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This year's winners are making the West a delicious place to live.
Welcome to our annual celebration of the chefs, sommeliers, producers, designers, owners, activists and bartenders that make the West the best place to be a food lover. What follows is a list of our 10 winners, but they had some stiff competition: check out our shortlist of 40 finalists from across Western Canada.
Chef, Forage, Timber, Vancouver
Everybody’s a green crusader these days, every new kitchen farm-to-table to the core. And while it’s admirable that you reclaimed the floors in your new Main Street hot spot from the old gymnasium in Powell River, and while you actually drove out to Merritt to meet an actual cattle rancher, we want to tell you the story of Chris Whittaker. Who, instead of travelling around Europe doing stages in bold-name restaurants, rolled up his sleeves and got to working long hours in the often- anonymous world of hotel restaurants. And who, eight years ago, took control of another hotel restaurant—the generically named O’Doul’s Restaurant and Bar at the Listel Hotel—and, by sheer determination, turned it into Forage and the newly opened Timber—the West’s twin paragons of sustainability. All of which would be merely admirable if the low-key Whittaker weren’t churning out some of the city’s most imaginative dishes. The fact that he does both hammers home the point that there’s no excuse for not being green in 2016. —Neal McLennan
CHRIS WHITTAKER RECIPEForaged Greens Quiche with Bison Bresaola
Designer and brewery owner, Vancouver
Back in 2006, Vancouver magazine touted designer David Nicolay and his firm, Evoke International, as bringing a much-needed sea change to the then-bleak Granville Street strip in the city. They’d just designed Sanafir for a client—a Middle Eastern-inspired restaurant lush with rich fabrics, lanterns and, most memorably, dining beds on the upper floor.
“There’s so much good design happening now, but it wasn’t there 15 years ago,” says Nicolay. “Restaurants were nice, but they were safe.” Over the last decade and a half, Nicolay’s firm has played a leading role in drawing the masses to some of the most talked-about rooms in the city. From the farm-to-table-inspired, white and bright Heirloom restaurant to the warm and woodsy Irish Heather, Evoke’s designs have created transporting moments for guests when they walk through the doors. And Nicolay’s team has entered the game, too: with their Cascade Company, they’ve created buzzy boîtes that they both design and run themselves. The spots include the modern pub Cascade Room and, most recently, Main Street Brewing Company, a soaring century-old former factory, remarkably low-key, but perfectly suited to its intention: drinking beer.
So can a thoughtful design make or break a place? Nicolay is characteristically modest. “I used to think it was a third food, a third service and a third design that made for success,” he says, “but I don’t think that anymore. Design gets people there, but it doesn’t keep them—it’s the old standards of food and service that bring them back.” —Anicka Quin
CEO, Food.ee, Vancouver
Steamed pork belly buns from Bao Down, sausages and homemadepretzels from Bestie, Japanese tapas from Guu—though it sounds like what food-crawl dreams are made of, it’s actually just the menu for your next office lunch-and-learn.
And you’ve got Ryan Spong to thank for it.
As CEO of Food.ee, Spong and his team aggregate lunch options fromVancouver hot spots both mobile and not—think Meat and Bread, Torafuku and Vij’s Railway Express—so teams can order up a mid-meeting meal with some culinary cred instead of the usual tired catering fare standard. (“Oh good, a veggie wrap!” said no one ever.) Thirsty? Add a six-pack from microbrewer 33 Acres.
It’s a premise that benefits hungry groups and restaurants alike—purveyors can turn slow hours into profitable ones by prepping these advance orders, and poor saps stuck in lunch-option-barren wastelands (ahem, South Granville) have access to a world of delicious eats with just a few clicks. Win-win.
It’s not Spong’s only foray into the food world: in 2010, the entrepreneur invested and partnered in a little business named Tacofino and helped it grow from a humble beachside truck in Tofino to a critically and commercially beloved multi-locale West-Coast-Mexican mecca—a fourth bricks-and-mortar restaurant opens in Vancouver’s Yaletown this summer.
Though both Spong and Food.ee were born and bred in Vancouver, the concept has already proven to have broader appeal. It’s expanded across Canada (Toronto) and beyond (Austin, Philly, Atlanta), giving us hope that Spong will keep us well fed, wherever in the world we’re having a meeting. —Stacey McLachlan
Chefs/Owners, Torafuku, Vancouver
In food, as in music, comedy is rarely a positive. Show us a singing chef and we’ll show you someone who’s bad at both. So when Steve Kuan and Clement Chan came on the scene in 2012 with their Le Tigre food truck, wearing funny framed glasses and shouting orders and cracking jokes with glee, we were suspect. For about five minutes. . .or until we had our first bite of Kick-Ass Rice—a mélange of sake, Thai chilies, butter and dashi that seemed to be the one dish that summed up what a food cart should be. But four wheels is one thing and a full-blown restaurant is quite another—so the arrival of Torafuku was viewed with some healthy skepticism. . .for about five minutes. It’s Vancouver’s first postmodern restaurant—pared down, ridiculously affordable, with a light and airy vibe that emanates from a kitchen where everyone seems to be having a blast with dishes like Rye So Messy chicken wings and Miso Fantastic clams. —N.M.
TORAFUKU RECIPELucky Tiger Ramen
Owners, Picnic, Picnic Too, Dak Rotisserie, Victoria
Put 2015 in the win column for Victoria restaurateurs Melissa and Jon Perkins. First came the expansion and redesign of their café, Picnic Too (the sequel to Picnic, their first venture); then in October came Dak, a breakfast and lunch spot devoted to Korean rotisserie—an idea inspired by their years teaching English in Busan, South Korea. “We wanted to bring the flavours of traditional Korean marinades to the rotisserie concept,” says Melissa, who develops the menus for each of their establishments. Jon oversees the business side and provides an affable front-of-house presence. There was a time one might have referred to their fare as “fusion,” the late-’80s trend that forced together ingredients from disparate cultures (see: wasabi mashed potatoes), but for the Perkinses, it’s simply good food gleaned from their life experiences and extensive travel to places like Mongolia, Southeast Asia and Mexico, among many others. “I might take the idea of a peanut satay and work that into a sandwich,” says Melissa. “I won’t take a full Thai recipe, that’s not my specialty, but I’ll take the concept and add flavours and a bread complement that I think would work well.” Local suppliers feature prominently, too: the all-important chicken is sourced from Farmhouse Chicken in the Cowichan Valley Choux Choux Charcuterie next door provides the beer-braised brats; 2% Jazz Coffee supplies the beans. “Fusion” isn’t dead. It has evolved. —Rosemary Poole
Owners, Pilgrimme, Galiano Island
Forest to table, shore to plate, foraging chef Jesse McCleery and his partner, Leanne Lalonde, are dedicated to doing things as they once were done. So isn’t it funny how a throwback to simpler times, when people ate exactly what the seasonal land provided, sans contemporary shortcuts, has landed them on the cutting edge of today’s local, sustainable harvesting trend? A chef who trolls the beaches for sea lettuce, sea asparagus and bull kelp to serve up on that evening’s menu—what might be the best ingredient-forward meal you’ll have all year—is the kind of foodie folklore that travels fast in these parts. More impressive still when you consider the remote location: their weather-aged, cabin-style restaurant in the woods is on the sparsely inhabited (1,000 and change) Galiano Island, and yet people are happy to brave the downtown traffic and the ferry and the wilderness just to see what Pilgrimme is doing differently than anyone else. —Julia Dilworth
Owners/Winemakers, Lock & Worth, Okanagan
Here’s the thing about natural wine—it’s a terrible idea from a business perspective. There’s a reason most vintners use commercial yeast, wine stabilizers, sulphur, Mega Purple and a slew of other additives—they’re all tried and tested hedges against the fact that fermenting something is by definition a risky endeavour. It’s nature and, when left unchecked, nature does whatever the hell it wants to. So when these two—using the sobriquet Lock & Worth—make their wine with as little intervention as possible in order to best express the character of wine from a single plot of land, they’re taking a chance that it will all work out. There are no fancy labels, very reasonable prices and the seeds of a coming wine revolution in every bottle.
Not actual seeds, mind you. —N.M.
Co-owner, Italian Centres, Edmonton and Calgary
I thought something might be up when my mother, Scottish-born and Scottish married, decided that we needed panettone for Christmas. I knew something was up when we turned into the Italian Centre on Edmonton’s south side and discovered that finding the Ark of the Covenant would have been easier than finding parking. “You should see the West End store,” my mom said. “It’s really busy.” Frank Spinelli—patron saint of every Northern Albertan who ever wanted to make their own wine, find proper tomatoes for their sugo or eat a decent cannoli—may have started the Italian Centre in 1959, but it’s his daughter, Teresa, who has taken the idea of bringing a little slice of the old country to the Prairies and run with it. Three bustling stores in Edmonton and now one in Calgary—all of them transporting the customer back to the homeland, if only for a few minutes. Our guess is the padre would be proud. —N.M.
Cookbook Author, Calgary
With roots in Kenya and India, 80-something cookbook author Noorbanu Nimji has been feeding her own family for 60 years and teaching cooking to youth in her community since the 1970s. After moving to Calgary, she began compiling her East African-Indian recipes for U of C students who asked her to teach them how to cook in her home kitchen after class. In 1986 she decided to self-publish her first cookbook, A Spicy Touch, which quickly became a staple on kitchen shelves in Canada and around the world. She has since self-published three more cookbooks in the A Spicy Touch series, which have collectively sold well over a quarter-million copies. Her latest, co-authored by Calgary Food Tours’ Karen Anderson, has been in the works for nine years—when the remaining copies of her first three books, stored in Mrs. Nimji’s Roxboro basement, were ruined in the 2013 flood, the pair were prompted to finish what she calls a treasury of her life’s work. It recently won a silver medal for best cookbook in the 2016 Independent Publisher Book Awards in Chicago. —Julie Van Rosendaal
NOORBANU NIMJI RECIPEDouble Chai Ginger Log
Chef/Owner, Whitehall, Calgary
The affable, Yorkshire-born Neil McCue first made his mark on Calgary a decade ago as head chef at the city’s iconic Catch before expanding his skills in Toronto and England (where he garnered a Michelin star at Curlew Restaurant). But when it came time to open his own restaurant, returning to Calgary was his first choice. Now, at Whitehall, he’s redefined modern British cuisine with dishes like roast lamb loin draped in a caper scrag chutney, mackerel torched and confitted, a kedgeree of smoked sablefish and crispy quail egg, and pork drippings mixed with butter for his house-baked bread. It’s what he calls “honest food that is seriously comfortable”; it’s what we call the finest British cuisine in the West. —John Gilchrist