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Close-up: Kelowna farm to table movement flourishing

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This valley has revealed flavours so tempting it’s lured chefs from just about anywhere imagineable and kept them.

And, as those chefs planted roots in Kelowna, this city’s status as a culinary hotspot continued to grow.

On the surface it’s an unlikely place for such a status—the Okanagan once seemed destined to play second fiddle to urban hubs on the West Coast in everything from its economic to cultural offerings, despite an abundance of natural wealth.

No matter how bountiful the harvest, the fruits of the Okanagan’s farmers’ labours didn’t transform into haute cuisine on local tables. As one person described it, local cuisine was once about as cutting edge as a butter knife.

But Kelowna changed. At first the emerging culinary scene was revealed as a side dish to wine lovers who had their palates tantalized at small restaurants where talented chefs were honing their craft alongside wine makers.

These days, this city has emerged as a full fledged foodie destination.

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Whether you’re in the hills exploring wineries, walking the main strip downtown or even at the farmers’ market, it’s apparent Kelowna is exploding with delectable concoctions made according to the gospel of eating local.

Chefs are tapping into a cadre of farmers committed to growing produce with maximum flavour. Relationships have also been forged with small beef, poultry, lamb and pork producers and a robust complement of artisanal cheese-makers and bakers, leading to an explosion of culinary creativity.

According to Nancy Cameron of Tourism Kelowna, that natural synergy between food producers and chefs has given way to something everyone in the valley is benefiting from.

“The farm-to-table concept is a big component of our marketing,” said Cameron, noting that it has been a focal point for Kelowna and Lake Country for the last four years.

“The value of knowing how your food is produced and the path it takes to the table is more and more important. It’s moved into a desirable experience that people are travelling for.”

Go to any number of spots plating that philosophy this time of year, and its lure is apparent. Outside Raudz or Waterfront Wines downtown, there’s continual movement from both loyal and curious clientele ready to indulge in some seasonal fare. Gatzke Orchards has a whole summer lineup of events where the farm-to-table fans flock. In the hills above the valley, numerous winery chefs are also closing the gap between where the food is made and served with an increasingly Okanagan-esque panache.

According to one of the forefathers of the farm-to-table movement in B.C., what’s happening on local tables may not be new, per se, but with Okanagan chefs delving into what’s best in this area, they’re raising the standard for the entire industry. Knowing how to do that properly, however, takes a delicate touch.

“It’s about common sense and supporting your community. So you base your menus around what farmers can grow successfully,” said Bernard Casavant, Okanagan College’s new culinary manager and the head of the Okanagan Chefs’ Association.

A walk through the farmer’s market on a Saturday morning and see beautiful golden peppers and organic onions, sweet tomatoes, microgreens, squash and bell peppers, all in peak ripeness, is to have some idea of what  common sense looks like on one of Casavant’s menus.

“I look for that spark…What’s going to give me the jump on the creativity and quality,” he said.

It’s the type of detail that helped Casavant gain notoriety and challenge the old guard of European chefs as his career took off in the 1990s. He eked out a Canadian culinary identity when he represented this country at the most prestigious gastronomic competition in the world, the Bocuse d’Or. His dishes, inspired by local and regional foods, taught him there are opportunities to grow creatively when you’re rooted in the land.

A humble but rewarding way of life that’s B.C. at its core.

“I come from Port Alberni, where my mother canned salmon and had a root cellar. Those were common sense times,” he said.

He still hasn’t let go of the island ethos. Casavant does his own canning and has even mastered new jar-free canning techniques that he’s passed on to his many apprentices over the years, not to mention the growing number of students who seek out his tutelage at Okanagan College.

They, he said like a proud parent, are at the helm of world-class kitchens up and down the valley.

Pride in the community of cooks is something that clearly sustains Casavant, and he’s found lots of places to find cause for more. In his role as the president of the Okanagan Chefs Association, in particular, he’s given a wider view of all that’s happening behind the scenes with local cuisine.

“The membership is such a great organization. We just came back from the National Chef Challenge in Ottawa, and everyone was saying how are we so vibrant and asking how are we doing this,” he said. “I was there with the last three presidents, and I said ‘it’s these gentlemen right here.’”

“Our local movement is really broadcasting to the world. We have fantastic products, pride and passion. Our junior membership is such a strong contingent of chefs.”

With their spare time, Kelowna chefs are getting to know the ins and outs of the community, even offering cooking and preserving lessons at local shelters while tantalizing the taste buds of the paying community. All of it, combined with the natural bounty, is based in what Casavant describes as “understanding your sense of place.”

“What we’re able to produce, in terms of tree fruits, stone fruits, micro greens and lettuces, organic and traditional vegetables; coupled with the other artisanal producers and our wine and tourism sector, that’s why the Okanagan has such great recognition across Canada and the Western United States,” he said.

“It’s the locality of it. You’re not trying to be everything to everybody. If you’re in Italy, you’re not going out for schnitzel and spaetzle. You eat for where you are, the places that my wife and I look for when we travel are the local places doing it well.”

With more people “doing it well” with locally grown fare, an appreciation for food culture flourished, whetting this community’s appetite for more.

It’s something that downtown businesses were able to adapt to in recent years.

At last count there were around 90 restaurants in Kelowna’s hub. With a recent renovation to Bernard Avenue, outdoor eating opportunities grew, too. Ryan Watters, communications manager of the Downtown Kelowna Association, said there are 50 patios open and it’s really helping to liven up downtown foodie culture.

“The interaction one gets when they’re outside in the community, eating at the same restaurants, is great,” he said. “Conversations naturally pop up between tables, and it’s nice to hear.”

Further signs of that growing fondness for a shared dining experience is Le Dîner en Blanc. The third incarnation of the local event, that was born in France 25 years ago, will be held in Kelowna next weekend. Somewhere in the area of 600 Kelowna residents will gather at a yet-to-be-disclosed location for a night of dinner, dance and drink, all in white.

Jennifer Schell brought the dinner to Kelowna, although she’s recently stepped back and poured herself into other foodie endeavours. In particular, a cookbook that highlights all that this valley has to offer in terms of chefs and producers. It’s won awards across the globe, and the reason, she said, is simply Okanagan.

“I believe that the spirit of our unique and amazing food, wine and farm community shines through the pages of the book,” she said.

“Their passionate stories and dedication to their respective crafts together form an amazing brand of Okanagan life—this, paired with the visuals of the people and their obvious relationships, is what I feel is captivating the judges.”

The Okanagan culinary scene, she said, is full of warm stories of humanity, tradition, passion and dedication to the protection of our special place on the planet.

 

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