You could say we know a thing or two about dining. Not only are we home to innovative chefs, passionate growers and award-winning winemakers, we’re also home to some really good ideas. Case in point: The 100-Mile Diet started in Vancouver, when two local journalists, Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon, aghast that the average North American meal travels 2,414 kilometres (1,500 miles) from farm to table, set a personal challenge: for a year they would eat or drink nothing raised further than 161 kilometres (100 miles) from their Vancouver apartment.
Was it hard? Not once they knew where to look.
Fraser Valley wine, duck and berries; Gulf Island lamb, cheeses and tofu; wild Pacific Salmon, fresh lake trout and even locally brewed sake: such is the bounty in British Columbia that the hundred mile diet is just, well, not fair to everyone else.
Several things come into play here: some of North America's most fertile land and sea, coupled with a mild climate and long growing season, enables BC farmers to cultivate a vast range of products. At the same time, our multi-cultural society brings culinary influences, and tastes, from around the world.
This all comes together in BC’s restaurant kitchens, where innovative chefs meld European training, international (primarily Asian) tastes and the wealth of local products to define a new regional cuisine, based on the province’s abundant organic produce, seafood, game and wine.
The results? From caribou to chanterelles, artisanal cheese to micro-brewed ale, the local fare is rich and varied; the restaurants cosmopolitan, affordable and, in many cases, blessed with mountain and ocean views. Case in point: visitors can sample local goodness firsthand at Vancouver's Bishop’s restaurant, where the regional tasting menus are par for the course.
Salmon, caught wild and served rare, is bound to feature in many menus, as it’s a staple in the local diet — served seemingly every way and everywhere, from formal dining rooms to burger joints, dockside fish and chip vendors to sushi bars. Watch, too, for lesser-known local seafood, such as Vancouver Island oysters, spot prawns, sablefish and halibut cheeks.
You can be assured that this exotica has been sustainably harvested if you see an Ocean Wise symbol on the menu; it indicates that the restaurant is a member of Ocean Wise, a conservation program founded by C Restaurant and the Vancouver Aquarium, and is committed to serving only ocean-friendly fish and seafood.
A favourite take on seafood is, of course, sushi. And, while sushi bars are now as ubiquitous as coffee bars on Vancouver street corners, the local legend is Hidekazu Tojo, who's been wowing diners since 1988. Mr. Tojo is said to have more than 2,000 preparations memorized, including the secrets to his own inventions: the California Roll and the BC Roll.
The BC roll, probably the first sushi to use barbecued salmon skin, is the perfect example of BC fusion, with Asian techniques applied to an ancient First Nations food.
As another example of First Nations’ influence on our local cuisine, many restaurants serve cedar plank salmon, with its delightful smoky flavour, or Indian candy — smoked salmon drenched in brown sugar. One locale perfect for sampling a variety of First Nations culinary traditions? Vancouver’s Salmon n’ Bannock Bistro.
Eating locally has also renewed an interest in foraging for fruits, vegetables and mushrooms growing wild in parks and forests. Embraced by chefs and home cooks alike, foraging for fiddleheads, nettles, and chanterelle, oyster and porcini mushrooms is deliciously local. Vancouver Swallow Tail Tours leads foraging through the rainforest for delicacies and hosts tours fishing for crab, while Urban Zucchini based at the University of British Columbia leads mushroom tours and offers field dinners with local food, set right on UBC’s urban farm.
Vancouver, boasting a strong Asian population, is also one of the best places this side of the Pacific to sample regional Asian, particularly Chinese, cuisines. Options range from the chic formal restaurants to weekend dim sum haunts and cheap and cheerful noodle bars.
Other culinary influences abound too: virtually every nation, from Afghanistan to Thailand, Ethiopia to Russia, is represented here, thanks to Vancouver's vibrant multicultural mix. Vij's, for example, in the South Granville neighbourhood, brings innovative new takes to traditional Indian flavours.
There are many international flavours that have gone mobile: Vancouver’s food truck scene has exploded after Vancouver City Council expanded the options in 2010. With more than 100 diverse vendors, cuisines on offer include Australian pie, Mexican tacos, fresh BC seafood, Salvadorian pupusas, German candy, Filipino lumpia, Neapolitan pizza, Japanese hot dogs, Indian curries and many more.
For an insider’s look at food in Vancouver, check out Edible Canada's tours: chefs lead small groups through Vancouver’s local markets and ethnic neighbourhoods, introduce them to unusual new ingredients and show them how they're prepared. Cooking classes and even a gourmet kayaking tour are offered, too.
Just two hours from Vancouver and its eateries is another dining hot spot: Whistler. The 2010 Olympic host and North America’s favourite mountain resort is also home to several of the area’s — and the continent’s — top restaurants, including locally sourced menus at Bearfoot Bistro and the classic French and Italian cuisine of Araxi. Whistler Tasting Tours lead guests through the restaurants of Whistler, showcasing the best and brightest amongst some hidden gems. Foodies also flock to Whistler each November for Cornucopia, a food and wine celebration offering tastings, seminars, celebrity chefs and more.
Another major food and wine destination is Vancouver Island — a bountiful region bursting with wineries, organic farms, fisheries and talented chefs.
A tour here starts in Victoria, which claims to be home to the second highest number of restaurants per capita in North America (after San Francisco). Many source their ingredients, from wine to duck to artisanal cheeses, from the nearby Cowichan Valley and Saanich Peninsula — an area so blessed with sunshine and fertile ground, wineries and organic farms, it’s been dubbed the new Provence. (The bucolic village of Cowichan Bay was named North America's first Cittaslow, or "Slow Community" by the International Slow Food Movement.) Coastal spots, especially Tofino and Sooke, are good places to try such uniquely British Columbian seafood as halibut cheeks, rockfish or ling cod.
Key to the Island’s great local dining scene is the Island Chefs Collaborative (ICC), a group of top toques dedicated to working with organic farmers, fishers and even foragers to create and serve a uniquely Vancouver Island cuisine.
Other pioneers in the use of local fare are Frederique and Sinclair Philip, owners of Sooke Harbour House, west of Victoria. Their restaurant, regularly lauded as one of the best places to eat in Canada, is committed to using only ingredients from the Southwestern Coast of Vancouver Island, from the fish and shellfish of the ocean to the herbs and greens in the inn’s own gardens. As an added touch, their vast wine collection features a number of notable pours from BC's Okanagan Valley.
In the Okanagan, the wine — produced by over 120 wineries in the area — came first, followed by a mini-parade of talented chefs, attracted by the region’s agriculture bounty, lush scenery and clean culinary slate. The sunny climate makes alfresco dining a natural here, too, and many winery restaurants have terraces overlooking lakeside vineyards.
Many restaurateurs here, in the wineries, towns and destination resorts, work closely with organic farmers and foragers to create seasonal menus based on the local bounty. At Kelowna’s RauDZ Regional Table Restaurant, you’ll find a blend of comfort food, quality organic ingredients and housemade condiments which create something utterly modern, like baked fish and chips in chickpea batter or grilled salmon “BLT.” Chef and Sommelier Mark Filatow of Kelowna’s Waterfront Wines won the province-wide culinary competition Gold Medal Plates in 2012 as best chef for this local cuisine and wine pairings, and creates Okanagan local food in the restaurant.
Great finds aren’t, however, limited to BC’s breadbaskets and wine regions. You'll find little treasures elsewhere, too, from fresh sushi and home baking in Prince Rupert to innovative "Inland Cuisine" in the Kootenay Rockies. And everywhere, you'll hear the new dining mantra of "fresh, local, seasonal and sustainable," and meet chefs and diners keen to make the most of BC's lush local bounty.
A guaranteed way to meet the chefs is to join in on one of BC’s food and wine festivals. Besides Cornucopia at Whistler, there’s The Feast of Fields, a gourmet picnic celebrating local fare held in several locations throughout the province in fall; Dine Out Vancouver and Victoria’s Dine Around & Stay in Town which offer great deals on city dining each February and March; and the newest: The Tofino Food & Wine Festival each June on Vancouver Island’s west coast.