Feasting on Tofino

Eating locally is all very good, but why shouldn’t all of us get to indulge in regional treats?

Feasting on Tofino

Photographs by Brian Howell

The vast and forbidding expanse of Cox Bay, near Tofino on the western coast of Vancouver Island, is circumscribed by an impressively deep beachfront of cold, wet sand, as grey and unyielding as lightly set concrete. It is eerily beautiful, but unlike—say—Chinatown, it is not the sort of place I would ordinarily think to stop and enjoy a spontaneous snack when I was not already packing one. My guide, Jae Lazar, felt differently.

“Here!” she exclaimed, scampering back down some craggy rock that jutted into the surf, and handing me something that looked like a heavily armoured snail with an elongated, leathery foot. “Gooseneck barnacles! You can steam them—or just use your teeth to squeeze out the tube of sweet, lobstery meat.”

Despite the thick cloud cover, Lazar’s cluster of gold teeth glinted in the sunlight as she bit down hard on the thing. I followed suit. The verdict: zero points for presentation, but she definitely had a point as concerned the sweet, salty barnacle micro-loin, or whatever you call it. Lazar next pointed out an entree-sized cluster of wild mussels clinging to the far side of the rocky crevice, and then she was off again, this time headed the other way, inland, down a winding overgrown path, in quest of the salad course.

Giving cautious chase over the rocks and tree roots, losing sight of her around the frequent bends, I was grateful both for her high-visibility, Smurf-like yellow hat, and the fact that the seemingly inhospitable woods offered her so much to stop and snack on—or just to explain. Fiddleheads (“So much anti-oxidant! And these ones are so tiny and cute and tight!”), nettles (“Super-satisfying! One of the highest protein contents you can find”), licorice fern (“Dry the root, toast it, make coffee with it”), and for dessert, dandelion and wild strawberry flowers (“Tastes like vanilla!”).

And that was just a small sample of the tasting menu she was cataloguing all around us. Foraging is in her blood. “When I complained I was hungry when I was a kid,” she explained of growing up here with Croatian parents, “Dad would say, ‘So—go outside and eat something.’ ”

During the first week of the inaugural Tofino local food festival, Feast, which began in May, Lazar combined forces with Victoria chef Peter Zambri to put a foraged meal on the table, with cutlery and everything—but alas, I missed it. This boat-to-table festival lasts 29 days, and forced to pick, I went with week two—crab week—more widely billed as the week chef Rob Feenie would decamp from the Cactus Club test kitchen in Vancouver, and instead turn his hand to local offerings at various venues around Tofino.

He would also be partaking in some odd local habits, like surfing in the frigid Pacific, as well as sea kayaking, which is why the next afternoon I found myself in one of a cluster of kayaks adrift in Tofino harbour overlooking Meares Island, along with swarms of porpoises and sea lions, at ease in the cold waters. We had gathered around our guide so that he could tell us about the striped starfish he was holding that can attain a diameter of a half-metre, sprouting a couple of dozen arms in the process. Other kayakers were giving its hideous underbelly an inquisitive stroke—but like me, Feenie passed. “If I can’t eat it, I don’t want to hear about it,” he said to me in a quiet aside.

Fortunately, eating was shortly back on the agenda, for after paddling across the inlet, we pulled our kayaks up on another massive, empty beach, with nothing for company but gnarled driftwood, wolf tracks and a local caterer named Tim May, who was stirring a steaming pot of his very fine Dungeness crab chowder. We followed with grilled spring salmon sandwiches.

The crab and salmon are evidently bountiful here to a nearly ludicrous degree. The day before, Feenie had gone fishing for a couple of hours with a camera crew in tow—always a good excuse for bad luck—and returned all the same with two plump spring salmon and a halibut to boot. And while on another day I had a go for an hour only to return empty-handed, the crab trap my crew set on the way out of the harbour was upon our return already packing a half-dozen luscious specimens, each of them well over a kilo.

Naturally, this and other semi-local bounty kept popping up in the dishes Feenie was tirelessly turning out around town. At one casual cocktail party, raw spring salmon was coarsely chopped into a tartare, topped with crème fraîche in a miniature black sesame cone. He then wrestled some oversized and slightly flabby Pacific beach oysters into supple submission by cooking them lightly on gentle heat and then flooding them with beurre blanc. There was a hearty, locally accented cioppino one night, while on another, local crab made its way into the raviolis floating in an exquisite duck consommé. Local albacore carpaccio was then introduced to a very distantly sourced but perfectly judged truffle-and-soy vinaigrette. Braised pork belly made a new friend for life when Feenie plated it with raw B.C. spot prawn, and to finish, we got a fillet cut from the slow roasted tail of a very large halibut, served on a bed of shredded oxtail and local mushrooms.

“So, you were at the event with that chef from the White Spot or something, right?” asked the driver of Tofino’s only taxicab as she piloted my wife and me back home to the Wickaninnish Inn later that night.

Well, no. But her question got me thinking. Because despite the yawning chasm of quality that divides that West Coast burger palace from Cactus Club, the fact remains that Feenie’s employer is a chain restaurant, too. And sitting in the back of that lurching cab, sated and then some after another of Feenie’s typically lovely meals, I did have to wonder how it was that a nascent local food festival should choose as its premier draw a chef who works for a restaurant company with locations that sprawl across the province, but share 90 per cent of their menu items from branch to branch. And as Cactus intends to one day open a flagship restaurant in downtown Toronto, what will local food mean then to a head office running an outlet 3,400 km away?

The first question is easy to answer. Feenie was chosen because he remains the biggest draw of any B.C. chef, and happens to like visiting Tofino—almost as much as his boss, Cactus founder and president Richard Jaffray, who keeps a boat in Tofino, owns property there, and is also a partner in its premier restaurant, called Shelter. It fell to Jaffrey to try to explain how a restaurant company with such broad reach could be true to the concept of local food. Specifically, I also wanted to know if he felt that the 100-mile diet—which I find endearing but unworkable, and largely undesirable, too—has any useful bearing on a huge restaurant company like his, which posts well over $100 million in sales each year.

“The idea of the 100-mile diet is brilliant for placing emphasis on local products and ingredients,” Jaffray allowed. “People need a scope of reference—and for some, 100 miles is attainable, even generous. Local restaurants might be included. But at Cactus, we have to focus on being as local as possible, and after that as socially conscious as we can.”

Of the many practical obstacles to locavorism, climate is the most obvious; in 99 per cent of this country, any true adherent to the 100-mile diet would have scurvy by February. The other is choice. There is no good reason that those people who choose to live in Toronto should also have to give up shellfish. Or for that matter that Vancouverites weaned on Asian flavours should be made to do without yuzu juice or soy sauce on their tuna tataki. But a Toronto- based Cactus restaurant could conceivably go for a locally sourced fish, like, say, pickerel, in place of Feenie’s maple-glazed black cod, a bestselling staple on their B.C. menu. As for that tataki, another popular Feenie item, it is made with B.C.-sourced albacore tuna, a fish whose stocks are in good standing—unlike the yellowfin tuna, which preceded it on the menu.

A reasonable balance, in other words. Something that the locavore movement could learn about from a successful and conscientious restaurant business—because as much as some of us might like to live like Jae Lazar, if we all did, there would be a lot of fist fights in the woods. The only downside with subscribing instead to a sensible balance of good local proteins enhanced with occasional treats from afar is that this workable take on trendy locavorism is nothing new at all—it’s what good cooking was always about.

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