Local produce and cultures collide to create colorful flavors
The Western Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Alberta have so many advantages, it’s practically unfair.
In British Columbia, known as BC, Vancouver is one of the most diverse and eclectic cities in the world. Whistler’s epic skiing, mountain biking and hiking are world class. Victoria is the thriving BC capital, with the most civilized traces of British Commonwealth influence on display in the country.
Hawksworth’s sablefish with sunchoke, kimchi apple, bacon and citrus mustard
BC’s Okanagan Valley is rapidly becoming a world-class wine country destination. But right now, the biggest reason visitors keep coming back for more is the food and beverage scene.
Calgary, Alberta, is an annual contender for world’s most livable city. Banff National Park graces the region with natural beauty sure to add to the coveted “wow” factor, especially Lake Louise and Victoria Glacier, which create a picture-perfect experience.
It’s no longer the Canada of poutine and Molson. The menus have gone so locavore there aren’t enough idioms yet to fully describe what’s taking place. Lake to plate? Farm to glass? Bacon to brew? It’s been a perfect storm of immigration, climate change, maverick entrepreneurs, a sense of humor, and simple farmers and fishermen.
Ham dish by David Hawksworth Ham
From fish to produce, and from excellent European-style wines to craft beer and foraged spirits, our neighbors to the north have quietly assembled one of the most dynamic dining environments in North America. Here is a look at the driving forces and most exciting developments in Western Canadian cuisine.
Fairmont Waterfront, Vancouver
David Hawksworth is among the most recognized chefs in Western Canada, with three restaurants, frequent TV appearances and an annual culinary “talent hunt” on his plate. So what does this multi-award winning chef seem most excited bout? Asian food. When asked what local cuisine impresses him the most, he dives right in.
“I hate the word ‘fusion,’ but there’s incredible ethnic diversity here,” Hawksworth says. “The Chinese food is the best in the world outside of Hong Kong. We have great Vietnamese and Japanese here, very good ramen. Sometimes when I go to London, I am reminded how good we have it here.”
In particular, the Vancouver suburb of Richmond features miles of top-notch Chinese food. The sheer density produces a delicious abundance of choices. Meeting planners should heed Hawksworth’s tips.
“Do your homework,” he says, “and make reservations.” Weekend waits at places such as Kirin, Shanghai River and Red Star Seafood stretch way past the two-hour mark.
Hawksworth Restaurant in Rosewood Georgia Hotel, Vancouver
Hawksworth’s own restaurants adhere to what is thought of as Pacific Northwest cuisine: locally sourced, seasonal, seafood-rich and sustainable. His latest venture, Nightingale restaurant, reflects West Coast trends of small plates and flatbreads.
“People on the West Coast tend to eat lighter food,” Hawksworth says. “It’s the way I cook at home.”
His eponymous fine-dining restaurant, Hawksworth, within the historic 156-room Rosewood Georgia Hotel, has routinely garnered mentions as a top restaurant in Canada. Both are available for group buyouts, and Hawksworth collaborates on the menu.
“We get people from the Midwest that say, ‘Fish, I just want to eat seven courses of fish.’ We can work with that. Other people up here have eaten their body weight in salmon by the time summer starts,” he notes wryly. “So we work with them as well.”
Chef Chris Whittaker’s restaurant in The Listel Hotel in downtown Vancouver is appropriately named Forage. It has won multiple awards and been packed since opening. He literally went back to his Canadian roots when setting the menu.
“Growing up in Ontario, foraging and hunting and fishing were always a big part of my life,” Whittaker says. “So as a chef, figuring out your style is really doing what you’re comfortable with.”
The irony of big-city foodies lining up to pay top dollar to eat wild, foraged foods isn’t lost on Whittaker. “It’s pretty funny,” he says. “It’s just how I grew up.”
He concurs with the city’s epic bounty of Asian delights. “There’s more focus on eating local and seasonal ingredients, no matter what style of cuisine it is,” Whittaker says. “The Japanese restaurants use wild greens; the Indian restaurants use local tomatoes, lamb and goat. British Columbia has a huge growing season, so wild foods are readily available.”
When asked which chefs inspire him, Whittaker keeps it simple. “I take little things and use them, but the people who inspire me are the farmers, ranchers and producers who have that passion and commitment to feed their animals and plants in a way that’s organic and sustainable,” he says.
Climate change has drastically affected what grows when in Western Canada.
“Spring is such a big part of our life here, when new things start to grow,” Whittaker explains. “Stinging nettle is always the first weed to pop up, usually in early April. But now I’m starting to see it in early February, even late January.”
His newer gastropub, Timber, features simple food made easy. Group buyouts at Timber and Forage are available, but Whittaker notes that guests and groups need to be patient and flexible to experience them at their best.
“We won’t finalize the menu until a month out, until we know what’s in season,” he says. “Most people are willing to be flexible, rather than compromise the product.” This can be exciting for groups that are intrigued by the delicate and rewarding culinary seasons.
A beekeeper as well, Whittaker points out the synergy that comes with so much focus on wild ingredients, and craftsmen that are willing to experiment with available ingredients.
“Bees are the ultimate forager,” he notes. “There’s a craft distillery here called Wayward that uses 100 percent distilled honey for their gin, and then they infuse it with local botanicals like Douglas Fir, lavender and coriander.”
He’s not the only beekeeper in Vancouver. Fairmont Waterfront maintains a 2,100-square-foot rooftop garden, as well as a summer bee apiary on the third-floor rooftop. It hosts daily summer bee and garden tours as well as occasional meals on the garden terrace. This enhances guests’ experiences and educates on the plausibility of being sustainable, even in a bustling city. Executive chef Karan Suri says, “Our garden and bee space is not just a place to grow food, but is also a place to connect with food.”
Sustainability is the buzzword throughout the city. The Vancouver Aquarium Ocean Wise program resonates with local diners as it helps them make ocean-friendly choices when they’re choosing seafood. The program works directly with restaurants, markets, food services and suppliers to ensure they have the most current scientific information regarding sustainable seafood and to help them make ocean-friendly buying decisions. The options are highlighted on their menus and display cases with the Ocean Wise symbol.
Ned Bell was recently named executive chef for the aquarium. His enthusiasm for seafood is infectious.
“Western Canada is dotted with coastal towns that have great seafood,” Bell says. “The people love the outdoors and want to eat things that are green and fresh and alive. We host groups from two to 2,000. All of them get to watch these incredible live creatures while they’re enjoying sustainable seafood. It’s important for people to see that fish don’t just come from the supermarket.”
Set to open this month, Trump International Hotel & Tower Vancouver is the most exciting local hotel opening of the year. Trump Vancouver embraces groups wishing to experience a luxurious, eclectic dining experience. One prime example is the West Coast outpost of the Michelin-starred Hong Kong restaurant, Mott 32. Groups will enjoy the finest cuisine, including Peking duck, dim sum and a variety of the best Cantonese dishes. Viewing chefs at work in the open kitchen and ducks roasting over flames enhances the dining experience. The 147-room property also offers groups 15,000 sq. ft. of elegant meeting space, including an outdoor wrap-around terrace on West Georgia Street, in the heart of the Golden Mile.
Fairmont Empress, Victoria
With world-famous whale watching, lush Butchart Gardens and high tea at Fairmont Empress all on the menu, beautiful British Victoria beckons.
Overlooking Victoria’s Inner Harbour, Fairmont Empress is one of the city’s most iconic properties and is undergoing an extensive restoration. Under new owners, the hotel’s transformation plan spans two years and will be fully completed by June 2017. Luxurious with Old World charm, the Fairmont has 464 guest rooms and 96,000 sq. ft. of flexible meeting space.
Two new eateries have opened: Q at The Empress and Q Bar. Groups will enjoy locally inspired fare at the hotel’s new restaurant, serving cuisine influenced by the Pacific Northwest using local produce, and herbs and vegetables grown on the property. High tea lovers will enjoy the newly refurbished tea lobby. Guests can indulge in sweet treats such as the new Fairmont Empress Cake covered in the hotel’s own chocolate, developed by executive pastry chef AJ Thalakkat in France. Then saunter over to Q Bar to sip imaginative cocktail creations such as their IPA Old Fashioned, made with Woodford Reserve and IPA syrup.
Tucked inside a colorful heritage house in the James Bay neighborhood, Nourish opened in 2015. Formerly located at Horticulture Centre of the Pacific, this downtown spot is the perfect place to try fresh, local food with a healthy twist. Groups can enjoy a nourishing cup of house-made broth at the bone broth bar (their version of an espresso bar), indulge in healthy oatmeal pancakes with fresh fruit toppings or stop by for Rad Thai, made with turnip and carrot noodles. The restaurant also houses a fermentorium where preserves and kefir are made, and will soon have its own farm garden to produce more delicious, healthy foods onsite.
Agrius restaurant, Victoria
Two spots in one, Agrius and Fol Epi Bakery now have a downtown location serving their wonderful fresh breads and pastries, made using flour milled on site and baked in a brick oven. Fol Epi’s baker, Cliff Leir, hand-built the oven at their Dockside Green site and grinds his own flour, using heritage grains from Saskatchewan. Agrius is an extremely popular new restaurant open for lunch and dinner, featuring local ingredients. The majority of items are made in-house, from charcuterie and pickled vegetables to sauerkraut and kimchi. Agrius has been nominated for EnRoute Canada’s Best New Restaurant Award 2016.
A new food truck serving traditional West Coast aboriginal food opened in Victoria last May. Developed in partnership with the Victoria Clipper, Songhees Nation and local chef David Roger, the food truck serves traditional foods such as bannock, salmon and clam chowder, plus Indian tacos. Roger works with members of Songhees Wellness Centre to develop a training cycle, with potential for work staffing the food truck in various roles under his guidance. The food truck is parked at the Clipper terminal in downtown Victoria’s Inner Harbour.
The beverage scene in Victoria is every bit as hot, with craft brewers Driftwood Brewing shipping its acclaimed Fat Tug IPA throughout the province. Victoria Distillers has a new location, at Seaport Place in Sidney. Opened in May, groups can tour the distillery, sipping Victoria Gin or Craigdarroch Whiskey, as well as sampling a selection of spirits. Afterward, they can enjoy a cocktail in the new lounge overlooking the water, sampling their popular liquors and enjoying local food from rotating onsite food trucks.
Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise
Western Canada’s outdoor playground, Whistler has recently raised its food game to new heights.
Centrally located in Whistler Village, an extension of the acclaimed Araxi Restaurant and Oyster Bar, is Whistler’s premier space for private dining, meetings and special events. Beautifully decorated, the room offers an impressive sense of occasion and features a chef’s table and show kitchen for interactive demonstrations, as well as state-of-the-art audiovisual equipment. The Cellar is located below the new award-winning Bar Oso restaurant, also part of the TopTable Group.
Araxi just hosted the largest long-table dinner in British Colombia history, with 400 guests. Executive chef James Walt works closely with local farmers and producers to select the freshest ingredients.
“We’re really fortunate to live where we do,” Walt says. “It’s beautiful and we’re able to source the very best ingredients from surrounding fields, pastures and pristine waters, and let them shine. It’s a privilege to share BC’s bounty with our discerning guests, who come from every corner of the world. It’s an incredible feeling when guests visit us and try something new, experiencing the true taste of Whistler.”
Fairmont Chateau Whistler
Key meeting properties near Whistler Village include Fairmont Chateau Whistler and Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre. The Fairmont, which offers 550 guest rooms and 32,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, features six restaurants and lounges, including locally inspired cuisine at The Wildflower. The cultural center, which has indoor event space for up to 300, boasts its own chef for catered events, dishing up coastal aboriginal food with modern flair.
Coastal Mountain Brewing recently opened a new craft beer location there. The new brewery joins Whistler Brewing Company and The Brewhouse for the perfect convivial apres ski experience.
Calgary, Banff Springs & Lake Louise
Alberta’s largest city, Calgary has long called itself “Cowtown,” but it also places in the top five year after year on The Economist’s world’s most livable list. The city’s increasing sophistication makes it a good time to plan a group excursion. Farther afield, scenic Banff and Lake Louise are among the most picturesque places on earth.
Ken Runquist is a local travel blogger who has seen plenty of recent improvements in Calgary’s cuisine, especially food trucks.
“One area that is breaking ground with significant growth is the roving food-truck scene,” Runquist says. “This year, 76 permits have been issued, up considerably from years past. There is a tremendous range of options in food choices, as well.”
Another area that has seen an exciting jump is the craft beer industry, ranging from small boutique shops to the Craft Beer Market, which has more than 100 varieties. To help spur this growth, the provincial government recently introduced an increased tax on all beer sold within the province to provide a $20 million grant program to help small brewers grow their business.
Sheraton Suites Calgary Eau Claire is the perfect place for groups to soak it all in. Barclay’s Lounge provides meals for the sophisticated palate, while Fionn MacCool’s serves Irish pub fare. Sheraton has 323 guest rooms and 11,000 sq. ft. of space.
More options are nearby at Eau Claire Market, with everything from Japanese to Italian.
Events held at Fairmont Banff Springs and Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise will stimulate the senses with stellar mountain scenery. The Banff Springs property, which features 764 guest rooms and 76,000 sq. ft. of event space, prepares 4,000 to 6,000 meals per day. Chef JW Foster provides guests with a local, sustainable dining experience by building strong relationships with farmers, artisans and purveyors.
Jaw-dropping Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise has 550 guest rooms and 36,000 sq. ft. of event space. Healthy, sustainable dishes are emphasized at the resort’s three restaurants, while high tea with views of Lake Louise and Victoria Glacier blends sophistication with natural beauty.
From Calgary to Victoria, food trends are elevating meeting and event experiences, and satisfying attendees’ cravings for unique and flavorful culinary experiences that showcase local cultures.
Natalie Compagno is an avid traveler who has written for The Huffington Post, TravelAge West, Yahoo Travel and more.
Toast to Wine Country
Often called the Napa of the North, the stunning Okanagan Valley in British Columbia actually has more in common with Sonoma, Napa’s relaxed, eco-friendly neighbor.
Okanagan was a fertile farming area before European vines were planted. The location, an 85-mile glacier-carved lake surrounded by verdant mountains, is among the healthiest and sunniest in Canada. Many of the passionate craftsmen who move there from elsewhere in Canada say they will never leave.
As climate change sends warmer weather north, the wines continue to improve. Groups savor, sip and bond in this dazzling setting while feasting on wine and cuisine that rivals anything south of the border.
For beauty and opulence, look no further than Mission Hill Winery, with its Tom Kundig-designed Italianate architecture, vintage wine urns cascading down walls, Henry Moore sculpture and Chagall-inspired tapestry. The wines are decadence personified, with the international award-winning Legacy Collection showcasing the unique terroir of the valley.
Terrace Restaurant features unparalleled views of the lake, hills and vineyards while serving mouth-watering fare. The cheese plate includes wine-infused delicacies and is a perfect starter, along with a glass of vino. Group wine tours can be personalized based on wine knowledge. For true oenophiles, book the private room behind the restaurant for wine and food pairings. The small balcony with an outdoor fireplace makes for a cozy experience.
Across the lake, Cedar Creek Vineyards is another of the oldest and most prestigious local wineries in the valley. Groups can arrange private tastings and vineyard tours, and even practice yoga overlooking the lake. For groups wishing to explore their creative talents, painting classes are also offered. Chef Jeremy Tucker oversees the seasonal Vineyard Terrace restaurant. Try the tasty carrot, prosciutto and melon soup, with every ingredient fresh from a nearby farm.
Kelowna is the commercial core and largest town in the region. Visitors will find a plethora of dining options featuring farm-fresh dishes. Manteo Resort Waterfront Hotel & Villas’ Smack Dab also has a spacious outdoor patio on the lake. Raudz is the spot for high-end local fare, with venison Carpaccio from the local forests, heirloom tomatoes from local farms and fresh Arctic char, from Canada’s northern coast among the highlights. Everyone loves Carmelis Goat Farm, not just for the charming goats, but also for the delicious goat cheese gelato. Group tours are encouraged.
Craft brewing is on the rise in the valley, and BNA Brewing Co. & Eatery makes for an exciting offsite visit. Okanagan Spirits Craft Distillery features local farm-to-glass spirits, including small batch, single-malt whiskey made with 100-percent locally grown barley. Groups larger than six can be accommodated with advance notice.
Major Meeting Venues
Banff & Lake Louise
Delta Hotels by Marriott Banff
Royal Canadian Lodge
Banff Springs hotel; 99 guest rooms; 2,569 sq. ft. of conference space; full-service spa with hot tub, steam, sauna and pool.
Fairmont Banff Springs
Located inside Banff Springs National Park; 764 guest rooms; 76,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; health club with spa tub, steam, sauna and pool.
Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise
Overlooks stunning lake and glacier; 550 guest rooms; 36,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; business center; full-service spa.
Calgary Telus Convention Centre
Central location downtown; 122,000 sq. ft. of conference space; 47,000 sq. ft. of exhibit space; 222 meeting rooms.
Hyatt Regency Calgary
355 guest rooms; 33,000 sq. ft. of event space; connected to Calgary Telus Convention Centre; 24-hour health club; indoor pool; two restaurants and two bars/lounges.
Sheraton Suites Calgary Eau Claire
323 guest rooms; 13 meeting rooms; 11,000 sq. ft. meeting space; two restaurants; 24-hour fitness facility; bicycle rentals; Fionn MacCools Irish Pub.
The Westin Calgary
525 guest rooms; 26,000 sq. ft. meeting space; limo/town car service; health club with sauna; indoor pool; fitness classes; business center; The Keg Steakhouse & Bar; Liquid Lounge.
Delta Hotels by Marriott Grand Okanagan Resort
Located on the Kelowna boardwalk; recent $9 million renovation; 320 guest rooms; 35,083 sq. ft. of conference space; 17 meeting rooms; casino.
Manteo Resort Waterfront Hotel & Villas
78 guest rooms; 5,270 sq. ft. meeting space; 24-hour business center; fitness center; Smack Dab lakeside restaurant.
Fairmont Hotel Vancouver
The Grand Lady has 557 guest rooms; 55,000 sq. ft. of conference space; 16 meeting rooms; Notch8 restaurant; Absolute Spa.
489 guest rooms; 24,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; 2,100-square-foot herb garden and apiary.
Rosewood Georgia Hotel
156 guest rooms; seven meeting rooms; 9,847 sq. ft. of meeting space; indoor pool; Hawksworth restaurant with private room for up to 60 guests.
The Listel Hotel
129 guests rooms; business center; small meeting room; Green Key eco-rated; Forage restaurant.
Trump International Hotel & Tower Vancouver
Scheduled to open this month; 147 guest rooms; 15,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; Trump Spa; Drai’s pool bar nightclub; Mott 32 luxury Chinese restaurant.
100,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; holds up to 2,000 guests; seated dinner for 600; whale and dolphin show seating for up to 300.
Vancouver Convention Centre
Dramatic waterfront location; 466,500 sq. ft. of meeting space; 72 meeting rooms; 53,000-square-foot ballroom can seat 6,000.
Delta Victoria Ocean Pointe Resort
Waterfront resort; 240 guest rooms; 14,363 sq. ft. of meeting space; largest room holds 500.
464 guest rooms; 22 meeting rooms; 23,000 sq. ft. of conference space; 96,000 sq. ft. of flexible meeting space; Willow Stream Spa; afternoon tea.
Hotel Grand Pacific
304 guest rooms; 13 meeting rooms; 5,000 sq. ft. of flexible space; Victoria Athletic Club; private dining room.
Victoria Marriott Inner Harbour
236 guest rooms; five meeting rooms: 10,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; restaurant; indoor pool.
Victoria Conference Centre
73,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; 25,000-square-foot Crystal Garden; 19 multipurpose rooms; 400-seat lecture theater.
Fairmont Chateau Whistler
550 guest rooms; 12 meeting rooms; 32,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; golf course; free ski shuttle.
Hilton Whistler Resort & Spa
287 guest rooms; nine meeting rooms; 10,400 sq. ft. of meeting space; Javanese-style Taman Sari Royal Heritage Spa.
The Westin Resort & Spa, Whistler
400 guest rooms; 20,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; ski-in/ski-out access; three restaurants.
Whistler Conference Centre
40,000 sq. ft. of conference space; meals with locally inspired menu for 1,200; seating for 1,500.