Eric Akis: Wickaninnish Cookbook offers a taste of Tofino

Eric Akis

For many years, people from around Canada and the world have flowed west to Tofino to revel in its natural splendours — stunning beaches, craggy shorelines, crashing waves and old-growth forests.

But in more recent times, they’ve also come to Tofino to enjoy excellent food and drink. Despite its small size, the town is home to an eclectic mix of restaurants, bakeries and beverage producers, including coffee roasters, a brewery and a distillery.

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Many of those businesses are keen on using locally sourced ingredients wherever possible. The McDiarmid-family-owned operation in Tofino that many credit for getting that concept started is The Pointe Restaurant at the Wickaninnish Inn, which opened in 1996.

“The Pointe has always been a pioneer in Canadian cuisine and was dedicated to supporting local from the very get-go,” said Warren Barr, Wickaninnish Inn executive chef. “Every chef who has been at the helm [here] has shared those values and it has become a core philosophy of what we do.”

Any doubts that it would be a winning formula were quickly answered the August evening the restaurant first opened.

“Chef Rod Butters, who was in charge of the culinary program when the inn opened, had given strict instructions that they were not to do more than 50 covers [meals that night],” said Barr. “They only had so much food and still didn’t have many of the essentials of a commercial kitchen, like a dishwasher.”

Barr says they ended up doing more than 100 covers and joked that the doorman that night, Bruce McDiarmid — brother of managing director Charles McDiarmid — is still in trouble with Butters for letting in so many people.

Other food-rich stories about the Wickaninnish Inn and the folks who have worked there fill the pages of a new book called The Wickaninnish Cookbook: Rustic Elegance on Nature’s Edge (Appetite by Random House, $45.00). The impressive, 290-page hardcover tome penned by B.C.-based, food, drink and travel writer Joanne Sasvari includes details about the inn’s interesting history, design and construction, along with beautiful photographs of the inn and its picturesque location, and dozens of recipes for dishes served there.

The Wickaninnish Inn originally wanted to publish the book in 2016 to mark its 20th anniversary. But they only came up with the idea eight months before that celebration would occur. “Eight months sounds like a long time, but it sure isn’t in cookbook time. All said and done, the book took two years from conception to print,” Barr said.

Barr said that didn’t end up being so bad, because getting all the recipes from him and past chefs, testing them, arranging the photography and, of course, writing the book, was time-consuming. But when you leaf through this gorgeous book, it’s clear that it was worth the effort.

“I made a concerted effort to have a good variety of recipes in the book that would be suitable for all skill levels, whether that be a home cook or a professional,” Barr said. “Beyond that, it was a matter of picking some [customer] favourites, finding a balance of dishes in the book, and then choosing some recipes that helped support the story of the Inn.”

The book is divided into chapters that include storm watching, beach picnics, by the fire and by the sea. You’ll find recipes for such dishes as ancient grain porridge, crab cappuccino, sockeye salmon “BLT,” kale tapenade, Haida Gwaii halibut and asparagus, venison carpaccio, and carrot bolognaise with rutabaga spaghetti.

The Wickaninnish Inn makes its own baked goods and desserts and shakes some wicked cocktails. So, not surprisingly, you’ll also find recipes in the book for blueberry thyme tart and a signature drink called Feather George, which mixes in cedar-infused rye whiskey.

“We wanted the book to be a celebration of the Wickaninnish Inn and its legacy of culinary talent and the impact it has had on the community,” Barr said. “When designing it, we really wanted to embody ‘rustic elegance’ and were very careful not to betray our brand. At the end of the day, it’s found on shelves across the country and we hope it will inspire people to come visit us.”

If you can’t do that, you can feel as if you’re visiting the inn by making and enjoying a recipe from the book, such as hearty West Coast seafood chowder. It makes a fine December supper, especially if you enjoy it with friends and serve it with some rustic bread.

West Coast Seafood Chowder

This recipe is from Wickaninnish Cookbook: Rustic Elegance on Nature’s Edge (Appetite by Random house) and was created by Chef Justin Labossiere. He says this rich, creamy classic West Coast seafood chowder, loaded with local seafood, is the perfect meal for a cold and stormy night, especially if served with rustic bread and a pint of beer. Expect your guests to demand seconds.

Serves: Four to eight

1 cup (250 mL) chicken or fish stock

2 lb (900 g) Salt Spring Island mussels, rinsed well in cold water, any opened shells discarded

6 to 7 oz (175 to 200 g) good quality bacon, diced

6 Tbsp (85 g) butter

1 large yellow onion, finely diced

1/2 medium bulb fennel, finely diced

2 medium stalks celery, finely diced

• sea salt and cracked black pepper to taste

6 cups (1.5 L) milk

2 cups (500 mL) cream

1/2 cup (65 g) flour

3 medium yellow-fleshed potatoes, unpeeled, diced small

1/2 lb (225 g) oyster meat (or 12 beach oysters, shucked), roughly chopped

1 lb (450 g) fresh halibut or cod, cubed

• Tabasco or other hot sauce (optional)

• Worcestershire sauce (optional)

In a large pot with a lid, bring the stock to a boil. Add the mussels, cover and steam until the shells open, four to five minutes.

Remove the mussels from the liquid and allow to cool slightly. Discard any mussels that have not opened. Strain the liquid, cover, and refrigerate until ready to use. Remove the mussel meat from the shells, cover, and refrigerate until ready to use. If you like, you can set aside a few in the shell for garnish.

Rinse out and dry the pot and return it to the stove. Add the bacon and cook over medium heat until crisp. Remove the bacon, leaving the fat in the pot, and dry on a paper towel.

Add the butter to the bacon fat and heat until foamy. Add the diced onions, fennel and celery; cook until soft and translucent, eight to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Season with sea salt.

Meanwhile, in a medium-size saucepan, place the milk and cream and cook over medium heat, but do not allow to boil.

Stir the flour into the vegetables and cook, stirring, until thickened — this will create a liaison and prevent the chunky bits of vegetable and seafood from sinking to the bottom of your bowl later.

Pour the hot milk mixture slowly into the vegetables, stirring constantly until well blended and smooth. Bring back to a simmer, stirring frequently.

Stir in the potatoes, bacon and reserved cooking liquid from the mussels. Return to a simmer and cook until the potatoes are tender, 15 to 20 minutes.

Add the cooked mussels, chopped oyster meat, and cubed fish and cook for four to five minutes, stirring occasionally. Season with salt and pepper and, if you like, a few dashes of hot sauce and/or Worcestershire sauce.

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks, including seven in his Everyone Can Cook series. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.

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