Foodie Fun


2
Jul 14

Challenge #6: Eat at a Top Chef Canada Winner’s Restaurant

dale1Eat at a Top Chef Canada Restaurant? Er, challenge accepted. Tucking into an award-winning chef’s delicious menu is definitely more my speed than hurtling down a mountain – or even skating down a canal. For non-Canadians, Chef Dale MacKay won the first season of Top Chef Canada in 2011, when he was based here in Vancouver but last year he decided to up sticks and move back to his hometown of Saskatoon to open Ayden Kitchen & Bar. So while I was visiting the city to merrily stuff myself with sausages at the King of Kovbasa festival, a trip to Ayden was clearly on the cards.

dale2It makes total sense as a restaurateur to leave BC: Vancouver real estate is amongst the most expensive in North America and the space that Dale has in Saskatoon could easily fit a trio of Vancouver eateries inside; a lavish private dining space plus a cavernous basement area to prep and store. Also, whereas restaurants serving on-trend high-end comfort food with a nose-to-tail, house-made aesthetic paired with craft cocktails are a dime a dozen in Vancouver, they are something more of a rare beast in Saskatchewan.

dale3I visited for lunch and dinner service and both times, the restaurant was hopping; a lively business lunch and catch-up-over-salads crowd gave way to couples and groups of clearly delighted dinner guests. So – what’s on the menu? Mackay is known – and rightly so – for his charcuterie; firm meaty pates, satin-soft creamy parfaits, fat-speckled and peppery salamis and juicy sausages were all sublime. In-house pickled vegetables added tartness and tang to his meaty charcuterie boards. Mackay has a deft touch with Asian flavours too, his Thai wings popped with chili but were beautifully balanced and aromatic with kaffir lime and lemongrass. Meat is locally-sourced and if the burgers I tried are anything to go by then Alberta beef need to watch out – Saskatchewan is coming for you. In a city that’s not yet known for its dining scene, Mackay is leading the charge. And where one successful restaurant opens, another – and then another – cannot be far behind. And at the end of the day, if a Top Chef Canada winner is making it work then there’s good eating to be found in the prairies.

My trip was made possible by support from Tourism Saskatoon, but – as ever – my words are 100% my own.

. Further information: Tourism Saskatoon

. Ayden Kitchen and Bar

 


26
Mar 14

Saskatoon and the King of Kovbasa

Image courtesy of: http://www.doukhobor.org

Image Courtesy Of Doukhobor

Picture leaving your home and your village; everything you ever knew and loved and travelling unimaginably far away, knowing that you’d probably never come back. Then imagine arriving in this new and foreign land; cold, sick and hungry after a gruelling sea journey of several weeks, then you have to spend days spent passing through immigration. Next, weak with exhaustion,  you’re loaded on a train for a journey of even more days and nights with nothing to rest on but bare boards, rattling across a vast and strange country to your final destination. And when you step off the train, your body aching and sore, your new home is some 20 miles away. And there is no road. No one is there to greet you. There is nothing.

The ache of separation from home and everything familiar must have been almost unbearable.

This is the story of the Ukrainians who arrived in Canada after the 1872 Dominion Lands Act, a law which encouraged pioneers to come to the prairies to settle and farm the land there. Men over 18 and women who were heads of their households were offered 160 acres of land for a $10 administration fee. They had to stay on the land for three years, build a permanent home and farm at least 4 acres and then the land was theirs.

Yevshan Dancers

What they left was heart-breaking enough; ruled over by Austro-Hungary, Poland and Russia, denied education and conscripted to fight for the Austrian army, the people of the Ukraine were treated abominably by those who had invaded their country (and oh, in the light of recent events, how depressing is it to see things have not changed over the years).  But they made things work, these immigrants. They faced up to the back-breaking challenge of clearing bushland and tons of rocks before they could even start to farm. The men left the women and children to subsist on the homesteads, as they took paying work in lumber camps or down the mines. But they survived and lived to tell the tale.  They built communities and they made a life for themselves on the prairies. And like all immigrants, they cherished the customs and the foods of the land that they had left behind. sas8

Which brings me neatly to a huge community centre, Prairieland Park, in the heart of Saskatoon. It’s February and minus 21 degrees outside. The wind chill factor brings it down to minus 30, and I stood outside for just a moment to try and imagine living in this without the benefit of modern clothing (thank GOD for my Canada Goose parka and gloves) never mind making it through without central heating. I lasted maybe a minute or two before scuttling inside into the warmth; my eyelashes began to freeze, my chest hurt from the cold air and what small part of my skin was exposed to the vicious cold ached from the icy wind. But just looking around the people in the room I know that their great-great grandparents didn’t just survive, they thrived. Clearly they were made of so much sterner stuff than I.

The contestants

Almost 700 people are here – the majority Ukrainian Canadians – and they are here to taste food from the old country and vote on this year’s King of Kovbasa. The contest is in its thirteenth year and it’s a cultural celebration of the traditional Ukrainian kovbasa sausage. Twelve local butchers enter, and every one attending gets to cast their vote to decide who will win the trophy. It’s a prestigious contest and tasting is taken seriously. Each table gets its own huge platter of samples and there are even instructions on how best to taste the sausage; regular palate-cleansers of pickles, cheese and crackers are essential – as is immediately logging your vote on the cards provided. We’re voting on best texture, seasoning, appearance and overall winner.

sas9This is also a fundraiser event with door prizes, a secret auction and vodka-and-pickle shots for cash donations – with money raised going to an adult literacy program, READ Saskatoon. I watch the the girls and boys in their shiny blue and white costumes bring out the trays of carefully-prepared meats to serve to each table. Later they’ll perform traditional dances on the stage, the girls whirling and swirling their skirts and the boys squat-kicking. I think about how important events like these must have been to those first immigrants; a chance to talk to someone other than your family – maybe the only chance that teenagers would have to meet someone to marry. I think about how much joy and pride is in the room and of the importance of tradition and continuity. I think about how, some days when I am missing my friends and family, I can cry just at the taste or smell of something that reminds me of home.

sas4I understand why these traditions are so fiercely guarded, why people dress up and come out in the heart of brutal winter to gather together and to celebrate. It’s a pride that makes the butchers so competitive – being Kovbasa king really means something – this year SmokeHaus Meats of Martensville swept the board, winning in every category.

The winners

Leaving I stood outside again in the car park, the stars seemed so bright in the crackling cold of the night. To live here; to build a home, dig out a farm, carve out a life and create a community in bitter, brutal weather and then, decades later, to have your descendants dance in a toasty-warm room, full of good cheese and sausages, happy with vodka and beer is the immigrant’s dream. From unimaginable hardship to comparative luxury in just a few generations. I wonder at the strength it must have taken to make that first step and then the next and the next. The faintest flavour of such a life must have been in their mind when they closed the door of their homes that one last time and started their long journey to a new life in Canada, with the hope of better days driving them through the hardship. sas3

My trip was made possible by support from Tourism Saskatoon, but – as ever – my words are 100% my own. 

Further information

Tourism Saskatchewan

Ukrainian Museum of Canada

 


9
Jan 14

Shangri-La Toronto

Rising by Shanghai-based sculptor, Zhang Hua.

Rising by Shanghai-based sculptor, Zhang Hua.

“What’s that?” I asked my cab driver, “It’s gorgeous.” ‘It’ was a silvery sculpture that reached into the sky and bought to mind flight and freedom right there on the pavement in downtown Toronto.

“It’s the Shangri La” said my driver.

“You’re kidding!” I said. “I’m staying there tomorrow.”

I can’t help myself; I get giddy with delight over a fancy hotel. Holly Golightly may have gone weak at the knees over Tiffany, but for me it’s a top class hotel that makes me think:      “…the quietness and the proud look of it; nothing very bad could happen to you there.” The check-in was fast, the service with a real smile and within minutes I was leaving the airy lobby with its Fazioli piano and zipping up to my room. When you notice details like how cool the carpets are (reminiscent of cherry blossom and bamboo leaves) as you trot to your room, then you can bet that your socks will be suitably knocked off when you get inside.

They were.

shangrila2

I know. It’s just carpet. But really – it’s more than that. It’s about the attention to detail and making every small thing beautiful.

I was wondering how Toronto would compare to Vancouver and the TO did not disappoint; a ludicrously huge and comfy bed, a decadent bathroom with a big-enough-for-two soaker tub overlooking the city and a satisfyingly high count of amenities from emery boards and tooth brushes to a mini-loofah and lashings of L’Occitane to raid.

mirajTO

Curl up and relax…

I was there to check out the sister spa to the Miraj in Vancouverthis is a glossier and more sophisticated version of the great little hammam on West 6th – but the principal remained the same -  and the treatment and therapist was just as good – leaving me to relax on satiny cushions admiring my equally silky skin after a heavenly steam, skin-brightening scrub and a final oil application.

Modern fine dining

Modern fine dining

Drinks in the lobby lounge later were a treat – the menus come tucked away in a little compendium of books and champagne buckets stand ready for your bubbles. I’d heard wonderful things about the Bosk restaurant, and after a slew of strictly casual fine dining experiences, it was lovely to feel that here was a restaurant worth dressing up for. Bosk may have an east coast address but it certainly had a west coast feeling with local, organic and sustainable woven through the menu and the seafood treated with loving care. A pleasingly large by-the-glass wine selection makes food pairing a pleasure – my advice? Ask the sommelier to match for you – you won’t be disappointed and you’ll definitely try delicious new things.

I travelled as a guest of Tourism Toronto and stayed as a guest of the Shangri-La– all views are, however 100% my own.

More Info:

The Shangri-La

188 University Ave, Toronto, ON M5H 0A3

Phone:(647) 788-8888

Web:  Shangri-La Toronto


3
Sep 13

Sweet taste of Vancouver’s DTES

East Van Roaster's Shelley Bolton

East Van Roaster’s Shelley Bolton

There are some very cool things happening in Vancouver’s downtown east side. The DTES, as it’s known, has a bumpy relationship with the rest of the city: it’s notoriously home to Canada’s ‘poorest postal code’, it has a large and troubling homeless population and drug issues and mental health problems clearly play a huge part. But things are changing. There are some incredibly inspiring stories to be found in the DTES – I’ve written about Maggie and her doorway  at Rainier Provisions before and the wonderful work that the East of Main café do – here’s a new one to add to the list: the East Van Roasters.

A coffee shop and bean-to-bar chocolate maker – the only one in Vancouver – East Van Roasters stands alone offering some of the city’s best coffee and truly delicious chocolate -  but add in that it’s a social enterprise which helps women who’ve been out of the workplace for a while get back into employment and open up new avenues of training for them – then you have something very interesting indeed.

Working hard cracking the cacao shells by hand to get to the nibs

Working hard cracking the cacao shells by hand to get to the nibs

One thing strikes you as soon as you walk in: this looks like a very funky coffee shop: it’s no shabby, corners-cut kind of operation. As you walk in, you can see the chocolate making going on behind the large glass windows. It’s a fascinating process – it takes some 40 hours for the women to hand-winnow the beans – cracking the shell and removing the nib. That 40 hours of work produces enough nibs to make one 30KG batch which creates 600 bars of chocolate – and of course the nibs then have to be ground, blended with the cocoa butter and other flavours, tempered and finally turned into bars.

Try a tasting plate

Try a tasting plate

Once you factor in the time that it takes to grow the beans it almost makes you feel guilty that you are gobbling down years of work in just a few seconds… almost – but not quite. I tried a tasting plate of different kinds of chocolate – I love  discovering new flavours this way – sampling the nibs and then the finished product. You can sip on mugs of rich creamy hot chocolate or do as I did – have an espresso made with the smooth house-roasted beans.  Snap up bars, truffles and other take home treats along with aprons or cool tote bags that some of the women make – all of which goes towards supporting this innovative enterprise that makes a real difference in the lives of so many women.

When chocolate and tastes this good – and does so much good too – the only sin is not eating it.

Find out more:
East Van Roasters. 319 Carrall Street, Vancouver.
(604) 629-7562
INFO@EASTVANROASTERS.COM


19
Aug 13

Gastown Eating adventures: Bambudda

Drinking rose-floral cava-y Fitzgerald cocktails and enjoying the late-evening sunshine. Officially the best new fun in Gastown

Drinking Fitzgerald cocktails and enjoying the sunshine. Officially the best new fun in Gastown

Fish are meant to symbolise good fortune or luck within certain Asian cultures and it was a serendipitous fish which led me to Gastown’s newest hot spot, Bambudda. I’d seen the most enchanting dessert picture on Twitter – two fish swimming in a perfect blue on a plate – the fish were white chocolate and lychee milk tea – too pretty but I wanted to eat it! The next day by pure luck I happened to meet someone who worked there, which decided it for me: fate had stepped in so I needed to go and check it out.

I’d mentioned to a few people I was going and everyone had two words for me “chicken skin”: turns out that they do a nifty fried chicken skin bar snack that was an absolute must-have. Guess what? Everyone was right on the money. But before we get to the crunch of the food – what’s the restaurant like? Well – on a warm Vancouver evening it was heaven to sit at the open-front bar. Their floor to ceiling windows pull right back and so we sat, red lanterns bobbing overhead, drinking pleasingly intoxicating cocktails while being charmed by barman Buck Friend.

Oh. My. God. Chicken skin of pure crunchy deliciousness

Oh. My. God. Chicken skin of pure crunchy deliciousness

Tardis-like, this place is far, far bigger on the inside than it seems on the outside. There’s a blue-toned private dining room that has ‘family party’ and ‘fun birthday dinner’ written all over it – then there’s the date-friendly dining space that spreads back through the building. Hand-etched wallpaper (which reminded us of Blanche from the Golden Girls’s palm-printed lair but in a really good way) and cute vintage accents make this new kid on the block feel like an always-been-there old favourite.

“But what’s the food like?” I hear you roar “Tell us about the skin!” Well – it’s pressed flat overnight, trimmed of any fat, baked in the oven and then quick-fried. And it’s so damn good that I went back two nights later dragging a friend with me. Give it a judicious squeeze of the black pepper-dipped lime and you have one of the best bar snacks I’ve ever tasted.

Mr Bambudda, Ray Loy and Buck Friend on bar duties

Mr Bambudda, Ray Loy and Buck Friend on bar duties with my new favourite Tsui Hang cocktail

I got to try a mini sampler of a few dishes from Chef Keev Mah’s menu: think nouveau Dim Sum  - the stars for me were the perfectly-cooked scallops, a sweetly-gooey spiced BBQ pork bun and Law Bak Go, a puréed buttered mash of a radish made into a hashbrown-like wedge and served with meltingly-tender brisket. It’s strange to feel so excited about a radish but this was magnificent – I tried this on the second visit and if anything it was even better. I tried the Crispy Pork Belly, Hong Kong BBQ style with a Maple Hoisin sauce, the texture of the pork belly was everything you’d wish for: it shattered in a satisfying bite, the meat a perfect soft juicy fall-apart counterpoint – but oh! too much salt… the one bum note in a perfect symphony.

And what of the dessert fish? A little sweet for me – but they swam prettily in their drinky waters of Blue Curaçao – frankly anyone who put something this delightful on a plate deserves an award. It’s rare to be so utterly enchanted.

Yin and Yang.

Yin and Yang.

Also extra marks to the inspired Cold Tea-esque cocktail creation, Tsui Hang, served in a teapot, a Dark Horse rye made fragrant with salted plums, goji berries and iron budda tea – it had an infused Budweiser syrup in the mix – I adored this and to my knowledge it’s the first beer-infused syrup I’ve encountered in Vancouver.  Go drink and snack at the bar, flirt with the lovely staff and then stuff yourself silly: you can’t fight fate.

I was a guest of Bambudda the first time I visited – but as ever – my words are 100% my own 

BAMBUDDA 99 Powell Street, Gastown Vancouver

Website: Bambudda.ca

Twitter: @bambuddagastown

Facebook: www.facebook.com/Bambudda


13
Aug 13

Introducing Vancouver’s Swiss Bakery Frissant

You’ve probably heard of the cronut – a croissant-doughnut hybrid created by Dominique Ansel for his bakery in New York City that has had foodies lining up around the block from before dawn to get their paws on the fried sugary treats.

Yeah. It's pretty damn big.

Yeah. It’s pretty damn big.

Well, New York is awfully far away to visit for a doughnut so thankfully Vancouver smarty-pants, the Swiss Bakery up on East 3rd Ave. by Main street have been beavering away and whipped up their own version: a frissant – a fritter-croissant amalgamation. I kept meaning to go and check them out but last week I got a furtive phone call from my lovely neighbour, Sean “Hey” he hissed, “I’m in the Swiss Bakery, I can get two of each – which frissant do you want, Hazlenut or Vanilla?”

I didn’t have to think twice. Vanilla please, and when are you coming back?

A box of bad decisions right there. Yum.

A box of bad decisions right there. Yum.

Half an hour later my door bell rang and up Sean came with the goods. Oh boy. I eagerly cut it in half, snapped a few pictures and dived straight in. Crisp and sugary on the outside, it was surprisingly light and fluffy on the inside. Not greasy whatsoever and you could see the flecks of vanilla bean in the piped-in filling: always a good sign.

Look! You can see that it's real vanilla.

Look! You can see that it’s real vanilla.

Sean had warned me that just one was like two doughnuts but I couldn’t just have half and leave it at that. Oh no! I gobbled the second half up and sighed with pleasure. Gorgeous. Of course, I felt kind of sick for half an hour afterwards and jittery with the rush of sugar but oh! It was worth it…

Get your frissant on: The Swiss bakery


26
Jul 13

Blueberry season hits BC

Image

Image courtesy of Sunday Morning Ice Cream

One of the (many, many) things that I adore about Vancouver is the way that people live and eat seasonally. I was wondering what summer would bring after a spot prawn and halibut late spring: it seems that it’s all about the berries and stone fruits and king of all is the blueberry. Last weekend’s UBC Blueberry Fest on the Triple O’s patio, with its pancake breakfast and chef demos kicked off this year’s season. But beyond what I’m told is the ‘traditional’ White Spot blueberry pie, bakers, ice cream makers and chefs across the city are showcasing their best blueberry-inspired creations. I plan to dig in while they’re fresh and in store…

Newbie to the Van food cart scene, Johnny’s Pops has blueberry cardamom and blueberry mojito ‘artisan popsicles’ from his ‘can’t miss’  red bike with the cooler on the front. You can usually find him along the seawall by the Olympic Village, but check to avoid playing ‘Where’s Johnny?’.

Bella Gelateria have a BC blueberry sorbetto and my favourite ice cream people, the Sunday Morning Ice Cream have a creamy blueberry and sweet basil which you can catch at the Chinatown Night Market. Earnest (whose salt caramel flavour is one of the best in the world) are keeping a lid on what they’ll be doing so far but co-owner Erica Bernardi mailed me to say that “Last year we made a blueberry cheesecake flavour. We’ll definitely make another blueberry flavour this year.” Can’t wait!  Cocolico has both a chocolate bar and a chocolate spread using local blueberries on sale in all their usual outlets, including Edible Canada.

Blue Breeze Jay Jones cocktailI got a sneak preview of Jay Jones‘s Blue Breeze blueberry cocktail yesterday. Made with Absolut Grapevine Vodka, Fresh BC Blueberry Syrup, Lime juice, Fentimans Ginger Beer and garnished with blueberries & mint it’s incredibly refreshing and dangerously more-ish. It reminded me of a deliciously drinkly melted ice pop. Perfect for patio season, it’s going to be the The Three Brits pub’s Absolut Community Vancouver Pride Society cocktail - so drink up! It’s for a good cause.

Langley’s organic A Bread Affair bakery have a blueberry and hazelnut whole wheat and sprouted wheat loaf, ‘Love At First Bite’ from Cedar Isle Farm in Agassiz; the hazelnuts are from Abbotsford and blueberries from BC. It’s sweet and matches well with charcuterie.
Lucky’s Doughnuts have a limited edition blueberry Berliner and Cartems have two: a blueberry strawberry compote stuffed donut and a blueberry lavender glazed.Love At First Bite

Chefs getting in on the blueberry trend include Ned Bell at Yew who appeared on Global TV last week with a BC salmon and blueberries recipe and both Tableau and Forage are offering pickled blueberry dishes.
Save the date for the culmination of All Things Blueberry in BC with the Cloverdale Blueberry festival on Saturday August 19th with its legendary pie eating contest.


25
Jul 13

New summer menu deconstructed at Forage

ForageThe new season summer menus are hitting boards across town. I spent the post-breakfast lull with Chef Whittaker in the Forage kitchen, watching how to make one of the dishes from his new menu.

Forage chef Chris Whittaker is best known for his commitment to sustainable farm-to-table eating. Forage’s new summer menu launched this week with a stand-out dish of Hannah Brook Farm watercress, garlic scapes, 64° egg, bison bone marrow croutons and mushroom ‘soil’.

Forage “All the ingredients in this salad – this is the stuff I wait for all year to get back into business with.” Whittaker says. “The croutons in bison bone marrow bring a robust meatiness to the dish, we use Alberta bison which are hormone and antibiotic-free and grass fed. The eggs are from Richmond’s Rabbit River and the greens from Maple Ridge – where I live. The watercress really excites me: it’s flavourful and peppery, so the croutons need to be weighty enough and the egg has to be cooked a certain way to hold into the salad. Then we add “soil” of dried morels which are in full swing right now across BC with freshly-ground local hazelnuts.”

ForageTo make the dish, Chris starts with the garlic scapes, blanching them in salted boiling water for a minute and then plunging them into iced water. They’re set aside to grill at the last minute. Next a generous scoop of clarified rendered bison bone marrow is spooned into a pan and heated. Chris hand-tears bread to toss in the fat to make croutons. They are sauteed in the pan for a few minutes until golden-brown and then drained on paper.

ForageWhile all this has been going on, the eggs are cooking in a combi-oven at 64 degrees for 45 minutes. They’re removed from the heat and doused under a cold tap to stop the cooking process.

Forage The scapes are dipped in the remaining bison fat and flame-grilled and the salad dressed with a red wine vinegar and olive oil dressing (3 parts oil 1 part vinegar). Forage

The dish is plated with the croutons tossed across the peppery leaves and scapes, with the egg resting on top. “It’s a great dish,” says Whittaker, “As the season changes and evolves so will the ingredients, so once the garlic scapes are over we’ll put radishes or dried tomatoes in instead.”Forage


17
Jul 13

Weekend in Whistler: Summer fun at the Bearfoot Bistro

Six bloody Caesars - only one can win

Six bloody Caesars – only one can win

There’s something about Whistler that reminds me of my home town Brighton; oh, not in appearance, it couldn’t be different. Pristine and shiny, thoroughly modern Whistler is surrounded by snow-capped mountains, its inhabitants all seem to be like the girl or boy from Ipanema, all tall and tan and young and lovely. Whereas my beloved Brighton, in the words of Keith Waterhouse, “… looks as though it is a town helping the police with their enquiries.” But there is something in that ‘determined to have a good time even though it’s clearly hours past your bed time’ Brighton spirit that burns in Whistler too.

I recognised it the second I clapped eyes on the Bearfoot Bistro’s Chief Bad Decision Enabler, Andre Saint-Jacques, so no surprise at all that some of the best fun to be had in BC is always at his restaurant. The Bearfoot World Oyster Invitational and Bloody Caesar Battle took place this Sunday. A charity fund raiser for Playground Builders, an excellent Canadian charity who build playgrounds in areas of the world affected by wars. By the end of the afternoon enough money had been raised to construct three playgrounds in Afghanistan. So I’m not going to feel a jot of guilt about anything that happens here.

Judges Chefs Robert Clark and Pino Posteraro deliberate

Judges Chefs Robert Clark and Pino Posteraro get serious

Two contests were in play – six mixologists battling it out for the honour of the best Bloody Caesar (it’s a much-beloved Canadian drink – essentially a Bloody Mary with clam juice added) as well as the fastest oyster shucker contest. I couldn’t wait to see the shuckers in action, 13 competed from as far afield as Sweden, Denmark and Japan. Before the doors opened the judges got stuck into the cocktails, everyone else got to sample the six different kinds from booths set up around the restaurant and downstairs in its famous champagne cellar – which is usually where you’ll find M. Saint Jaques merrily sabering a champagne bottle or two. Along with the caesars, wine flowed freely and we were kept from slumping to the ground by a stream of bite-sized goodies from Chef Melissa Craig’s kitchen.

Delicious vanilla nitro ices

Delicious vanilla nitro ices

By the time the shucking contest came around it’s fair to say that everyone was feeling at their most Whistler-ish and the cheers were deafening. The rules are strict in these contests and closely adhered to. Each shucker is presented with a tray of three varieties of oyster, they have to shuck 30 and present them “upright, free from shell and blood in a whole top shell.” They are scored not only on time but also the appearance, presence of shell, grit and the cut of the meat. I was fascinated: each shucker had such a different technique, from the sorting at the start – some piled them like legos, others lined them up neatly – some wore gloves, others went in bare-handed (one was bare-footed) and others wound tape around their fingers. Each shucker has a timer and each heat must begin with the shuckers hands in the air above their oysters and the one to finish first must raise their hands again.

Adored Noriko, she seemed to be having such a great time

Adored Noriko, she seemed to be having such a great time

The first heat was over in a matter of minutes. It was shockingly fast. They tore through those shells like hot knives through butter; it was fantastic to watch. There were four heats in all and then a final round. My two favourites, Noriko Kamashima from Japan who shucked in a gloriously calm fashion with a beatific smille on her face and the looks-a-bit-like-Eric-off-True-Blood Dane, Simon Toensager didn’t make it, so I had to pick a new favourite from the finalists. I went with the only shucker to have cleaned the shells from his station to save the Bearfoot staff the trouble, the beaming bearded Eamon Clark from Rodney’s Oyster House in Toronto who was the 2011 champion.

Eamon Clark: this is what winning looks like

Eamon Clark: this is what winning looks like

Turns out I can pick a winner. Eamon finished fastest and also – after a l-o-n-g deliberation by the judges – came out top on points. He scored a $5000 prize, a huge trophy that I wouldn’t have liked to try and take back on the plane and a whole year of bragging rights. I didn’t do so well guessing the best caesar. I liked Justin Taylor’s from Yew at the Four Seasons in Vancouver best, but local lad Scot Curry from the Alta Bistro scooped the $5000 instead. Full of nitro vanilla ice cream, awash with caesars and feeling like a girl who should go lie down somewhere, I sat on the stairs outside and waited for the Pacific Coach to pick me up. I’d stare out of the window on the two-hour trip back to Vancouver at the dazzling sea and mountain scenery on the lyrically-named ‘Sea to Sky’ highway, I might have been far from Brighton but oh – that town is starting to feel like home.

You can see why it's called the Sea to Sky highway

You can see why it’s called the Sea to Sky highway

I travelled as a guest of the Bearfoot Bistro  - thanks for that! Also thanks to Pacific Coach for the return ticket. As ever – my opinions are 100% my own.

More info:

Pacific Coach Lines

Whistler Hilton Resort

The Bearfoot Bistro 

Tourism Whistler

 


10
Jul 13

East of Main Cafe: Food with a heart and soul

Food production has such a ‘butterfly effect’ on the world; grow fruit and veg with pesticides and you affect the eco-system, grow them with the wrong kind and you affect the life of bees, which affects every one of us. Get those chemicals in the food chain and water supply and it can have a serious affect on health and fertility - a butterfly flaps its wings and half a world away, everything changes… 

I was thinking about how small things can have a huge effect as I listened to 12-year old Celestine Hilechi, singing her heart out for us at the Project Limelight event at the East of Main Cafe. She was fantastic, eyes lit up with pure joy, she radiated happiness and a dash of star quality and thanks to the Project Limelight programme, she’s learning how to express that and now has the confidence to sing – unaccompanied no less – to a room of strangers.

Project Limelight's songbird, the fantastic Celestine

Project Limelight’s songbird, the fantastic Celestine

To put this into a little context, I should explain a little; walking through parts of Vancouver’s Downtown East Side (DTES) always feels like a shock; there are serious homelessness and substance abuse and addiction issues, whole blocks are taken up with shopping cart-pushing addicts. I say again – after the beauty of the surrounding area, the pure gorgeousness of Vancouver as a city – the grinding poverty of the DTES is a nasty shock. It’s an area that needs help and needs support and there are businesses who are taking up the challenge.

Project Limelight is a charity founded by sisters Maureen Webb and Donalda Weaver, both born and raised in the DTES with successful careers in the film business (respectively as a casting director and owner and manager of a studio) who wanted to give back to their community. Project Limelight works with at-risk kids aged between 8-15 in the neighbourhood – children who typically wouldn’t get within shouting distance of creative theatre work – and pulls them into a hard-working, fiercely disciplined programme. Each session lasts for four months running three days a week. At the end of the four months the children perform an impressively professional full-length production which lets them show off the skills they’ve learned.

Project Limelight's Maureen Webb and Donalda Weaver with Chef Tina Fineza

Project Limelight’s Maureen Webb and Donalda Weaver with Chef Tina Fineza

I must admit – I was a theatre group kid – I loved the fun, the sense of community and the freedom of expression that it taught me. I made great friends and learned about the importance of showing up and doing your absolute best. But I was lucky – I had a stable family life, having that three-days-a-week rock of normality (plus a free healthy meals and snacks) must mean the world to some of those children. And you can imagine the immense effect that four months of positive attention can have – when this butterfly flaps its wings it changes the whole direction that a child’s life can go in.

They rehearse upstairs from the East of Main cafe where 100% of their profits go towards the Project Limelight Society. That’s reason alone to go there – but of course, because it’s Vancouver, food with a heart has a soul too. Talented Chef Tina Fineza has designed a  pan-Mediterranean tapas-style sharing plates menu, packed with fresh and spicy flavours, taking a delicious journey across the world wherever it touches the Med. Hop from a ras el hanout-spiced lamb tagine from Tunisia to an aromatic aubergine (eggplant) Greek moussaka to (my favourite) an Italian raw courgette fragrant with lemon with a faint crunch of pistachio.

Simple and just delicious

Simple and just delicious

It’s a perfect storm of good intentions resulting in great things; an excellent menu in a cute venue, where your money goes directly to helping out a brilliant cause, which then affects the lives of those around you. This butterfly’s wings are certainly flapping in the right direction. Go join in and flap yours too.

Find out more: 

East of Main cafe www.eastofmaincafe.com/

Address: 223 E Georgia St, Vancouver, BC V6A 2Z9

Phone:(604) 899-2777

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