In our continuing Canada's Tastemakers series we profile people who are making an impact on Canada's food scene, from authors to producers to chefs and more. Today Tiffany Mayer shares the story behind the creation of Tofino, BC's Wickaninnish Inn's eponymous cookbook that's an ode to local ingredients and storm watching season.
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There are two items critical to surviving the wrath of the Pacific Ocean during storm season.
One is Gore-Tex. The other is a bowl of chowder.
Warren Barr, executive chef of The Pointe restaurant at Tofino’s Wickaninnish Inn, can attest to the necessity of both. As the man helming the kitchen at what’s become a beacon for weather watchers, Barr can set you up with the most important of the two survival essentials.
After all, you can watch the Pacific thrash about under ominous skies Gore-Tex-free from the safety of The Pointe with its floor-to-ceiling, 240-degree panorama of Chesterman Beach — while eating bowls of Barr’s corn and clam chowder, of course.
“It’s amazing,” Barr said of the storms that, combined, can drop up to 2,500 millilitres of rain between November and March on Vancouver Island’s west coast. “It’s awe-inspiring by the very definition of the word … seeing one of those storms come through.”
Equally jaw-dropping is the landmark Relais & Chateaux hotel’s latest claim to fame. The Wickaninnish Cookbook: Rustic Elegance on Nature’s Edge was released last month. It’s filled with sturdy, glossy pages that tell the story of a place that turned Mother Nature’s fury into a tourist attraction, and made pragmatic, stick-to-your-ribs chowder a thing of elegance.
To ensure storm watchers elsewhere in the world are covered, the cookbook offers four chowder recipes, including Barr’s satisfying version that’s a formidable shield against any tempest when paired with homemade bread and butter, and beer.
But there are more than 100 other recipes, gathered from every chef who’s stood behind the burner at “The Wick’s” crown jewel Pointe restaurant since it opened in 1996. Together, they take readers "from breakfast to dinner, and from storm watching to beach picnics.”
The real intention of the cookbook, however, is to mark the 20th anniversary of the inn, founded by Tofino native — and Mother Nature’s best PR rep — Charles McDiarmid. It was a last-minute idea during the 2016 milestone that Barr recalled being easier said than done.
A party was planned for October that year with many of The Wick’s regular and return guests invited to attend. “The idea started floating from some ambitious person,” Barr explained.
The hope was to have something written and published in time for the party. It had to include recipes dedicated to The Wick’s ingredient-driven philosophy. They’re favourites going back to opening chef Rod Butters, who helped The Wick earn the world-renowned Relais & Chateaux designation, and from each of his successors who maintained it by making everything — even the butter — from scratch.
“But it was hard to corral that many chefs,” Barr said.
Then there was the photography — lick-the-page food shots and devastatingly beautiful landscapes — required to complement engrossing words. What was supposed to be a quick project turned into an effort that took two and a half years.
The end result was more an homage to Tofino, once a remote community accessible only by boat, floatplane or airplane, than a cookbook, Barr noted.
“It was a great way to celebrate the 20th anniversary, even it it was a bit late,” he said with a laugh.
Still, it was “surprisingly easy” to convince The Wick’s past chefs to get involved. Many, like Butters, came young and hungry, “on the edge of things” in their career, and used the Inn as a launch to other prestigious posts.
Each one had to be keen to work with the most hyperlocal ingredients, like hemlock tips and cynamoka berries. And they had to do it at the calibre demanded by Relais & Chateaux to ensure The Wick’s continued membership in the global association of luxury hotels and restaurants.
All have since gone on to open their own restaurants or lead storied kitchens elsewhere:
- Butters blazing the trail for wine country cuisine in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley;
- Duncan Ly, who started as dishwasher at The Pointe and now runs his “alternative Asian” restaurant, Foreign Concept, in Calgary;
- Andrew Springett, who’s teaching the next generation of cuisiniers at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT);
- Mark Filatow, today of Kelowna’s Waterfront Restaurant and Wine Bar;
- Justin Labossiere, now heading up the national culinary team for Concorde Entertainment Group;
- Matthias Conradi, who moved down the coast of Vancouver Island to be chef patissier at Sooke Harbour House;
- Matt Wilson, currently executive pastry chef at Calgary’s The Nash; and,
- Barr, who arrived in Tofino in 2013 via Michael Smith’s Inn at Bay Fortune in PEI.
“We weren't looking for anyone to settle down and call it quits. The Wick has been a stepping stone for everyone,” Barr explained. “It’s just been a great opportunity for everyone, for sure, and [the book] has been a great opportunity to come back and celebrate it.”
The recipes all have their time and place in The Wick’s history, with each chef choosing their favourites to include. But rather than be a chef-y book bound to become a coffee table tome, The Wickaninnish Inn is deliberately geared to the home cook, including those far from Canada’s westernmost edge.
“We would definitely like them to have fun cooking. Some are easy recipes and some are aspirational,” Barr said.
Only one is impossible, save for those who call Tofino home. Barr’s elk with forest flavours requires hemlock tips to season salt and oil, local mushrooms, those cynamoka berries, also known as evergreen huckleberries, and elk, herds of which roam the island.
“I put it in there knowing absolutely no one would be able to cook it,” he said. Still, he did so hoping it would inspire people to cook with what’s available to them “to create something special to their region. Terroir gets used a lot, taste of place, but that’s what it’s meant to do.”
Most of the dishes in the cookbook are Barr’s “for nothing else because I was there” when the book came together. Wintry plates are also well-represented, a nod to The Wick’s place in storm watching culture.
“People come for the storms in November and get angry if it’s sunny,” Barr said.
He isn’t worried they’ll stop coming, sunny skies or foreboding, now that the secrets of this dining destination are out there to be consumed elsewhere.
Barr figures the book, with a cover that mimics the hand-hewn beams framing the panoramic windows at The Pointe, will beckon a new crop of storm watchers to head West and settle in for a bowl of chowder from his kitchen, Gore-Tex optional.
“We want people to come for the food,” he said. “No one’s not going to come for the food because the book is out there. I’m hoping people say ‘Wow, I’ve got to get out there.’ ”
- 1 lb (450 g) clams in shell
- ½ cup (125 mL) white wine
- 1 medium onion, diced
- 1 bulb fennel, diced
- 1 stalk celery, diced
- 2 Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and diced
- Canola or vegetable oil
- 1 strip bacon, chopped
- 2 Tbsp (15 g) flour
- 1½ cups (375 mL) chicken stock
- 1 ear corn, kernels only
- ½ lb (225 g) fresh white fish, cubed
- ½ lb (225 g) baby shrimp or any other seafood
- Juice of 1 lemon
- Salt and cracked black pepper to taste
- 1 cup (250 mL) cream
- Herbs (dill, chives, flat-leaf parsley), chopped, for garnish
- In a large pot, place the clams, white wine, and 1 Tbsp (15 mL) each of chopped onions, fennel, and celery. Cover and steam until the clams open, 5 to 10 minutes.
- Strain the juice from the pan and reserve. Remove the clams from their shells and save the meat; chill until ready to use. Discard the shells and vegetables, as well as any clams that do not open.
- Meanwhile, cook the peeled and diced potatoes in salted water until tender, about 10 minutes. Drain off the water and reserve the potatoes.
- Heat a large pot over medium heat, then add a splash of oil and the chopped bacon. Cook on medium until the bacon has a rich colour and the fat has rendered out. Add the remaining chopped onions, fennel, and celery and cook until tender.
- Add the flour and stir to prevent it from sticking to the pot. Cook for a couple of minutes, but do not allow to brown—you want the roux to be white.
- Stir in the reserved clam juice and cook until thick. Stir in the chicken stock and cook until slightly less thick.
- Add the corn and cook until tender—this should take only a couple of minutes. Add the clam meat, cubed white fish, and any other seafood. Finally, add the potatoes and heat through. Season with lemon juice, salt, and pepper, then stir in the cream. Garnish each serving with herbs.
Excerpted from The Wickaninnish Cookbook - Rustic Elegance on Nature's Edge. Copyright © 2018 Published by Appetite by Random House®, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.
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Tiffany Mayer is 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 Time For Grub. You can also listen to her food podcast, Grub and read more of her work here on FBC.