Of the cookbook covers on my kitchen shelves few shout ‘place’ more forcefully than this one. It has no pretty picture of its subject, The Wickaninnish Inn, or of its food, or of the eight chefs who have contributed recipes to its pages. Instead, the cover image is of wood, a dimpled imprint of the cedar that dominates the design of this family-owned hotel, hand-adzed by local craftsmen.
The introductory photographs of The Wickaninnish Cookbook also set the stage — a place that knows it place. The forest, sea and surf, the rocks, docks and mountains that surround it, and the artisans that lend their talents to it, loom large. Indeed, in some of the aerial shots, ‘The Wick’ (as the locals call it) seems a mere footnote, nestled in trees, surrounded by waves, settled unobtrusively on its most westerly bit of Vancouver Island.
I’ve been lucky enough to have stayed at this 22-year-old Relais et Châteaux property, though my visit, in February 2015, wasn’t without some disappointment. I had booked The Wick Inn’s ‘Storm Watching Package,’ looking to experience days of west coast misery. Signs scattered around the property warned of the power of the ocean, of dangerous tides, slippery rocks and nasty winds. The message was reinforced by the contents of my bedroom cupboard: head-to-ankle Helly Hansen rainwear and sturdy gumboots.
No such luck. I woke up to sunshine, blue skies and 14°C every day of my stay. Walking the length of Chesterman Beach in my T-shirt, I watched the rubber-headed surfers tackle puny ocean waves, and turned my camera on spring daffodils in all their troubling sunny bloom.
Indeed, the only real froth I saw those three days came in a cup – my morning cappuccino at the Driftwood Bar – and in an evening bowl of soup, delivered by The Wick’s Executive Chef, Warren Barr. This was enjoyed at The Pointe Restaurant, which overlooked the calm through the pleasure of panoramic windows. The soup was a fish chowder, rich and comforting, plump with Dungeness crab, kicked with citrus, and topped with a delicate fennel foam. There was a stunning plate of carrots next, heirloom varieties treated in a bunch of ways, dressed in a curry vinaigrette and topped with a curried granola. And there was whey-brined pork, from heritage Large Black pigs raised at Qualicum Beach, the meat melting-soft and packed with flavour, crusted with a Concord grape glaze. Island cheeses followed, and then a ball of spiced-hay ice cream balanced on a lovely apple tart.
It was very fine food and it did an admirable job, with help from some fine BC wines, to cushion the blow of disagreeably good weather.
This book, three years later, helps too. And it introduced me to eight chefs, whose work I had admired in their current kitchens or at the Canadian Culinary Championships (among them, chefs Duncan Ly, now in Calgary; Mark Filatow and Rod Butters, both in Kelowna) but had no idea they had once stirred the pots at The Wick.
When I buy a cookbook put out by a distinguished hotel, with recipes by distinguished chefs, I expect a good number will challenge me to rise to their cheffy level. Or at least to try to. This book has no shortage of recipes that do that — technically demanding, particularly with fish and pastry. And certainly, a cookbook that celebrates ‘place’ to the extent that this one does, is both compelling for the home cook (because it provides an uncompromising taste of West Coast Island cuisine), and frustrating because many ingredients are not easily sourced 5000 kilometres away (my case) from that west coast backyard.
“Recipes are guidelines, not rules…” we read in ‘A Note on the Recipes’ page. “Please alter, add, or take away as you see fit…” And so I do. In Chef Duncan Ly’s delicious Kuri Squash and Seafood Chowder (one of 4 chowder recipes in the cookbook) I can’t source spot prawns or fresh halibut or, for that matter, red kuri squash. I use instead farmed Ontario shrimp (yes, you read that right; from Planet Shrimp), frozen coho salmon, and a mix of Ontario pie pumpkin and winter squash. (The results, with all respect to Chef Ly, were dazzling.) Chef Rod Butters’ potlatch recipe is brimming with seafood (wild pink scallops, Beach oysters, Dungeness crab, et al.) that’s not in plentiful supply in Ottawa, but its tomato-vegetable stew base is simple enough such that a confident cook could toss in other fishy treats with happy results. For recipes calling for foraged food – lichen, bull kelp, hemlock tips and fresh wild huckleberries — the reading and dreaming them may have to be their own pleasures.
There are also homey, easy-to-make dishes. Many of these fall in the breakfast chapter – currant scones, blueberry sour cream muffins, the inn’s signature granola, and a recipe I’m particularly pleased to have for Chef Barr’s Ancient Grain Porridge, with spiced honey and poached pears, a memory of balmy mornings at the inn.
Other of the easy-enough-to-execute plates (beef tartare, crab cakes, Thai mussels, salmon on a white bean ragout, a molten chocolate cake…) come with instructions for elevating them. Chef Barr suggests you might serve his tartare sliders on the inn’s cornbread (recipe provided), but baked in silicone dome molds, sliced and stuffed with the spiced-up raw meat.
Similarly, a recipe could be made more ‘home-style,’ by excluding some of the optional ingredients (the recipe for herb scallop sausages in the white bean ragout, for instance).
Even if this book is never cooked from, it can sit awful pretty on the coffee table, considered an illustrated memoire of one of this country’s loveliest places to stay and eat and feel uber-Canadian. It is a vision of the rustic-good life and it will have you checking for room sales and booking a flight.
The Wickaninnish Inn was recognized as the #1 resort in Canada in the Condé Nast Traveler 2018 Readers’ Choice Awards.