offered him $1/hour at Burrard Dry Dock, which was a princely wage. After the war, everything stopped. My dad got a job at the New Westminster Paper Mill where he worked until he retired in 1955, at age 70. My parents lived in an apartment at Kingsway and Olive, later moving to the Finnish Manor care Home, where my mother continued to live after the death of my father. She lived to be 103 and ten months.