Down on the Farm
by Cinda Chavich
On Vancouver Island, buying food direct from local farms is more than a seasonal trend for chefs — it’s a year-round reality.
Restaurant owner Michael Murphy is a case in point. When dining at any of his three Victoria restaurants — Pescatores, Oyster Bar, 10 Acres Bistro and Bar — you’ll find pork, vegetables, and even honey on the menu, ingredients delivered direct from his own Saanich Peninsula farm — yes, his own farm.
“There are many farms in the region but there are things we can do better ourselves,” says Murphy of his decision to create a farm dedicated to supplying his city eateries.
“We cut 80 pounds of salad greens a week and the quality is a definite improvement. They’re cut first thing in the morning and in here by 10 am. You just can’t beat that.”
Beyond greens — and the cut flowers that grace the tables in Murphy’s restaurants — there’s top quality hard-neck garlic, eggs from the farm’s free-range laying hens, and colourful heirloom beets. Murphy has free-range pigs to send to market for the bacon and ham they serve at 10 Acres Bistro and fruit from the 500 trees and vines he planted. Bees in the three hives he’s acquired to pollinate his crops produce honey. And when they have organic waste, it all goes back to the farm to compost.
“It all goes full circle; it’s a closed system,” he says, proudly surveying the 10 acres where he lives alongside his farm managers.
It’s the ultimate example of the kind of seasonal food you find at so many Island restaurants. With organic vegetable farms dotted across the Saanich Penninsula, chicken, lamb, and pork raised in nearby Metchosin and Cowichan Valley, and ocean-wise fish from the sea, it’s easy to eat local here.
And chefs are quick to point out that their products are local — but there is more to it than just a way of promoting their food. Many of our local chefs are deeply committed to supporting and strengthening the link between farm and table. Chef Garrett Schack heads both the kitchens at Vista 18 in the Chateau Victoria Hotel and the Island Chef’s Collaborative (see page 21), a group of 50 chefs committed to creating a sustainable food system on Vancouver Island. These chefs are focused on getting the freshest food on their menus by supporting local agriculture, and they’ve raised money to help protect farmland from development and helped launch a new Food Hub for local food storage and processing.
“We use at least 10 different farmers at Vista 18 — they deliver to our door,” he says, describing the fresh broccoli shoots and Delicata squash on today’s menu. “We are fortunate that it is in such close proximity, and that Victoria consumers believe in supporting Island products.”
Schack points to Madrona Farm — just 10 minutes from his downtown Victoria hotel restaurant — where chefs source organic vegetables throughout the seasons. Protected by The Land Conservancy’s special place designation, 27-acre Madrona Farm produces 105 different crops year round and is recognized as a model of sustainable agriculture.
“We are really blessed here on the Island — we can grow food here year round whether it’s melons and peppers, kale and squash, or great garlic and apples,” says Schack. “We’re surrounded by the sea, with all kinds of great sustainable fisheries. We’re really in a paradise for food.”
Close proximity to farms often determines the location of the restaurant. Such as the case for British-born Daniel Hudson — an alumnus of Vancouver’s DB Bistro and Lumiere, and Top Chef Canada star. He chose the Cowichan Valley to open his eponymous restaurant, Hudson’s on First.
“My wife and I knew one day we’d do something in the Valley,” says Hudson, who appreciates living in the Island’s banana belt, where everything from heirloom apples and wine grapes to asparagus, wild mushrooms, and free-range chickens flourish.
“Code’s Corner [farm] is just 10 minutes away — I’m spoiled with the choices I have,” he says, describing the vegetarian pine mushroom risotto with crispy organic egg on tonight’s menu.
“The produce tastes as it should, everything full of flavour and vibrancy. It’s a pleasure to work with.”
Farther up Island in the Comox Valley, being able to meet with and talk to producers in person is important to chef Aaron Rail at Avenue Bistro. He collaborates with local farmers and fishers for a menu that includes beer-battered local oysters from Hollie Wood, house-smoked wild sockeye salmon, and local duck confit with wild chanterelle mushrooms.
Similarly, at Locals Restaurant, chef Ronald St. Pierre, celebrates all things Island with a menu that ranges from breakfast crepes rolled with B.C. salmon and Little Qualicum Cheeseworks fromage frais to wild shrimp and crab with Eatmore Sprouts and Nature Springs wasabi. Photos of local farmers and fishers decorate his dining room and St. Pierre tells their stories, “to celebrate the uniqueness of the Comox Valley and close the consumer-producer gap.”
“I’ve spent more than 20 years working with farmers to try to educate people about what’s available around here,” says the pioneering chef who serves Estevan Tuna, Tannadice Farm pork, Island Bison, Quackery duck, and Whaletown Bay oysters, all washed down with local wines, mead, and Island-made
“If you buy good ingredients, you eat good food,” he adds, delivering a perfect dish of house-smoked duck with winter spinach and arugula.
Eating good local food prepared by chefs who know how to bring out its unique flavours — that’s really what Island dining is all about.