Born and raised in Regina, Troy Fleischhaker has always had a passion for travel and cooking. He worked in pizza restaurants as a teenager, and at 19-years old joined a government-sponsored cooking apprenticeship program in Banff, which set the course for the rest of his life.
On completion, he enrolled at SAIT, graduating in 1997, with a goal to travel. “That's all I wanted to do - work overseas,” he says. “In ‘98 I did a big tour of Europe, and then in ’99, I decided to move to Australia and worked in Melbourne for a year. I was blown away by the food scene there.”
Fleischhaker also played drums in a punk rock band, and fluctuated between being a part-time chef in Calgary, and taking two months off to tour Canada, and sometimes the United States too. “It was pretty fun,” he says, “but at 29-years old, I realized I can't continue to play music and live paycheck to paycheck, so I decided to continue with my chef career.”
With a UK visa, he settled in Edinburgh and worked for nine months until the weather got to him, and it was time to move on. “A friend randomly sent me an email when I was going through this transition of what am I going to do in Europe next, saying: 'I'm in Greece house-sitting on Santorini Island', so I gave my two weeks notice and found work there, until a friend that I went to culinary school with called and said: ‘I'm living in Beirut, and running restaurants throughout the Middle East’, and needed my help to run the Beirut locations. After all the interviews, I signed a two year contract - they liked my cooking.”
Fleischhaker loved Beirut - the food, the lifestyle, having no expenses… however a dangerous and escalating political situation meant he had to come home in 2007. “It was a very abrupt ending to something that I was personally just in love with.”
Unexpected opportunities are a recurring theme for Fleischhaker, and in 2013 a friend of a friend was working in the Philippines on the set of Survivor, and they’d just fired their head chefs. “So 10 days later I was on an airplane to Manila, and I spent five months there working six days a week, 12 hours a day. And when you're done, you have a bank account full of money, so you travel… and I did - all over Asia,” he says. He was invited back to Survivor in Nicaragua, and declined for personal reasons, accepting another stint in 2015, in Cambodia. “They call Survivor the Holy Grail of television shows because we fly in the best ingredients and everyone's so spoiled,” says the chef.
Fleischhaker’s mom is from Veracruz in Mexico, and he’s always had a love for the food: “Whenever I go to Mexico, I spend all my time with my family in the kitchen, cooking and learning, eating out, and staring at what they're doing. I really identify with Mexican cuisine.” He launched Cruz Tacos, where he gained recognition in enRoute magazine’s Best New Restaurant list, and this has come together with his Happy Salt restaurant consultancy at Bite Grocer & Eatery, where he is executive chef.
After 25 years Fleischhaker is still tempted by the offers he gets to travel and work, but it’s becoming more difficult: “My mom's 85-years old and I look after her, and I have a fiancé. I'm happy here at Bite. They treat me really well, and we're building the Cruz brand again.”
So what bottle is Fleischhaker saving for a special occasion?
“It's a mezcal from Oaxaca, called Koch El”, he says. “It's special because it's a gift, and it's special because I love Oaxaca. If I could just go spend a year in Oaxaca, I'd probably leave tomorrow. I would just love to just go there and learn to cook. Mexico has got that special place in my heart because I'm half Mexican. I just love it. I would like to open the bottle on my wedding day when I marry Jiwon, the love of my life.”