In January, in the dead of winter, many of us Canadians long for green, lush surroundings while all we can see are snow drifts and toqued passersby. Well, you can find consolation in Tofino: a place that's almost always green.
The Wickaninnish Inn, an institution of Tofino and one of the most beautiful hotel properties in the country, is home to an equally well-known establishment, The Pointe Restaurant. Chef David Sider made the trek from Ontario's Niagara region, after working at the world-renowned Langdon Hall, all the the way to Vancouver Island almost two years ago to work in the notable establishment and has recently made his way back East.
The allure of Tofino is very strong and real. The laid back, beachy atmosphere is almost as enticing for a chef as it is to work with unique West Coast ingredients. The surrounding area is perfect for mushroom foraging and the waters offer an array of seafood, from mussels and oysters to lingcod and crab--a chef's dream come true.
Here, the young, but experienced, chef shares his thoughts on having worked in a remote location, discovering unique ingredients on the West Coast and Canadian food identity, among other things.
The Pointe Restaurant has had a lot of talented chefs work in the kitchen over the years. Did that intimidate you a bit when you moved here in 2013?
It’s a challenge, for sure, because [as a chef] you always want to do your own thing once you come into a kitchen. For example, have you eaten at Wolf in the Fog yet?
Yes, I definitely have!
Nick Nutting’s food is very good and he’s very globally influenced. He’ll pull from here and there, and that’s what this restaurant was like while he was in charge. When he left and I came on, I thought it was a little strange [they took me on] because I am the polar opposite of that. It’s not something I do.
What do you mean by that?
Well, using local ingredients is great, obviously, but I [personally] don’t like to use, say, local mushrooms to make an Asian dish. I’d rather take those local mushrooms and do a dish that could be viewed as something more locally reflective of the area I’m in, if you know what I mean. That was the biggest challenge here, taking that sort of mentality and having to convert the team a little bit; but the food has been very well received. There was a ton of support from the Wickaninnish Inn for me to go my own creative route with the menu.
After spending almost a week in Tofino, I was ridiculously impressed with the quality of food here. It’s crazy.
Totally, yes. There are actually no chain restaurants allowed in Tofino. There’s a bylaw against it. I think that basically forces the restaurants to strive to be great. You can’t really serve bad food in town. If you did, you’d just get run out of town. But, yes, when I first came here, I was totally surprised, in a good way, with the food culture.
In terms of business, is there anyone you view as competition?
It’s all different, right? This past year, we saw lower covers than previous years, but that is likely because a lot of other restaurants opened up in town: Wolf in the Fog, Ice House, the Fish Store and Oyster Bar. So, I don’t know if we’re necessarily in competition with other places, especially if people are coming in here, specifically for a tasting menu. There isn’t really any other restaurant that does that. But, in terms of people just popping in for one course and a drink, then yeah, there’s competition for that around town, for sure. Even though it’s impacting us a bit, it’s better for the town as a whole. It’s great for people to have options to decide what they want. We serve guests from other properties, our guests go to other properties--it just works like that.
Do you travel a lot in Canada for menu research or chef collaborations?
I don’t get to do as much travelling for research as I’d like, but when I do, I usually head to Toronto. Toronto’s interesting right now, I really see that return of proper fine dining with places like The Chase, but then there’s that other side of things with places like Bar Isabel. I’d actually love to go to St. John’s this year. I’d love to check out Raymond’s and Mallard Cottage. I think Newfoundland has some really exciting stuff happening.
Do you think Newfoundland’s style of cuisine is really applicable to your cooking approach?
Well, no, but that is sort of the beauty of it. You hear a lot about Canadian cuisine nowadays, and it seems like it’s starting to be determined that there isn’t a Canadian cuisine, as a whole. There’s not even really collective ingredients that are available in all regions across the country.
We’re a huge country. So, if there can be a difference in what chefs do in Copenhagen and what chefs do in Paris, then obviously there’s differences across Canada. Now you're seeing food getting really regionalized. You see Newfoundland, then look at Montreal, Toronto or Saskatchewan, and it all goes from there. All of these chefs are figuring out their niches and that’s what was exciting for me here: having never been to Vancouver Island, arriving, seeing everything I had to work with and identifying my place.
Did you have a lot of experience working with seafood while in Ontario?
No, not necessarily. That’s sort of the double-edged sword of living in these hyper-local restaurants. Obviously, it’s a pleasant surprise. When you have products that good, with the quality of seafood we have around here, you have to just give it a taste and go from there.
Was there something you discovered while being on the island that you had never eaten before?
There were definitely some types of seafood. Dogfish, I had never used before; it’s an off-catch. There were different proteins that I have eaten in the past, but never cooked with. Dungeness crab, for example, just wasn’t a thing we saw out East. It’s prohibitively expensive out here, so you can imagine what the cost of it would be in Ontario. It’s just something we’d never, ever use. Being able to get it here now, straight off the dock, and using it all of the time is a very cool thing.
Describe industry nightlife in Tofino.
Pretty minimal, to be honest. Every place is closed by midnight except for one place that’s open until 1 a.m. Wolf in the Fog and Shelter both serve food until midnight, so that’s nice. But, there’s no place where you can go to get a wicked noodle bowl or whatever after service.
Tofino is pretty remote. What was the staffing situation like?
It can be a challenging place. We’d sign everyone on for a year when they first come on board, and the challenge is always keeping a person past that one year mark. They usually tap out by then. You really need to give someone a reason to stay. They have to know that there’s always something more to learn.
One very important last question: did Tofino turned you into a surfer?
For me, it was a matter of not having time. I spend an incredible amount of time here at the restaurant and have a wonderful daughter at home, so I keep busy. I did take a lesson once and it was too much fun, so I told myself, “Never again!”