While the scenery is beautiful and his restaurant is in one of the top resorts on the West Coast, sometimes Tofino can seem a little bit isolated for an exuberant chef. That’s why he’s honing his knives for a challenging competition coming up next month in Vancouver. This week on Food Matters I told listeners about Nicholas Nutting, the executive chef of the Wickaninnish Inn in Tofino, a resort that has always prided itself on the quality of the cuisine available at its signature restaurant, The Pointe. Back when the Wick first opened in 1996, they set the mark by hiring Rod Butters as the executive chef, and he is the kind of chef that has inspired a whole generation of younger chefs who have followed him with his use of local, regional cuisine, and Nick Nutting is no exception.
The first time I ate his food was at a Quail’s Gate winemaker’s dinner at the Wick earlier this year, part of the Feast Tofino celebrations, and he really showed me how he could pull off a whole tasting menu that was very balanced, full of fresh flavours, properly portioned and cooked, and exquisite flavours drawn out of local meats, seafoods and vegetables. Then I was invited to take part in a dinner being filmed for a TV show called Chef’s Domain. Nick spent a whole week foraging in and around Tofino for the ingredients…he picked the wild berries, harvested the seaweed, caught the greenling and salmon for our main courses. Then he cooked and served it all from a very rustic kitchen with minimal assistance right on the beach beside the Inn. THAT was impressive.
I think he’s been able to take that first impression of isolation being a disadvantage and turned it into an advantage as he goes into next month’s competition in Vancouver.
“It’s always fun to compete against your peers, even though we’re sort of disconnected with what’s going on in the city, but at the same time it means we are not influenced by it, either, so what we produce in the kitchen here is pretty much a reflection of the kind of ingredients we have at our doorstep, and it’s always fun to take it somewhere else to showcase it.”
The competition Nick is entered in is called Gold Medal Plates, and it is a fundraiser for the Canadian Olympic Foundation, which supports our athletes and their efforts to excel at the Olympic Games. Over six years these events have raised over six million dollars for the Foundation. There are ten events across the country to determine the finalists, and then a grand finale, this year in Kelowna. But first Nicholas has to win in Vancouver on November 16th. Each chef has to make one appetizer-sized dish for about 600 people. They also choose a Canadian wine or beverage to pair with the dish and they all have to use the same kind of plates provided by the host venue….so no fancy plates to influence the judges. Nick has entered this competition once before, didn’t win, but has learned from the experience:
“Well, we really used quite high-end ingredients last time and this time around we really want to use less expensive ingredients and really showcase our cooking and technique, make them sync up with the wine. We want to do something for the judges, who are all chefs and food writers and know what’s going on, that after they have our dish, the rest of the dishes will seem boring, you know?”
You notice he is always saying ‘we’ and not ‘I’. A good kitchen is always a good team of people, and probably more so in a small town because you are much more likely to see each other outside of work as well…especially people who work restaurant hours. Just in the weekend I spent there recently I could really see a close relationship between Nick and his pastry chef Matt Wilson…who even had a hand in the non-dessert course they did in the last competition, some chocolate to go along with the foie gras on the plate.
Nick couldn’t give me any hints about what they are planning for November, but he does know which wine he’s going to use, something from Sandhill Wines in the Okanagan, made by Master Winemaker Howard Soon. As for what’s going to be on the plate, Nick didn’t want to give away any secrets, although when I talked to him back in September he wasn’t sure of anything just yet:
“This year I think we are definitely going to go lighter than last time, probably going to do something from the sea, but every day of every week we get inspired by different things, so if something jumps out at us that we think is going to knock their socks off, we’re going to grab it, be it meat, poultry, shellfish, who knows.”
Nick Nutting is the only chef from Vancouver Island competing, but there is some pretty stiff competition from the Okanagan with Mark Filatow, who worked with Rod Butters for years in Kelowna, and Jeff Van Geest from Miradoro, the restaurant at Tinhorn Creek Estates in Oliver. Even more tough competition will come from Vancouver chefs Lee Humphries from C Restaurant, Angus An from Mae Nam and Quang Dang from West Restaurant. So it’s not going to be easy. But I hope to make the trip to Vancouver for the competition and will report back following the event.
In the meantime, if you want to listen to my chat with Jo-Ann Roberts about Nicholas Nutting, the audio will be posted on this CBC Radio webpage. If you want to listen to my entire interview with Nick, click here to listen to the mp3. It runs just over 8 minutes.