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Andrew Springett: Sublime food at Pacific's edge

The chef is not unfamiliar with the stresses of cooking for the occasional culinary critic. But 80 of them? All at the same time? And for the whole weekend?

"They say we raised the bar," says Andrew Springett modestly of that kitchen-heroic weekend at The Wick.

"They" aren't the only ones; a lot of people all up and down the West Coast, all over the continent, all around the world have been saying the same thing. The promise of "rustic elegance at nature's edge" continues to hold at the world famous Wickaninnish Inn, near Tofino , British Columbia , on the West Coast of Vancouver Island. It's the domain of chef Andrew Springett and his creative brigade. He's just upholding the tradition, and, well, raising the bar.

The founding executive chef at The Wick (it's shorter this way and anyway, that's what repeaters, aficionados, friends of the house like to call it) put some seriously stratospheric culinary levels in place. He was, and is, Rodney Butters, who has gone to Kelowna , in the Okanagan Valley , the heart of British Columbia 's exploding wine country, and done considerable bar-raising there as well.

And so the bar is raised at The Wick, and so say those 80 "culinary critics" who descended on the place last April. It was inevitable: the Wickaninnish Inn received its world-wide nod of recognition; the Relais et Chateau designation shortly after setting up shop. Sooner or later, "they" would be coming to check it out first hand. That's a group of 80 heavy-hitter hoteliers and restaurateurs from other R&C properties around the world. And they arrived in early April 2005 to stay and see and eat and check out the founding five C's of the organization: Character, Calm, Charm, Courtesy and Cuisine.

Here everyone sat down to butter-poached Vancouver Island sea scallops and gingered Dungeness crab salad; Cowichan Bay peppered breast of duck and confit of leg in Savory cabbage with a pear-Dijon sauce; olive oil-braised black cod with green olive lemon ravioli and tomato-bell pepper scallion ragout; caribou loin and double-smoked bacon, braised caribou shank with foie gras foam and morel sauce; a sensational hat trick of dessert; marzipan tree cake with Grand Marnier mousse (made with Cuvee Cinquantenaire), white chocolate orange parfait with Grand Marnier Cuvee Centenaire and Grand Marnier orange pistachio salad in a dark Belgian chocolate cup (with the Louis Alexandre.)

Wasn't that a party! Daunting? "Maybe, a little" the chef recalls. "But we did it the way we always do it; keeping it simple, natural, clean and fresh."

With the ocean on all three sides, the rainforest out back and astonishing world-class cuisine inside, the visitors did the 5C check list: character, calm, charm, courtesy and cuisine? Got it, in one.

Awards are nothing new to the property. The Wickaninnish Inn was voted top hotel in North America in 2002 and #3 in the world by Travel & Leisure magazine readers, #2 in the Americas by Conde Nast UK readers in 2002 and appeared on the list of world's best service levels in the same publication in 2003.

Owner Charles McDiarmid wouldn't have it any other way. Which is why, when "founding" chef Rodney Butters decided to go travelling before establishing his new outpost in Kelowna , the search was on to find someone to at least maintain the standard.

Enter Andrew Springett, his CV full of credentials, his head full of creative ideas. Before putting down roots at nature's edge, he'd worked with Michael Noble at Diva at The Met, with Bernard Casavant at Chateau Whistler, with George McNeill at The Royal York in Toronto, with Mark McEwan at North 44, same city, as well as the aforementioned Rodney Butters at Fresco, and the old Olympian himself, Bruno Marti at La Belle Auberge in Vancouver.

A little hands on with Chef Morimoto (the Iron Chef) and Daniel Boulud in NYC didn't hurt, either. Further, Andrew Springett represented Canada at the Bocuse d'Or competition in France in 2003, part of the team that won gold at the 2000 World Culinary Olympics in Germany .

December, 2003 he walked into the kitchen at The Pointe Restaurant, said hello to his executive sous chef, Scott McFadden, pastry chef Thomas Konradi, and the other 25 cooks awaiting his arrival and went to work, raising the bar.

A little sidebar to do some math: 75 seats in the restaurant, 26 cooks in the kitchen? A ratio of three to one, diners to cooks? "Well, it's breakfast, lunch and dinner, isn't it?" says the chef, going on to point out special events, winemaker dinners and the "welcome to the inn" snacks he likes to send up to your room on your arrival.

"Challenges are what The Wick is all about, and I love it," he says, quite happily, and those challenges aren't necessarily negative ones. Like most great contemporary cooks, Andrew Springett delights in sourcing locally produced food from the "neighbourhood". "I'm big on organic farming," he admits and in the next breath delivers his 'philosophy' in a phrase: "I believe in letting the food speak for itself. And my recipes tend to reflect the respect I feel for the food of this region."

One of the great dishes, a signature of The Wick kitchens, a legacy from Rodney Butters, is the one they call "The Potlatch": a great stew bowl of fish and shellfish and vegetables and herbs and spices, all in a brilliant broth-in the tradition of bouillabaisse or even cioppino, but resolutely all its rustically-elegant own.

It may change a little from time to time," says Andrew Springett, "But it'll never come off the menu."

What's ahead is more winemaker dinners, for one, following a great success with Cedar Creek and Tom DiBello. There was an early June event with Black Hills , whose portfolio has only three wines - a white blend, Alibi, a red blend, Nota Bene and a dessert wine, Sequentia. The event was held in conjunction with the third annual Tofino Food & Wine Festival; there will most likely be another in June 2006.

Still to come this year: a visit from Michael Allemeier and Mission Hill wines, in Novenmber; chef Ray Henry (currently doing some serious bar-raising of his own in Vancouver, at Diva in the Metropolitan Hotel); and the amazing Claudio Aprile of Sen5es, Toronto (last seen in these pages in the Summer issue), in April 2006.

And, as part of a Guest Chef series, the chef and his brigade will welcome Vancouver 's Scott Jaeger (The Pear Tree), the frequently mentioned Rodney Butters returning to his old stomping grounds from Fresco, Kelowna , and a West Coast icon, Kerry Sear from Cascadia restaurant in Seattle .

There will be lots of exchanges of ideas and creativity; a lot of wonderful Pacific Northwest wine will doubtless go down, the waves will pound the rocks and rustic elegance will be unfolding as it should and where it should; at nature's edge, at the Wickaninnish Inn.

or more information, please visit www.wickinn.com

Grilled Beef Tenderloin with Side Stripped "Tofino" Shrimp Flan and Sundried Blueberry, Port wine Sauce

INGREDIENTS

Meat : 4 x 7oz beef tenderloin in portions, sea salt, cracked black pepper for rubbing

Flan Dough : 3/4 lb all-purpose flour, 1 tsp salt, 1/2 lb unsalted butter, 1/3 c cold water

Flan Filling : 1/2 c baby shrimp, 250 ml heavy cream, 3 whole eggs, sea salt, cracked black pepper

Sauce : 1 tbsp olive oil, 1 tbsp tomato paste, 1 c mire poix (1/2 c chopped onion, 1/4 c chopped celery, 1/4 c chopped carrots) 2 c chicken broth (canned is fine), 2 c water, 1 1/2 c port wine, salt and pepper to taste, 2 tbsp butter (cold), 1/4 c sundried blueberries (re-hydrated)

Vegetables : 1 lb beans

METHOD

For the meat season and rub with salt and cracked pepper, grill to desired doneness. For the sauce, in a large pot sauté Mire poix in olive oil until well cooked, add tomato paste and cook for 1-2 minutes. Add chicken broth and water, reduce by half. Add Port wine and reduce by half again. Strain sauce through China Cap and season with salt and pepper to taste. Pour sauce in frying pan and add butter and re-hydrated blueberries. For the flan dough combine flour and salt in a bowl add firm butter and pinch with fingers until the size of hazelnuts. Add water and mix by hand until dough comes together. Butter should still be lumpy. Let dough rest in fridge for at least 30 minutes. Roll out and place in flan dish. For the flan filling mix together cream and eggs add shrimp mixing lightly, season with salt and pepper. Pour mixture evenly into flan shell and bake at 350 for approximately 25 minutes. For vegetables sauté until al dente.

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