Executive Chef Alejandro Cancino is leaving Urbane.
It’s a huge loss for the award-winning fine diner, frequently regarded as Brisbane’s best restaurant. Under Cancino’s stewardship, Urbane has become renowned for its vegan degustation menu.
Cancino will wrap up at the restaurant on June 30 before moving to the Sunshine Coast with his wife and young daughter to focus on his plant-based product company, Fenn Foods, and open both a cafe in July and small fine-dining, plant-based space in the new year.
Cancino tells Broadsheet the decision to leave the Urbane Group (Urbane, The Euro and Laneway Bar) stretches as far back as a year ago.
“It is what it is,” he says. “You want to do what you want to do in life.
“I know it seems like a shame. We’re doing well in the restaurant. I have everything covered. Financially we’re doing pretty well. We’ve got awards. We’ve got everything. The team, I love them, I could work with them forever. But it’s not what I want to do.”
At the heart of Cancino’s decision is his desire to focus on more sustainable forms of cooking – “I want to stop cooking meat, basically,” he says – and open a venue that better represents his values.
“I always had a bit of a dilemma,” he says. “Food and cooking is about joy, right? But you know someone somewhere in the world is suffering. That does not make me feel good. It’s always something that has bothered me. It should be happiness, joy, entertainment … If I’m going to build something I’m going to build it on a good base.”
Cancino says Urbane Group business partner Andy Buchanan has been supportive of his decision, although that didn’t stop him from trying to get the Argentinian-born chef to change his mind.
“He tried to convince me so many times,” Cancino laughs. “‘Man! You’re making the wrong decision. You’re leaving a business that’s making money. You have a name. You’re crazy!’ And I was like, ‘Thank you, Andy, I know what you mean.’ But as I said to my wife, I’d rather fail on something I want to do than succeed on something I don’t want to do.
“I don’t regret anything but if I don’t do this, I will regret in the future that I didn’t follow that little voice inside saying, ‘This is not what you want to do. This is not what you should be doing.’”
Cancino’s decision follows last month’s closure of CBD fine diner Esquire and its sister restaurant, Esq with owner Ryan Squires saying it was hard to sustain “progressive restaurants” in Brisbane’s food and drink market. Cancino, though, says such concerns didn’t influence his decision.
“Absolutely no,” he says. “The Urbane Group is such a dynamic place, three venues in one. We only open Urbane three nights a week and every night we open, we’re full. So I think there is still room for that. But you have to be really flexible and any night we’re not opening, we try to host functions.”
On the Coast, Cancino will focus on Fenn Foods before, all things going to plan, opening a cafe in July. “It will be for locals. I won’t call it ‘vegan’ or ‘plant-based’,” he says. “I want to make a point: if people simply come and enjoy it, great. And if they complain, they can go somewhere else.”
The plant-based fine diner is a longer-term project: “At the beginning of next year I will open a tiny space – maybe just an open kitchen with about eight to 10 seats. And my aim will be to make it as good as possible.
“Ask any chef: you cook for yourself,” Cancino continues. “You cook for yourself and then you hope people like what you do … I think this will be the first time I will be aligned with what I think and feel. And I think when that happens, you are much more focused and much more real to yourself and then you do better. The future is going to be good.”
Andrew Gunn will take over as executive chef for Urbane. He’s been working alongside Cancino in recent months to prepare for the role.