Wickaninnish Inn chef gets to know his ingredients through foraging in forests and beaches
Original article by Larry Pynn for the Vancouver Sun
Photo by Martin Lipman
ABOARD THE MV POLAR PRINCE — As executive chef at the Wickaninnish Inn, Warren Barr is not content with buying local. He insists on foraging local, too, gumbooting through the rainforests and along the beaches and becoming intimate with his ingredients.
“I like to bring the outside in,” Barr explains. “You’re going to cook better if it’s something you have a connection to.”
In the forests around Tofino, on Vancouver Island’s west coast, he regularly collects berries as well as wild chanterelle mushrooms, although the exact location remains a secret. “It’s pretty competitive. I may have to blindfold you and take you in.”
As guest chef on the Canada C3 expedition’s final 10-day leg from Campbell River to Victoria, he enlivens dishes with reindeer lichen, sea buckthorn, kelp vinegar, pickled seaweed, salal and evergreen huckleberries, western hemlock tips, and garnishes of sword fern and cedar boughs.
It’s all part of an evolution — or revolution — developing what can be described as Canadian cuisine. “It’s a very exciting time to be a cook, lots of interest from the public in wild things. That said, it’s always good to have a caesar salad somewhere.”
During the expedition’s visit to Nanoose Bay, north of Nanaimo, Barr toured the Snaw-naw-as First Nation Garden of Spiritual Healing. Just one year old, the garden is being designed for food security, health, community involvement, and education. The goal is to not just grow ordinary vegetables, but also native plants for food and medicinal purposes.
Barr endured an onslaught of wind and pelting rain to plant some wild ginger, a difficult-to-find plant that is a traditional treatment for arthritis and to aid digestion and relieve headaches.
“It’s awesome, so good,” he said. “You know how ginger is quite often served with lemongrass? This is like both those things in one, only a bit sweeter.”
Other wild plants planted during C3’s visit included: stinging nettle, touted by aboriginals as a blood tonic and to cleanse the intestinal tract; yarrow, for fevers and sore throats; red huckleberry, sore throats and inflamed gums; blue camas, the bulbs of which were a food staple historically for aboriginals; and devil’s club, one of the most important native medicinal plants, used for arthritis, ulcers and digestive tract problems.
Bonnie Jones, an elder with the garden, said she also keeps devil’s club in her kitchen to protect the house from bad spirits.
Much of the traditional knowledge has been lost, but Jones is having fun bringing it back. “I like dirty fingers,” she said with a laugh. “It takes two days to get the dirt out.”
The 67-metre icebreaker Polar Prince, a former Canadian Coast Guard research vessel, left Toronto June 1 on a five-month $10-million voyage along Canada’s Atlantic, Arctic and Pacific coastlines in recognition of 150 years of confederation. The federal government is contributing about two-thirds of that cost, and more than 100 other donors the other one-third.
Sixty persons are on board at any one time, including crew, expedition staff, and a vast cross-section of participants — politicians, scientists, explorers, journalists, youth ambassadors, musicians, artists, and, of course, chefs.
Barr got his start almost 20 years ago at Le Crocodile in Vancouver, and, after a stint in France, landed the chef’s job at the Inn at Bay Fortune in Prince Edward Island. “I was grossly underqualified at the time, but felt I had nothing to lose. I could burn down in that province and no one would know.”
That didn’t happen. The experience helped to shape his interest in local foods. “I worked super closely with farmers. I knew the family lineage of the pigs I was using, I knew what they were fed. I’d be there for kills, see all that happen. I’d work with farmers who were grading my potatoes to an eighth of an inch for me. It was interactive.”
Today, at the Wickaninnish Inn, he oversees a culinary team of up to 35, serving guests from around the world who crave local foods. “It’s an important part of making Canadian food exciting. It makes an impact. People don’t forget it when they leave.”
In May, The Wickaninnish Cookbook (by Joanne Sasvari, published by Appetite by Random House), is scheduled to be published, with contributions from Barr and seven other chefs who have worked at the establishment.
Look for Larry Pynn’s stories from the C3 expedition every day this week.
For more information on Canada C3, visit: canadac3.ca/en/homepage.