A New Way of Eating: Vancouver’s Farm to Table Restaurants Aim to Defy Categorization
A few months ago, Earls restaurants made the decision to only carry Certified Humane meat on their menu, a decision they hoped would play well in today’s ethically conscious dining world. It didn’t. After a week of online backlash, the restaurant chain revised their decision, saying they had "made a mistake." The problem was, in achieving one goal, Earls left behind another one that mattered even more to their clientele – supporting Canadian farmers.
This incident highlights the problems many restaurants face when trying to make more ethical choices for their menus; when moving closer to one ethical standard, they may be forced to move farther away from another. This is an issue that often comes up in discussions of farm to table food – one of the latest trends in ethical eating. For some Vancouver restaurants, however, the farm to table movement is more than just a trend, and the boundaries that govern it are not as clear as some diners may think. Here’s how three farm to table establishments in Vancouver are dealing with the competing demands of ethical food.
Royal Dinette: An Honest Approach to Farm to Table
While Royal Dinette is honest about their commitment to local food, their head chef Jack Chen still has some qualms about embracing the farm to table label.
"I don’t want to say farm to table because nowadays it’s such a cliché term. We’re not so much a farm to table restaurant, but we have more of a local, no waste concept,
Chen says. Royal Dinette opened its doors on 905 Dunsmuir Street, in the heart of the downtown financial district, in July 2015. The restaurant offers fresh, local, and seasonal fare (including fresh pasta made daily) in a laid-back, retro-inspired atmosphere.
Chen’s thoughtful approach to the farm to table concept comes through in the way he sources the restaurant’s ingredients. Chen is a strong supporter of farm to table food, but at the same time, is quick to question other ethical eating trends such as the organic food movement.
People go to Whole Foods and they’re spending all this money on produce from Mexico just because it’s organic. It doesn’t really mean a whole lot to me,
he says. Rather than religiously buying certified organic products, Chen prefers to establish relationships with farmers in order to "deal with the people that [he] know[s] are treating the produce how [he] would treat it."
50 per cent of the farms we deal with are organic, and the other 50 per cent are not organic, but they still have organic practices. We deal with the people that we know are treating the produce how we would treat it.
This honest approach to farm to table food is already starting to win over diners who are seeking to approach local fine dining in a more casual way. "What you get here is really high quality food without the snobbish atmosphere that you normally get with fine dining," wrote one satisfied customer on Yelp. In a review of Royal Dinette, the Globe and Mail assures potential diners that "[the chef’s] approach is subtle. The menu is not stamped with a manifesto or long list of farmers' names."
Instead of a manifesto, the menu may contain dishes like smoked Castelvetrano olives, black pepper pappardelle, locally caught ling cod, or the immensely popular seared potato gnocchi; it all depends on what’s in season. Plates on the dinner menu (which are meant to be shared) are available in the $15 to $30 range, and the restaurant also offers a five-course tasting menu at a price of $65 per person.
Grapes and Soda: Reinventing the Wine Bar
When it opened in April 2015, Grapes and Soda became Vancouver’s first ever natural wine bar – a title that is as complex and challenging as the wine the establishment serves. The 25-seat wine bar and small plates restaurant, located on West 6th Ave, is an offshoot of neighbouring Farmer’s Apprentice – a restaurant that is already renowned for its commitment to the farm to table movement. This association gives Grapes and Soda a lot to live up to, but when it comes to sourcing wines, Grapes and Soda has had to make some compromises on the locavore concept in order to satisfy their need for natural wines.
While there is some debate within the industry over what the term "natural wine" actually means, the wines served at Grapes and Soda are all classified as either organic, natural, or biodynamic. These three types of wines, bar manager Satoshi Yonemori explains, "are similar but classified differently depending on how the grapes are grown and harvested, how the vinification processes are carried out, and how the bottling is done." All of this is to say that the wines you’ll find at Grapes and Soda are not the types of wines you’d find at your typical BC Liquor Store.
The challenge with this approach, as Chef Ron Shaw explained to The Vancouver Sun, is that
There just aren’t a lot of natural wines from B.C. that meet the criteria.
So for now, Grapes and Soda has chosen to take a loose approach to the locavore concept – at least when it comes to their wine selection. The food selection, on the other hand, is another matter.
For Yonemori, pairing these natural wines with a farm to table menu was an obvious choice. While their wines may come from eastern Canada or Europe, their food is local and seasonal whenever possible. Yonemori says that he and the rest of the team at Grapes and Soda decided to pursue the farm to table concept "because it is our character and what we are very good at." As Yonemori explains,
The farm to table movement is not just for restaurants but is also becoming a lifestyle of many of us.
The dishes, which are meant to pair with the wines, and not the other way around, may include items like mushroom ceviche with yuzu and sorrel granita, marinated anchovy with fennel and celery, or summer peas with sour goat yogurt and sprouted wheat berries. Small plates here are available in the $10 to $12 price range, while wines are available in three and five ounce glasses, starting at $12 for five ounces.
The dishes served here, like the wines that accompany them, can be complex, but in the end, that’s part of what’s so fun about a place like Grapes and Soda. "A natural wine is still a bar after all," Yonemori points out. At Grapes and Soda, your drink may come with a brief crash course on sulfites and vinification processes, but Yonemori is clear that the job of the staff in the end is always to "make sure everyone in the house is having a good time."
Cibo Trattoria: Changing with the Seasons
Cibo Trattoria’s website states boldly on their homepage that
Cibo is truly one of a kind when it comes to sustainability and the use of organic products; we are 100 per cent committed to this movement.
Ask their General Manager Richard Goodine about the restaurant’s philosophy, however, and it becomes clear that the restaurant takes a subtler approach. Goodine says that
It’s a little bit controversial, but just mathematically speaking, with the population that we have, if everyone insisted that they were only going to eat within a 100-mile radius, then we would have nothing left. So there are times when you have to get Idaho potatoes or beef from Alberta.
That being said, you’re not likely to meet many people in Vancouver who get more excited about local food than Goodine. Whether it’s at Cibo Trattoria, at UVA Wine and Cocktail Bar next door (which Goodine also operates), or at his son’s baseball game, wherever you find Goodine, you’ll generally find him cooking, eating, or talking about local food.
For Goodine, local food is all about eating food when it’s at its peak.
I don’t believe that we should be able to have strawberries all year round, because the excitement of walking into the store [...] and seeing the first strawberries of the season is kind of what leads the food to being so spectacular,
he says. In keeping with the tradition of the Italian Trattoria, the fare at Cibo is simpler than what you’d find at a place like Grapes and Soda or Royal Dinette, but that doesn’t mean the menu is stagnant.
On a week where there are a lot of exciting things going on, we could change the menu six or seven times,
Goodine says. For dinner, Cibo’s pastas, which are all made by hand, come at a price tag of around $20, while mains can be had for anywhere from $24 to $44.
This seasonal approach crosses over to the drinks selection at both Cibo and UVA as well. Because he’s so keen to pair wines with the seasonal ingredients on the menu, Goodine admits that he’s "a little bit frustrating for staff" because he changes the wine list so often. For cocktails, their menu could even change daily based on the weather, which in Vancouver, can mean a lot of changes.
On a sunny day you want to be sitting outside and having something like an aperol spritz, but when the weather turns dark and broody, you want a big bourbon cocktail that makes you think you’re in a hurricane in New Orleans or something,
he explains. All of this emphasizes the philosophy governing Goodine’s love for local food: "When it comes to food and wine, it can’t be formulaic," he says.
These three restaurants all display a remarkable commitment to the concept of local food, but at the same time, aren’t stuck to a rigid definition of what farm to table means. For some, farm to table might mean eating only what’s in season, for others, only eating what you can find within a 100-mile radius or only using natural, unprocessed ingredients. And while it may be impossible for any one establishment to meet all of these benchmarks at once, what unites these restaurants and bars is that they’re not shooting for some arbitrary standard of ethical certification.
Instead, they’re trying to change the way we think about what we eat and drink. In a world where you can eat hamburgers your whole life without ever setting foot on a cattle farm, people are starting to think more and more about the importance of where food comes from, and that consciousness is what’s driving this movement in Vancouver to become more than just another food trend. After all, eating locally, as Chen points out, is "the way we’re meant to eat," so why not take that philosophy to heart, and have some great tasting food and drink while we’re at it?
Meet The Photographer: Kevin Eng
Kevin's passion for photography has encouraged others to see the splendor and beauty of nature right at their doorstep, as he captures the sights of the day, and colors and mystery of world while it sleeps. Many of the subjects of his work are based locally in his hometown in Vancouver, B.C., where he first discovered his fascination with night photography. Kevin is currently working as a music teacher, music director for his church, and landscape photographer.