Salt of the Earth


Andrea Carlson takes farm to fork to new heights at Bishop’s in Vancouver

Like a kid in a candy store, visiting agricultural “legend” Michael Ableman and seeing his harvest of sustainable goods at Foxglove Farm on B.C.’s Salt Spring Island, was a special treat for Andrea Carlson.

Five minutes into the conversation with the local-food junkie and it’s already crystal clear what attracted John Bishop, aka “the grandfather of local eating in Vancouver,” and owner of Bishop’s Restaurant, to his executive chef.

“She shares the same interests that I do in serving and supporting local farmers, fishermen and foragers in a sustainable way,” says Bishop, adding he respects the inspiring leader who shows an astute dedication to her work. “She is a master at her craft.”

But Carlson’s love affair with food came long before 2007, when she started at Bishop’s. It began in earnest at 13, when she took home her first cookbook — Craig Claiborne’s New York Times Cookbook.

“I started dabbling, because my parents really didn’t cook at all. My mom always says I started cooking out of self-preservation,” she jokes, admitting the tattered old book still touts her favourite chocolate mousse recipe.

Claiborne’s mousse must have been good — it quickly helped cultivate an aspiring chef in Carlson who upon graduating high school enrolled at the Dubrulle International Culinary & Hotel Institute (now, The Art Institute of Vancouver). Since then, she’s embarked on a culinary career that’s taken her to B.C. mainstays like C Restaurant, Sooke Harbour House and Raincity Grill, after opening a bakery and in between gardening in Tofino.

But perhaps it was in Sooke that her understanding of the relationship between field and fork really took root. “That was a formative period, getting to know organic produce, the quality of it, the difference it makes in terms of flavour and freshness with what we had available to us from the growers that were around us,” she explains. “Edward Tuson, who’s the [former] chef there, he just has such a unique approach to things. He was the first chef I worked with who had such an incredibly open-minded attitude towards everything.”

Soon after, she was inspired to return to the Earth, quite literally. Volunteering as part of a wwoofing program (world wide opportunities on organic farms) and planting the kitchen garden for the restaurant at Vancouver Island’s Tofino Botanical Gardens, added to her résumé, which already included a few courses on landscape design and organic farming as well as stints at a plant nursery. “There’s a huge depth of knowledge to absorb in terms of the plants and the different families and varieties. It’s almost like an apprenticeship in a kitchen; you learn from the people around you,” she explains of her nursery experience.

She further developed that relationship, building Vancouver’s first 100-mile menu, some five years ago, at Raincity Grill. “It really helps to define what we do and do not have available to us in our region. We take a lot of things for granted in terms of cooking oils, obviously salt and pepper, legumes, wheat,” muses the chef. “That motivated us to work with different growers.We had a grower in Agassiz, Bruce Swift, and he planted legumes, a bunch of different Heirloom beans and things we could use in the winter as an alternative protein source.”

Today at Bishop’s, she continues that theme, focusing her energies on Community Shared Agriculture (CSA). “We have shares in a couple of CSAs. One is called City Farm Boy, so for $500 or $600 per year, you purchase your share and throughout the growing season — June through October — you get a weekly box with different things in it,” Carlson says, explaining how she uses the contents to build a limited-time menu each week. “It’s a great creative outlet for us,” she adds.

Such creative inspiration might explain why it’s hard for the seasoned chef to pin down a favourite dish on Bishop’s ever-evolving menu. Today, she points to her porcini ravioli, which rings in at $17. “We’ve got beautiful fresh porcini mushrooms in, which we turn into ravioli, and we’re serving it with UBC Farm fresh ruby streaks mustard greens and Farm House — which is out in the [Fraser] Valley, in Agassiz — natural cheeses. We’ve got gruyère in there and shaved house-cured prosciutto bianco.”

But, Carlson’s inspiration doesn’t start and finish in the kitchen and fields in and around Vancouver, she also has her eyes on the global local movement, preparing to travel to the famed Slow Food conference, Terra Madre, in Milan this October. “I’ve been to the Salone del Gusto in the past, which is the food fair part, and they do taste workshops. It’s so inspiring to see the different representatives from all over the world and their unique products,” she explains. “There’s just so much food history in our world and so many unique things that people do; I find  it really inspiring — more than just modern chefs using modern techniques.”

The slow-food proponent understands local fare isn’t viable all the time, but is concerned about the industrialization of food. “People’s minds are getting a little confused with the idea of organic over local, because a lot of people are willing to go out and purchase — from big-box stores — products that say they’re organic, and then they feel like they’re doing the right thing…but ultimately they’re still purchasing products coming from great distances. They’re purchasing product wrapped in plastic, they’re purchasing from large corporations. I don’t know whether their practices are sustainable or not.”

It’s a topic generating great debate around the country, as there are some who don’t see local food as the best answer for the economy. “There are always detractors,” says the top toque. “It doesn’t have to be 100-mile, obviously; that doesn’t work for everybody. But in the summer, when it’s market season, if you can buy food from people you know in your area, or people you can get to know, that’s fantastic.”

This executive chef’s mandate is clear, so it comes as little surprise that, were she not spending her days in the kitchen, she might join the ranks of someone like Michael Ableman on a full-time basis. “With the knowledge I have, I would move into farming for sure — even knowing how hard it is.”

Photography by Randall Cosco

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