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The New Philosophers Series: Kristian Eligh, Executive Chef at Marilena Cafe and Raw Bar

In the heart of Victoria, BC, there exists a culinary maestro creating magic, and whose journey through life is a testament to hard work, dedication, and the power of family meals. Kristian Eligh, the mastermind behind Marilena, brings a unique blend of passion and work ethic to the world of gastronomy. With a philosophy centered around well-being, embracing nutrition, movement, and quality family time, he invites us on a delightful journey through his life milestones and career. 

A childhood fueled by work ethic and family meals

Born in Edmonton but raised in Victoria from the age of 3, Kristian Eligh was a bundle of boundless energy. Competitive sports became his early passion, shaping his character and instilling in him a strong work ethic. Yet, amidst the chaos of youthful exuberance, something magical was happening around his family’s dinner table. “I don’t think I was aware of the power of this time spent together until I looked back later in life and realized that subconsciously, I was building a love for food,” says Kristian. 

For Kristian’s family, the evening meal was sacred, a time when they gathered, nourished their bodies, and shared their day’s stories. It was during these cherished moments that Kristian’s love affair with food began. His parents, great cooks themselves, unknowingly planted the seeds of a future chef during those dinners. They also fostered his adventurous spirit, urging him to explore new cuisines during their travels. “My parents always emphasized the importance of trying new food wherever we went,” he says.

For Kristian’s family, weekday mornings start with quick, nutritious breakfasts like smoothies, yogurt, toast, and cereal. Kristian’s wife, Heather takes pride in crafting elaborate school lunches, filled with healthy snacks and creative options, ensuring their daughters have a balanced diet.

The journey from dishwasher to culinary maestro

At just 16 years old, Kristian began his gastronomic voyage as a dishwasher at Earls in Victoria. In the bustling kitchen, he found a sense of camaraderie and instant gratification reminiscent of his days competing in sports. Although he briefly ventured into a child psychology degree, his heart yearned for the kitchen. “I continued to see promotions and success on the work front and further failures in the classroom” he said.

Kristian’s culinary evolution led him to Vancouver, the epicenter of gastronomy. His tenure at Diva at the Met exposed him to highly competitive kitchens that pushed the boundaries of culinary artistry. “It was here that my eyes were truly opened to the next level of cooking,” he says. Kristian absorbed every experience, emerging as the Head Chef 6 years later, signifying the launch of his culinary career. 

His culinary adventures continued with stints at prestigious establishments, including the opening of Market at the Shangri La Hotel. In 2010, an invitation from David Hawksworth to open Hawksworth, a flagship restaurant, marked another milestone in Kristian’s career. As Chef de Cuisine and later as a Culinary Director overseeing multiple ventures, he excelled professionally while nurturing his personal life, including his marriage to Heather and the arrival of their 2 daughters, Hailey and Brooklyn. 

Despite his success in Vancouver, the allure of Victoria beckoned. The Toptable Group’s interest in the Victoria market presented Kristian with the opportunity he had long awaited. Although the pandemic posed challenges, it couldn’t quell their determination. Marilena, a culinary gem, was born, with Kristian playing a pivotal role in its creation, from designing the kitchen space to shaping the restaurant’s concept. Kristian’s heartfelt sentiment encapsulates it all: “It is incredibly special for me to have helped create something like this for the community of Victoria and visitors alike, while contributing to our amazing dining and hospitality scene here.” 

Finding contentment amidst chaos

Kristian’s life is a whirlwind of responsibilities—a new restaurant, young children, and a bustling career. Yet, amid the chaos, he finds contentment.

His unwavering support comes from his rock, his wife Heather, who keeps their household running smoothly. “I couldn’t do what I do without the unmeasurable support I receive every day from my wife Heather,” says Kristian. On his days off, Kristian’s priority is spending quality time with his family. Whether it’s embarking on adventures, engaging in family activities, or enjoying downtime at home, these moments are his sanctuary after a week of work.

A glimpse into the Elighs’ culinary world

In the Eligh household, food and cooking are a reflection of their shared values and love for wholesome eating. Kristian and Heather work diligently to expand their daughters’ palates and foster an appreciation for diverse cuisines. “Cooking in our home looks very similar to what I was exposed to in my childhood. Both my wife and I work very hard to continue to grow both Hailey’s and Brooklyn’s pallet and interests in different foods daily.”

The evolution of self-care and the role of nutrition

As he’s grown older, Kristian has come to recognize the importance of self-care. “It is all too prevalent in my industry to fall into a vicious cycle of work, party, sleep, repeat.” His demanding career and busy life make it challenging, but he’s established a weekly routine that includes early mornings with his children, regular workouts, and a focus on hydration and nourishment. Balancing the rigours of the kitchen with physical and mental self-care has become paramount to his professional longevity.

Nutrition plays a significant role in Kristian’s self-care journey. He and his family have consciously shifted towards a diet that incorporates alternative protein sources and increased vegetable consumption. This dietary choice has not only improved their overall well-being but also reflects their commitment to mindful eating.

Physical activity is another crucial aspect of his self-care. Mountain biking and trail running are his escapes into nature, where he recharges both physically and mentally. For a chef with a demanding job, maintaining optimal physical and mental health is essential, and these outdoor pursuits provide the perfect balance.

Embracing natural aging and authenticity

When it comes to aging and self-image, Kristian’s philosophy is refreshingly simple: “Bring on the greys!” He embraces natural aging as a badge of honour, celebrating the lines and wrinkles that bear witness to his culinary successes. His salt-and-pepper look has evolved with time, and he wears it with pride.

Teaching the next generation: be you, be authentic

Kristian and Heather instill in their daughters a message of self-confidence and authenticity. “Our children stay incredibly busy exploring various activities and pursuits. Keeping them busy and providing platforms for them to discover their own hobbies is what it is all about,” says Kristian. 

They encourage their children to embrace their uniqueness and stay true to themselves. While they avoid discussions about fashion and cosmetic products at a young age, they emphasize the importance of being comfortable in their own skin. The Elighs aim to raise confident, happy, and proud individuals who are unapologetically themselves.

Crafting culinary masterpieces and life lessons at Marilena

As Kristian Eligh continues to craft culinary masterpieces at Marilena, he carries with him the lessons learned from his family’s dinner table, the camaraderie of busy kitchens, and the wisdom of aging gracefully. He is a testament to the idea that success in one’s career can be achieved while still maintaining a strong connection to family, a commitment to self-care, and an appreciation for the simple pleasures of life.

In a world that often seems to value speed and convenience over meaningful connections, Kristian’s story serves as a reminder that the moments we share with loved ones over a meal, the support we offer one another in times of challenge, and the authenticity with which we live our lives are what truly matter.

So, the next time you savor a beautifully crafted dish at Marilena, remember that it’s not just a feast for the senses but a reflection of a chef’s journey—one marked by hard work, family bonds, and a passion for the art of cooking. Kristian Eligh’s culinary philosophy is not just about the food on the plate; it’s about the love, care, and dedication that go into every bite, making it an experience to remember.