Can you turn cream of mushroom soup, matzo crackers, a lobster and grape jelly into fine cuisine? Chef Brock Bowes did – on national TV – winning the Food Network’s Chopped Canada competition with his lobster with pea shoots on cream of mushroom with bacon. The three judges agreed: “Brock rocked the lobster.”
Bowes is one of a disproportionate number of West Coast chefs who have taken home the title – and the $10,000 prize – from the competitive cooking show.
With a handlebar moustache and a tattoo of his dachshund wrapped around his wrist, Bowes has the friendly presence and personality of a celebrity chef. He’s in charge of two Kelowna kitchens: RauDZ Regional Table and the neighbouring Micro Bar Bites.
RauDZ focuses on Canadian produce, ideally Okanagan-local but definitely B.C.-fixated. Two doors down, at Micro Bar Bites, the theme is international wine, cocktails and spirits, as well as small plates.
Lately Bowes is experimenting at RauDZ with family-style service of butcher cuts of meat.
“We just fill your table with food,” he says, “starting off with bread and salads and then we get into some larger cuts of meat, like the three-and-a-half-pound local tomahawk steak, or we’re doing a B.C. snapper served whole on the bone. We’ve done large beef Wellingtons that will feed four to six people.”
The restaurant doesn’t take reservations and the lineups can start at 4 p.m. for the 5 p.m. opening.
A casual attitude to great food, plus the rivers, lakes and oceans, complemented by the farms of the various regions of the province, may be the reason B.C. produces so many outstanding and globally recognized chefs.
Another factor is B.C.’s role as an immigrant magnet. Few places in the world offer so diverse a tour of global cuisines.
While Bowes is an up-and-coming B.C. celebrity chef, Vikram Vij helped invent the genre. Vij is synonymous with elevated Indian food. Nobody before Vij managed to parlay an exotic foreign cuisine into a mainstay of the local restaurant scene. Vij’s original 14-seat room – called Vij’s – opened in 1994 and grew.
Adhering strictly to Indian recipes and techniques applied to local ingredients, Vij helped reinvent Vancouverites’ idea of dinner. Vegetarians who once had to fall back on pasta primavera can now enjoy paneer and couscous cakes in black cumin curry or vegetable koftas in creamy tomato-fenugreek curry. Traditional plates like goat meat curry are offered alongside braised beef short ribs with spicy roasted okra and jelly beans.
Vancouverites’ love of Vij’s food has led to a small empire that includes packaged take-home meals, a food truck (Vij’s Railway Express) and four restaurants, each with unique menus, as well as cookbooks. During the 2010 Olympics, the New York Times declared Vij’s one of Vancouver’s best restaurants, adding the adjectives “excellent” and “eccentric.” Among Vij’s eccentricities: an all-female kitchen staff.
Another immigrant is upending German cuisine’s rep for being meat-laden and heavy. At Bauhaus Restaurant in Gastown, the menu is meaty, but lighter. Michelin-star chef Stefan Hartmann was raised in northern Germany and specializes in “new German cuisine.” The plates arrive splashed with light colours of zucchini blossoms or meticulously constructed venison with chanterelle, peach and green asparagus. This isn’t your grandmother’s German cuisine.
A characteristic among British Columbia’s best chefs is a deep commitment to the environment and sustainable food-sourcing.
Ned Bell was executive chef at Yew Seafood + Bar in the Four Seasons Hotel Vancouver when he rode his bike 8,700 kilometres across Canada to raise awareness for sustainable seafood choices. He founded Chefs for Oceans in 2014 and, in 2016, became executive chef for Ocean Wise, the Vancouver Aquarium’s project that provides the entire food services industry with scientific information regarding sustainable seafood to encourage ocean-friendly purchasing decisions.
Is it the dedication to ethical sourcing that sets B.C. chefs apart? Is it the profusion of seafood and agricultural bounty? The fusion of immigrant cuisines? Sometimes it’s best not to think too much. Just accept and enjoy.