Food Trends, 2008

May 2, 2008

West Coast cuisine suggests organic meat and poultry, sustainably harvested seafood, and locally sourced seasonal fruits and vegetables. But a closer look reveals another component: a profound Asian influence on the city’s kitchens.

At Gastropod, on West Fourth, chef Angus An—who was born in Taiwan to Chinese parents and moved to Canada when he was 10 years old—is talking about the way his background has influenced his cooking. “I went to Japan with my parents when I was very young, and I can still remember the steam coming from a bowl of ramen noodles on a cold day.” An’s manner, like his food, is thoughtful and meticulous. “What struck me was its simplicity. That’s what I want to achieve with this restaurant—an environment that is simple and minimal, yet very inviting.”

Simplicity is not the only Asian influence at Gastropod. An’s salmon “à la Gastropod” is seared with nori and tempura and garnished with a wasabi sabayon. “The wasabi is very sharp; it slices right through a fatty fish like salmon.” His Polderside chicken is paired with an “Asian pesto”—a concoction of minced green onion, ginger, lemon zest, and peanut oil that mimics the traditional basil and olive oil pestos of Northern Italy. His Sloping Hills pork tenderloin is served with a reduction of deep-fried shallots, toasted sesame seeds, and the “earthy nuttiness” of tamarind.

“My wife is from Thailand. I was cooking in a Thai restaurant in London when we met, so needless to say,” he says, suppressing a laugh, “I have a particular fondness for that cuisine.”

Next door at Fuel, chef/owner Robert Belcham says that Asian influences infuse his menu but extend well beyond it. “The design of our whole restaurant was based around the concept of the sushi bar.” He gestures with a heavily tattooed arm to his open kitchen near the entrance. “We purposely put our kitchen front and centre so guests could sit up at the bar and watch it all happen—just like I love to do in Japanese restaurants. Our design is very Asian minimalist: a lot of organic colours and materials that are very welcoming.

“I prepare my sablefish with a dashi broth,” he adds. “Dashi brings a distinct umami element [the elusive fifth taste beyond sweet, sour, salt, and bitter]. Sablefish is very delicate, but when paired with dashi the nuances of its natural flavour are immediately intensified.” Belcham shows me his most prized possession. “When I left C Restaurant, Harry [Kambolis, owner] and Rob [Clark, executive chef] gave me a handmade knife from Japan. It’s not only the best gift I’ve ever received from an employer, but it’s scary sharp and my favourite to use.

“The Asian philosophy, particularly in Japanese cuisine, that influenced me most is their search for perfection. Seeking the freshest, most intense product is the backbone to everything they do. They handle fish like they’re carrying a baby. I try to instill that same respect for ingredients in my staff.” Belcham loves to watch Yoshihiro Tabo at Blue Water Cafe. “He polishes his knife after every cut—and if you look carefully you’ll see it always rests at the 12 o’clock position on his cutting board. His mise-en-place is immaculate. He brings honour to his craft. That inspires me.”

The man whose open kitchen looks directly into chef Yoshi’s Raw Bar at Blue Water is executive chef Frank Pabst. German born and trained in the south of France, Pabst is steeped in the European tradition; yet his menu, too, is alive with Asian character. “Yoshi introduced me to benitade—a Japanese peppercress that has a vibrant red colour—and tonburi, a sustainable Japanese mountain caviar.” Entrées like arctic char with braised leeks and wakame seaweed with vermouth and kohlrabi perfectly marry his European roots with his love of Asian cuisine. He beams when he shows me the rich mahogany hue of his soy-glazed sablefish.

Perhaps our most famous proponent of Asian-influenced cuisine is the man who brought the prestigious Relais & Châteaux designation to Vancouver. During his 12-year tenure at Lumière, Iron Chef Rob Feenie achieved critical acclaim in part by bringing Asian touches to his celebrated menu. “I wanted to create food that mirrored my experiences growing up,” Feenie says. “When I was a kid in Burnaby, I spent a lot of time with our Japanese neighbours, the Nikanos. I recall being in their kitchen and tasting things like miso soup and shiitake mushrooms, and sometimes as a treat we would go to the old Fujiya location on Powell for noodles. I fell in love with those flavours; they influence my cooking to this day.” While working in Japan he invented what became his signature dish at Lumière: a sake- and maple-marinated sablefish with hijiki soy sauce. “To me, that was the quintessential Canadian-Japanese dish.” Another hallmark was the ethereal Peking duck broth he prepared at the Lumière Tasting Bar. “I always keep my pantry stocked with Asian produce and at least four different types of soy sauce.”

That legacy continues with current chef de cuisine Dale MacKay. Prior to signing on at Lumière, he fell in love with Asian cuisine during a two-year stint in Japan, while opening Gordon Ramsay’s restaurants in the Conrad Tokyo. His memory of visiting the famed Tsukiji Fish Market to eat raw tuna fresh from the docks before dawn inspired one of his favourite dishes: tuna sashimi with tofu purée, pink grapefruit, cucumber sorbet, and black sesame seeds. “The Asian flavours are light on the palate,” he says, deftly slicing a piece of rambutan, “and almost act as an aperitif for a multi-course tasting menu. The tastes and textures play up one another.”

“I’ve been around these ingredients my whole life,” says Vancouver-born chef Colleen McClean, also a Lumière vet. Her affection for Thai cuisine led her to Chiang Mai, where she took cooking classes that were more like culinary boot camp (“something like 16 dishes in six hours,” she recalls with a shudder). Now executive chef at Rare on Hornby, she pays homage to that experience with dishes like mussels in a red Thai curry and her favourite amuse bouche, laarb gai—cold Thai chicken salad served on rice crackers. “What I love about Thai food is its floral quality, a lightness of fragrance. Take a kaffir lime leaf, for example; it excites your nose way before it gets to your mouth.” Cooking with Asian ingredients is second nature to her, “partly because of my upbringing and my travel experiences, but mostly,” she says, “because of my time with Rob Feenie.”

Another Lumière protégé, Jeremie Bastien, is now executive chef at Gastown’s Boneta. Born in Quebec and trained in France, he recently celebrated his 26th birthday. Where did he go with his staff? “Gyoza King on Robson.” Bastien makes his own kimchi (a Korean dish of spicy marinated cabbage); a lunch in Chinatown inspired his delicate scallop wontons stuffed with barbecue pork. (Sliced sashimi-thin, the scallop acts as the wonton to hold in the stuffing.) His menu changes weekly, but a favourite dish includes a seared yellowfin tuna with foie-gras custard and a vinaigrette of kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, and Thai chilies.

“Take the traditional European use of salt and pepper. You can achieve the same end using soy sauce as your salt component and these”—he points to the Thai chilies in his mise-en-place—“for spice; still pleasing to the palate but in a unique way.” Bastien also works with a Japanese knife—“I learned watching sushi masters to keep my knife sharp and my ingredients fresh”—and admires the reverent way Japanese chefs approach seafood.

Behind the bar at Boneta, Mark Brand’s “liquid chefs” also draw heavily on Asian influences to craft the cocktail menu. “One of my favourite cocktails combines sake, plum wine, cranberry, and Spanish cava with lemon zest and a cinnamon rim,” says a shaker-wielding Steve DaCruz. “The plum wine brings tartness, and the sake has a drying effect; so front to back it has a lot of savoury elements.” Fellow bartender Justin Tisdale favours shochu (Japanese vodka) for its low alcohol content (about 20 to 25 percent) that makes for refreshing, easy-drinking cocktails. “It’s quite dry, so we mix it with white grape juice to bring some floral sweetness and a dash of rosewater, then top it with soda and our homemade raspberry grenadine.”

The more closely you look, the more evident the Asian component of West Coast cuisine becomes. Our hotel dining rooms pay tribute: Diva at the Metropolitan Hotel may be a bastion of old-world elegance, but dishes like black cod with shimiji mushroom, braised daikon, and tempura’d enoki, and Peking duck with star anise foam appear from its impressive kitchen. Chef Dino Renaerts grew up here and has been exposed to Asian food all his life; he recalls childhood weekends eating dim sum with his parents and wandering through the Chinese markets.

As both a chef and a card-carrying sommelier, Renaerts loves Asian cuisine partly because it pairs so well with the cool-climate wines of the Okanagan. “Our aromatic whites, like Ehrenfelser or Pinot Auxerrois, are ideal companions to dishes with a spice component; the fruitiness of a local Gewürztraminer will tame an aggressive Thai curry like nobody’s business,” he says with a laugh. “We’ve done braised pork belly with Szechwan peppercorns and hoisin sauce that stands up to our more fruit-forward Merlots and Syrahs, while light Japanese foods pair perfectly with local Pinot Noirs. Using Asian food as your vehicle might be the best way to enjoy our local wines.”

At the Wedgewood Hotel on Hornby, British-born Lee Parsons of Bacchus Restaurant has a Michelin-star-studded pedigree from some of Europe’s finest restaurants; he, too, is influenced by Asian cuisine. A signature dish includes a foie gras and oxtail terrine encased in daikon pickled with rice-wine vinegar and mirin. Parsons stresses that these ingredients must be handled intelligently. “It’s like when you approach any genre of cuisine,” he says, folding meaty forearms across a formidable chest. “You must study them fully to pay them proper justice.”

The chef whose restaurant perhaps best exemplifies our local cuisine has a pantry packed with Asian products. “Using these ingredients is my way of paying tribute to our greater culinary heritage here on the West Coast,” says Jeff Van Geest of Aurora Bistro, winner in this year’s Best Regional category and of our Green Award. “I love the juxtaposition of ingredients from different cultures. Truffles and ginger are a perfect marriage. So are maple and soy. Achieving similar flavour profiles using non-traditional ingredients is fascinating to me. Italian bottarga [dried mullet roe] from Sardinia is not far removed from bonito [Japanese tuna flakes], so flip-flopping them can take a classic recipe to an exciting new level.” The dish he’s most excited about right now is a sakekasu-and-maple-marinated sablefish with a Barkley Sound kelp-and-truffle broth and pickled shiitake mushrooms. “Sakekasu is the savoury rice mash left over from the sake fermentation,” he explains. “I get that from Granville Island.” Used like miso in broths, it has also found its way onto the menu at Bishop’s, where chef Andrea Carlson proclaims it to be “an absolutely irresistible product.”

What does a traditional Japanese chef think about this culinary amalgam? Tojo’s on Broadway has influenced a generation of Vancouver chefs since it opened in 1988. Chef Hidekazu Tojo, diminutive in stature yet somehow larger than life, doesn’t so much speak as erupt into enthusiastic outbursts. “Understanding our food is a good way to understand our culture, so it’s a good thing,” he says. “Great chefs crave variety, and using different techniques makes you better. It makes you sharp.” He cautions that chefs must first master their own cuisine before they begin experimenting with others’. “I’ve seen chefs boil miso—no flavour. You must study. Otherwise, taste bad.”

Tojo lets me sample an inky-black dressing. “I use this for my octopus and geoduck. Do you know why it tastes so good?” He leans in close and stage-whispers, “I add balsamic vinegar to the dressing!” At this, he throws back his head to laugh and claps his hands in delight. “I learned that one from Pino-san!”

Pino-san—better known as Pino Posteraro, chef and proprietor of Cioppino’s, and our Chef of the Year—when asked about Asian influences at his Yaletown room, says: “I want to show you something. Follow me into the kitchen.”

He walks past noodles boiling in large pots and cooks slicing perfect filets of tuna, into his dry-storage room. Shelves are lined with bonito flakes, rice wine, wasabi, soy sauce, and fermented shrimp paste. The droning hum from the walk-in cooler all but silences the bustle of staff scurrying to prepare for a busy night. A young man in kitchen whites and sporting a serious expression hurries past, carrying yuzu and sprigs of lemongrass. My host leans down to open a five-gallon pail, exposing a murky liquid with a pungent aroma. “I make my own ponzu vinegar,” he tells me, savouring my surprise.

Italian-born Posteraro is so drawn to Asian cuisine that he passed on the opportunity to open the Four Seasons in Milan to accept a two-year tenure in Singapore. “I would wake up first thing in the morning to visit the huge outdoor wet markets [so named because the ice preserving all the fresh produce would melt in the heat] and was inspired by the bounty of different fish and herbs and fruits and spice. I was amazed by their ability to bring levels of flavour and acidity to a dish. Harnessing these ingredients in a discerning way gives my native Mediterranean dishes a different dimension.”

Posteraro marinates his sablefish in fermented miso and marsala wine, and finishes it with a soy sabayon; his wild sockeye salmon is dressed with a soy ponzu tomato vinaigrette. “The soy adds layers to a dish constructed in the classical way, bringing an element that traditional western ingredients can’t provide.”

He keeps a squeeze bottle of his homemade ponzu vinegar right between his olive oil and aged balsamic as part of his mise-en-place. You’ll find soy sauce in the beurre noisette he uses for his ravioli. (“It cuts through the butter.”) While preparing his famous grilled Caesar salad, he shares a secret: he adds soy, sweet mirin, and ponzu to the dressing. His crab salad is dressed with a ponzu mayonnaise that contains balsamic, wasabi, wakame, and pickled Japanese cucumber. Even his crème brûlée is made with lemongrass and ginger instead of the traditional vanilla bean and lemon zest. “Taking those extra steps makes food much more interesting.”

A peek into Posteraro’s pantry proves that defining West Coast cooking is not as easy as it seems. Sure, words like “regional” and “seasonal” go some way toward describing our cuisine, and the increased use of organic and sustainable ingredients is undeniable. Yet if you ask chefs of any background about their favourite restaurants in Vancouver, they’ll mention places like Tojo’s, Kirin, Sun Sui Wah, and Kintaro. And they take lessons learned in those rooms back to their own kitchens. Without the profound but overlooked influence of Asian traditions, ingredients, and techniques there would still be an indigenous style of regional cooksing. But it wouldn’t be West Coast cuisine as we know it.

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