Station: Words with Nick Versteeg
The Americans unwittingly did Nick Versteeg a big favour by testing nuclear bombs at Bikini Atoll.
The tiny string of radioactive islands gave the veteran Cowichan Bay filmmaker his big break into making marketable documentaries.
Versteeg also did some of his most memorable diving in the Bikinis, plunging into a film-making career that’s eclipsed his first seeming-unrelated trade as a pastry maker.
But to the native Netherlander, all of his work boomerangs to the Golden Rule.
“It goes back to my grandfather who taught me to treat people with respect. I’m not a journalist, I’m a storyteller. From the people you meet, you form the story.”
Versteeg’s story started in Holland with high-school pastry studies, then a hitch on the Dutch army’s kitchen wagon. In the ‘70s he baked by day in his shop, then screened community movies at night with brother, Dick.
“I was always an avid eight-millimeter film maker; an amateur.”
His pro camera career continues this spring with the documentary Resilience, about the stresses faced by the heritage Cowichan River. Resilience follows his 2013 award-winning tourism picture Once Upon A Day . . . Cowichan — and Island At The Edge, Versteeg’s timely 2008 message about food security.
Food has been his focus in recent years when he made a plate full of culinary documentaries. But Versteeg’s appetite for people and places first propelled him from pastries to producing pictures for Canadian corporate clients, then various networks.
“In Holland, we saw a film on Banff on TV, and I fell in love with the place.”
He immigrated to Canada after buying a bakery in Hinton, Alberta. It fizzled as Versteeg’s movie making grew through new cameras, and the 1980 doc The History of the Foothills. Versteeg moved to the coast 1982, studied at Vancouver Film School, and made videos for BC Hydro, B.C. Gas and other clients through his company, Dusmar Productions.
Crucial connections happened with A&E’s brass at the Banff TV Festival.
“The toughest part is selling your first production because you have no background — we only had our corporate background. It’s trust building; A&E trusted us, and we got our second assignment for Bikini Atoll.”
His firm’s first A&E outing was 1995’s The Legacy of Truk Lagoon, chronicling Second World War naval carnage between Japanese and U.S. forces in the South Pacific.
“It was an amazing place slowly falling apart; the ships and tanks are deteriorating. Production-wise it did very well, and the DVD has sold well — we held on to the rights.”
Costa Rica’s jungles — during a corporate job for the nation’s government — helped usher Versteeg’s ‘96 Discovery Channel doc Mayan Pompeii, unearthing El Salvador’s ancient culture.
“The area was covered by volcanic ash. We were the first ones to go in,” he said of village excavations. “The story is about what happened to the people. On every project we hired a professor, experts on the subject.
“El Salvador was also just out of a war; it’s the first time I had a body guard with me.”
But his 1997 Bikini doc — and the region’s gentle people — left “spectacular” impressions.
“It’s also a sad production because it was 50 years after the Bikinians were asked to leave their island, and still haven’t returned. The bottom’s still highly contaminated.”
Versteeg doubts he suffered radiation effects (“The Geiger counter never showed any readings”) while gawking at incredible fish and coral.
“It’s completely untouched. I dove lots of places in the world, and that’s still the highlight.”
He may even return to Bikini for his 65th birthday this July.
“We didn’t make a penny from Truk, but with Bikini the company started making money. You travel the world and from everyone you meet, you learn something completely new.”
By ‘99, capturing kitchen action gave Versteeg fresh material. He won a James Beard Award for The Road to the Bocuse d’Or competition where 2,500 people cheer on 25 chefs from around the world.
“It was like a soccer game for chefs. It was a thrill; the Oscar of the culinary world.”
Through an acquaintance came lucky connections with the Food Network, where he shipped execs a pilot idea.
“It stared a 10-year relationship, and that’s when we created our company DV Cuisine (‘91).”
Another Beard grew from The World Pastry Cup, and four Leo Awards for The Next Great Chef.
While more projects continue to marinate, Versteeg didn’t hesitate naming his second career choice.
“If not making movies, I’d be a pastry chef. (But) don’t ever expect me to retire; I love my job. I wake every day with ideas for productions.”
Wife: Elly; kids, two.
Came to Cowichan: 2005
Favourites: Dessert, peach melba; Director, Steven Spielberg; Wine, red; Meat, fish; Countries, Italy and France; Documentary, Searching For Sugar Man
Biographical iBook with 60 built-in videos: From Baker To Filmmaker
Network projects: A&E, A&E History Channel, Discovery Channel, CBC and CTV, U.S. and Canadian Food Network, Global TV.
Documentaries on food: Food Security: It's in your hands (2011); Island on the Edge (2008); The Global Chefs Challenge (2008); The Edible Schoolyard; Master Chef; The World Baking Cup; World Pastry Cup
Other Docs: Cucina Revista, Italy; The Mystique of the Truffle; The World Culinary Olympics
Future project: Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner: The Inequity of Food Distribution in the World.