As part of the Canada 150 celebrations happening this year, we’ll be exploring Canadian food from coast to coast all year long. In our Canada’s Chefs series, Tiffany Mayer will be profiling Canadian Chefs from every province embracing Canadian cuisine. This month she interviews BC's Dana Ewart and Cameron Smith of Joy Road Catering, who celebrate the Okanagan Valley's "cuisine de terroir."
Dana Ewart and Cameron Smith are little like Clark Kent and Superman.
You’re not likely to see the proprietors of Joy Road Catering in the same place at the same time. But how else would the Okanagan Valley chefs keep up with the insatiable demand for their al fresco dinners put on in orchards, vineyards and on mountainsides from Vernon to Osoyoos if they were always together?
Splitting up in the kitchen to simultaneously cook their “cuisine de terroir” in different locations literally lets Ewart and Smith make food when the sun shines. After all, anyone who’s lived through an Okanagan winter knows the abundance the duo rely on for their outdoor feasts is slim during dreary inversion season. And the mouths drawn to the Okanagan for culinary salvation like that offered by Joy Road’s “food of the earth” are virtually nil.
“We wouldn’t be able to do what we do,” Ewart says. “How many Saturdays are there in the summer? We do what we have to.”
That business plan of divide and conquer in the kitchen seems to be working in catering and in life, though couple Ewart and Smith maintain they and their relationship can take the heat of any galley that would be lucky enough to have both of them in it at the same time.
The chefs have lots of practice working behind the burner together, finding themselves as culinarians and each other as partners in the acclaimed and storied kitchens of Toronto’s Avalon Restaurant, and Norman Laprise’s Toque! and James McGuire’s Le Passe Partout in Montreal.
Ewart was born to wear a toque blanche. She grew up the daughter of a hippie mom who espoused raw food. “So I had to fend for myself,” she recalls with a laugh.
There were perks of subsisting on the uncooked, though. The family, who lived in a small town near Kingston, Ontario, had a garden where Ewart could dirty her hands and cut her teeth husking corn, topping berries and beans, and even selling the produce they grew.
If ever there was a sign she was destined for culinary greatness, however, it came with her first cooking job as a teen. It was at a summer camp. Her co-chef was Joel Watanabe, these days the chef-owner of Vancouver’s Kissa Tanto, the culinary genre-bending Japanese-Italian spot named Canada’s best new restaurant of 2016 by enRoute magazine. Watanabe is also chef of the renowned Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie.
“It’s funny the two of us grew up in a hippie vegan kitchen together,” Ewart says.
After that, Europe beckoned, then Stratford Chefs School. Ewart was 18 when she applied and didn’t get accepted until someone dropped out and made room for her. Good thing, because we may have lost her to Denmark, Ewart’s Plan B, where she hoped to make cheese.
It was at Stratford that Ewart was further indoctrinated with the local, seasonal eating mantra, which today guides every one of Joy Road’s menus.
Smith’s journey to the kitchen was a bit more of “a slow burn,” he says, starting with studying liberal arts at university and not enjoying it. The Toronto native quit school and found a job in an Italian kitchen in Markham instead. He loved working with his hands, the instant satisfaction of cooking.
“As I did it more and more, I got more and more passionate about it. It just got me,” Smith remembers.
His boss signed up Smith for a government apprenticeship program — a cost-savings measure more than an act of encouragement for his young protege’s development. Smith would do lunch service in Markham, then go work a few hours in a hospital kitchen, making $17 an hour, before heading back to the restaurant for dinner.
He jokes that was the biggest salary he’s earned as a chef cooking for someone else. The work was gruelling, “but I really loved it. I was learning a ton.” And it ended up being his ticket to culinary school at George Brown College.
After racking up some serious resume envy in other kitchens, the duo headed out on what Smith calls a shopping trip. It was 2005 when they strapped their mountain bikes to their car and drove across the country, pedalling around cities and towns where they stopped in order to find where they wanted to stay.
When they arrived in the Okanagan Valley, they reconnected with a Stratford Chefs School alumna and were immediately put to work in her kitchen. “The Okanagan really embraced us. It was, ‘Great! You can cook,’” Ewart says.
They catered weddings, made canapés for wineries that had previously been buying cheese trays at Safeway. The couple would try anything and, wowed by the proximity to local food and wine, they fell in love with the place.
It helped, too, that despite settling in a virtual cornucopia, few of the local restaurants at the time were buying and serving local, seasonal food. A niche was waiting to be carved.
The couple planned on a restaurant but catering proved a better business model, especially when the prime eating season — and culinary tourism window — is only a few months a year over the summer.
“The economics of the place made a restaurant hard and it still does,” Smith explains. “(Catering) was the answer to cooking really good food without the infrastructure.”
Still, they do have a solid foundation for their business. Joy Road, named for the street on which the couple live, has a dedicated farmer, Jordan Marr, in addition to having a valley filled with local growers to buy from. They raise their own pigs, and spend their off-season curing cuts and making vinegar. They ferment kimchi and sauerkraut, and thumb through seed catalogues to plan for the season to come with Marr.
They also travel — this year to Japan — to find new ideas to bring back to their own kitchen. It helps them avoid repetitive or predictable menus born of the clockwork-like harvests of asparagus, stone fruit and tomatoes.
In the 12 years since Ewart and Smith arrived in the Okanagan, Joy Road has become the garden path to comestible bliss. Their long table vineyard meals, which show utmost respect for the ingredients they use, are hot tickets. Joy Road’s weekend dinners at God’s Mountain Estate bed and breakfast also sell out months in advance while their menus may only be finalized the day of, dictated by the forecast as much as the ingredients available.
“If it’s 42°C and we’re making soup, we might think, ‘Ooh, were doing chilled pea soup instead,’” Ewart explains. “It’s nice to be flexible and work within the day. I’m sure a lot of cooks hate that because it changes things.”
In addition to putting on the dining events of the season, theirs is the stall to visit Saturday mornings at the Penticton Farmers Market. It’s where Ewart and Smith pedal their pastries to long lineups of fans and scope out ingredients for the next menu. But you still won't see them together there.
Instead, you'll see further credibility of the Joy Road mandate of showcasing the best of the Okanagan.
“The crowd around the market stand is epic. It’s usually down the street. There are nine people trying to talk to us,” Ewart says. “It’s our community and it’s nice for our customers because they’re privy to all the background conversations. It’s, ‘Oh, are you planning a dinner for tomorrow night?’ The building blocks of our food, everything comes from local growers. Ninety per cent of it is from a stone’s throw from our table. It’s nice to be a legitimate locavore.”
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Canada’s Chefs is written by Tiffany Mayer, a freelance journalist and author of Niagara Food: A Flavourful History of the Peninsula’s Bounty (History Press, 2014). She blogs about food and farming at eatingniagara.com. You can also listen to her newly launched food podcast, Grub.