Behind the line: Oliver chef Campbell Kearns

Campbell Kearns chef

Since starting out as a cook at a pub in Calgary's Kensington neighbourhood 12 years ago, Campbell Kearns has already gained some more serious culinary chops on Vancouver Island and in the remote West Coast area of Haida Gwaii. Now, the chef is exploring the South Okanagan, a region of Canada that's beyond plentiful in ingredients and, of course, some stellar wines.

Working with Covert Farms Family Estate, an organic farm and winery just outside of Oliver, B.C., Kearns gets to not only help with growing a long list of fresh fruits and vegetables, but also put his knife down and get his hands dirty in the wine-making processes. Now that most of the grapes have been harvested and the all of the produce has been picked for the season, the chef takes a little break to sit down and open up about why long shifts in the kitchen aren't for him, the amazing ingredients he is surrounded by (and a few he misses from the coast) and how he'll be expanding his knowledge base by exploring outside of the kitchen this winter.

How did you get immersed in the kitchen?

I have one of those "started in the dish pit" stories. At 18 years old, my first job was at Molly Malone’s, a neighbourhood pub in Calgary. Initially, I was actually cooking my way through art school...but I think my culinary life really started when I moved to Vancouver Island. I originally moved to Campbell River and went to North Island College, which was actually a really cool experience back then because all of the instructors there were really into everything farm-to-table, that truly local scene, mushroom foraging…

Did you have any epiphanies after completing culinary school?

I didn’t really want to do the restaurant thing, the crazy 16-hour day sort of thing. I started my own company in Victoria working as a personal chef back in 2010. I ended up lucking out and getting a couple of really good clients right off the bat, so my mainstay was meal prep and meal planning, small dinner parties--that’s where I found the most satisfaction with food. I liked being connected with people in their homes and cooking for them. But after a couple of personal things happened in my life, I stopped doing the private chef thing, separated from my wife and I took off to Haida Gwaii.

Haida Gwaii is supposed to be stunning, but pretty remote.

Yeah, something remote was pretty much what I was looking get as far away as possible. Just to clear the head, you know?

I started off as the sous chef for a company called West Coast Resorts and did three seasons. The first as the sous chef, the last two as the head chef and then I came to the South Okanagan to work at Covert Farms earlier this year. [The resort] almost burnt me out, to be honest. In a season, there is 120 days straight working, which is crazy. I was pretty tired.

Is that why you decided to come to interior B.C.?

Coming here to Covert Farms was about really connecting with food again,just getting closer to where it grows and remembering how stoked I could be about [cooking].

Covert Farms doesn't have a winery restaurant per se, so what do you do here?

Big events and private parties. You know, the four to six courses type of thing. I love that I get to come out of the kitchen and talk to the people that are here. A lot of chefs don’t really have people skills, ha ha, so I think I’ve kind of been blessed in that sense, being able to talk about the food and the wine and sharing the story of how so many things were grown on our property here. All of that has really reignited my spark with food.

Was it hard to adjust to your new environment when you first got to the Oliver-Osoyoos area?

It’s interesting. It’s definitely been an adjustment coming from Haida Gwaii. Going from living literally beside the ocean to coming to a desert region is a big shift. It took me awhile to get into a groove here. It is absolutely beautiful, but it’s a different kind of beautiful. I was worried about how I would deal with the heat in the summer, but you know what? It was alright!

Since businesses around here rely mostly on tourism, you must see quite the spectrum of people coming through here.

Oh yeah! The demographics are wild. We’ll get visitors from your 20-something bloggers or Instagrammers from Vancouver [looking for some cool pictures in the garden or rows of vines] to retired couples passing through. There's also a lot of the wine experts, obviously, viticulturists...and Covert Farms is also 100 per cent the most family-friendly winery in the whole Okanagan. There’s so much for kids to do here on the grounds.

What's the chef community like in the South Okanagan?

All of the chefs here really work together as opposed to the city where there can be a lot more competition. For example, I’ll head over to Miradoro to borrow something for an event and it’s no issue. Letting each other borrow things and helping each other out will make events a success and that's for the general greater good. If we’re all busy [around here], then we’re all good. The more tourism we can get around here, the better for everyone.

Since it's so warm out here during peak season, you probably get to grow all kinds of awesome things.

Well, the greens production is pretty limited here because it’s so hot, but there’s a lot of other stuff that is widely available. The climate is great for tomatoes, melons, hot peppers--those kinds of things grow really well. Another amazing thing with being at Covert Farms is that when we tour people around the grounds, we get to check out the fruits and vegetables and know what’s good to grab and work with, like, “OK, squash blossoms are out right now,” or “Those tomatoes need to be picked”. You get to see produce in different stages, which is cool too. Back in the spring, I was harvesting teeny baby zucchinis with flowers still on them for a dinner. It’s stuff like that that you won’t get to see in a grocery store or get from a food supplier.

Is there something that's not as easy to source out here as opposed to the West Coast?

Well, seafood. The only fish supplier in the Okanagan that’s worth dealing with is Codfathers out in Kelowna. He does a great job. There’s also a cool sustainable aquaculture project called Road 17 that’s producing Arctic char. It was really tasty and nice to work with. A good butcher is actually hard to find too!

Now that we're heading into the late fall/winter, what will you be doing with the business?

This winter, I’m working with a mobile wine filtering and bottling company that works off the grounds. Part of my moving here was to get a lot more into wine. I’m doing my sommelier training right now. I’m making a bit of a transition--not that I am going to get out of chef-ing completely--but I’d like to have a sommelier ticket and combine that with all of the experience I have with food and farming and see where that all could take me.  I’ll be up in the winery helping with the crushes, preparing the wine, just getting a lot of insight into the process of making wine and bottling!