Glowbal Group’s Emad Yacoub talks style, struggles, success, and the perfect steak.
He’s bold, he’s stylish, and he’s not afraid to get his hands dirty. At the age of 50, the legendary CEO of Vancouver’s Glowbal Group Emad Yacoub, has accomplished more than most people could hope for in a lifetime — and he’s not planning on stopping.
Egypt-born Yacoub may be a man of many ambitions, but conquering the restaurant business was not one of them when he arrived in Canada as a 19-year-old accounting student. “I couldn’t speak a word of English,” he recalls, looking chic in a silk paisley shirt and cool sculptural glasses as he walks around his newly opened 500-seat restaurant. It’s a very different picture from his first days at Toronto’s Harbour Castle Hilton.
“I walked in and ended up getting a job in the kitchen, squeezing orange juice. Every day, buckets and buckets of orange juice.” To keep things interesting, he began timing himself, trying to beat his own time each day. “It was a beautiful challenge for me,” he smiles. “It wasn’t just about orange juice, it was about wanting to do better. They called me the fastest orange juice squeezer on the planet.”
Yacoub’s love of a challenge and relentless drive was what propelled him from that well-earned title to the top of the culinary world, first as one of East Coast’s top chefs and later, a restaurateur — an unexpected career path both for himself and his highly-educated family. “I thought I’d be ashamed to tell people I’m a cook,” he admits. “But I realized that I was good at it. My father always told me, it doesn’t matter what you do — just be the best at it.”
Yacoub took the advice to heart, tirelessly honing his craft, whether it meant practicing carving vegetables every night after work or stopping on the side of the highway to pick wildflowers for the brunch buffet table. In 1997, he became, in his words, “one of the last Mohicans” to follow “an exodus” of East Coast chefs to newly cosmopolitan Vancouver, where he joined Joe Fortes as an executive chef. There he also met his wife Shannon Bosa. Five years later, the couple broke onto the city’s blossoming dining scene with Glowbal Grill.
“It was the opposite of everything people were doing,” says Yacoub. In an audacious move, he tore down a Yaletown building’s trademark brown brick to usher in an edgy New York-style space, complete with an eyebrow-raising silhouette of a woman on the window. It was Vancouver’s first taste of the restaurateur’s artistic and oftentimes offbeat vision, which would go on to lead trends in design as much as cuisine — and would occasionally need to be kept in check. “Sometimes I’ll get too advanced on a trend and it backfires,” says Yacoub; “People are not ready.”
Today, the Glowbal family is home to ten restaurants, each with an entirely different approach and feel — from laid-back Fish Shack on the Granville strip, to Alberni Street’s swanky Coast and elegant Black & Blue. “The easiest thing in my life would be to create a perfect restaurant and then open fifty of them,” says Yacoub of his decision not to franchise. With individual restaurants, “you have to worry about everything: the uniforms, the music, the style — but it’s very exciting. Every day is a new idea, every day is a new vision. It’s alive.”
For Yacoub, keeping it alive means always being one step ahead of the ever-changing city. So when Telus CEO and long-time customer Darren Entwistle approached to discuss a much-coveted space in downtown’s brand-new Telus Garden, it was an easy decision to move Glowbal out of its Yaletown setting where, Yacoub notes, it was “no longer the new kid on the block.” The new development had exclusivity, caché, and a new level of sophistication: exactly what Yacoub was looking for.
“I wanted to do everything I had wanted to do the first time I opened Glowbal, but didn’t have the money, the space, or the clientele,” he says. “This time, I had it all.”
Enter the restaurant’s foyer to find a novel and mesmerizing juxtaposition: cold plates of beautifully aged steaks sit proudly encased in glass boxes atop four marble pillars. The concept, Yacoub explains, was inspired by a jewellery display, a “Tiffany box” for meat. A fitting analogy, since according to him, the perfect steak is a rare gem. “It needs to be cooked properly, then rest for five minutes, then just flashed — and that’s it.”
As forward thinking as he’s come to be known, he looks back to the days of his childhood in Egypt for inspiration: an early memory of an old woman on a Cairo street frying tilapia served in a paper bag and dusted with sugar; and to his recent memories: seeing rice bowls lined up on a wooden plank in Vancouver’s Chinatown; tasting the perfect Italian meatball.
Perhaps a greater influence on Yacoub than food itself is his mother’s hospitality.
“My mother was larger-than-life, full of love for everyone. Our front door was always open,” he remembers. “And that’s our company philosophy — anyone walking in is welcomed like it’s my own house. It’s not about the food. We’re creating memories.”
Looking ahead, the plan for Yacoub is to pause and focus on his existing restaurants — but it’s all open to change. “Someday, I’ll slow down,” he chuckles. And for now, he’s busy enjoying his true calling. “For me, food comes from the heart. I don’t have to think about it. It’s just there.”