No man is an island. But when cursed with winter culinary sourcing challenges, isolated island restaurants endure a true test of faith. Yet up and down the Pacific Northwest coastline, creative chefs conjure up a host of inventive solutions to stave off seasonal stove-side shortages.
Here, some of the Pacific Northwest’s most notable island cooks share their secrets to overcoming the chill of winter sourcing.
The rhythm of the seasons, like the tides, adjusts accordingly at Willows Inn on Puget Sound’s Lummi Island. Summer’s languorous, sun-kissed days give way to the lull of winter firesides burnished bright with laughter. As the northern island’s pace slows, so does its schedule. Willows Inn closes on winter solstice each year, reopening in spring.
“But,” as world-renown, award-winning chef Blaine Wetzel emphasizes: “...the menu is dramatically sculpted by the seasons.” Thus, the Willows Inn winter table groans with meat and game such as hog and wild duck. Exotic fruits like quince, medlar, and sorbis entice, as do vegetables “held by the earth” like sweet turnips.
Chef Blaine observes, “The Island has much to offer during all times of the year, but it is important to know when to let the flora rest and when not to pick a berry patch empty. It is as much about picking as it is about letting it be.”
Conditions do not always tend towards the bleak. On occasion, Willows Inn enjoys an abundance of leftovers at year’s end, due in part to astute planning by staff farmer Mary. The culinary team also devises new ways to preserve and ‘overwinter’ produce and meats, as well as foraged items, such as fermenting chanterelles, or distilling vinegar from dogwood tree fruits. Other times, winter forages take a tumble into the delightfully unexpected.
Chef Blaine recalls, “One winter, years ago, we were short all around on product. The island frosted early. The trails were muddy paths through the snow, entrenched with sharp leafless branches from dead berry bramble. The farm was an abandoned wasteland of icy dirt, not a speck of green. There was even snow in the greenhouses, blow in through a snow sunken roof. The deer had all traveled to the south end of the island, a terrain that is too difficult to get through by foot. Even the ocean seemed to be unforgiving with the cruel waves brought in by the westerlies. One of the young, warm-souled chefs, Nick, out of grief started digging while on a scouting at the farm.
'This is stupid! We must have some food left!' Through his fatigue and relentlessness he dug a huge hole in an abandoned bed that used to be full of squash and tomatoes.
'You are wasting your, and my time!' yelled Kyle, a snow-covered chef, bracing in the wind.
Nick jumped to another bed and started digging. Nothing. He jumped to another and pushed the snow, plunged his hands into the soil and tore earth into the sky. He was like a Saint Bernard in the snow, on a mission to dig. When he got to the bed nearest the west, we saw something. Green. Green like we forgot what it ever was. Green like a warmer time. Green like turnips. Leaves wilted from the freeze, but the stems were bright like the Irish countryside.
We looked down at the end of the long stem of beautiful green and Nick yanked up a bundle of the most perfect small, white, forgotten about turnips you have ever laid eyes on. We brought back to the kitchen turnips, mache lettuce, potatoes, rutabaga, and even seven delicata squash.”
Such is the wonder of winter island sourcing.
“We are opportunists, and the menu features and reflects what is available to us locally here on Orcas Island, and throughout the San Juan Islands,” explains Geddes and Mary Anna Martin, owners of Inn at Ship’s Bay on Orcas Island.
This includes luscious local goat cheese, home-raised hogs, and a cornucopia of fresh produce from the Inn’s ample kitchen garden, greenhouse, and heirloom orchards. Chef Geddes’ menu also leans heavily upon sustainably harvested seafoods, antibiotic and hormone-free meats and poultry, predominantly organic grown produce, and piping hot, homemade sourdough bread from 100-year old starter.
Many patrons tend to “romanticize” their meals, notes Martin, assuming local procurement of all menu items. However, the reality is that some staples require outsourcing due to lack of island availability, such as dairy, wheat products, olive oil, and citrus.
Another challenge Martin cites revolves around limited ingredients. Winter menus may prove more repetitive. To circumvent boredom, he relies on a well-stocked larder, ingenuity, and well-trained staff to help guests appreciate the cyclical nature of the menu.
For example, the Inn purchases half a beef from a producer on Lopez Island, cuts, and freezes it specifically for use in ‘slow-cooking’ dishes such as braised beef, rather than made-to-order, medium-rare steak. When carnivore-loving consumers learn the story behind the local meat on the menu, they adapt readily to non-traditional offerings. Ironically, another of the Inn at Ship’s Bay’s most pressing challenges involves handling the profusion of garden and orchard produce during late summer and early fall months.
During “slow produce” seasons, when the weather turns frosty, Martin introduces menu items from those foraged, stored, pickled, dried, frozen, fermented or cured earlier, or available from the garden’s greenhouse. Other precautions includes buying up additional traditional ‘cellar’ produce from local farms to store for winter use, such as carrots, cabbages, leeks, potatoes, and beets. The eatery also dries, purees, and processes syrups from both local and site grown plums, pears, apples, and quinces to adorn the menu year-round.
Martin stresses his desire to know where the Inn sources its food. He raises his own Mangalitsa pigs not only because of the breed’s succulence, but its rarity. Raising his own pork also assures ready availability and quality control.
“This makes me feel much better about what is “on” the menu,” Martin concludes, “for I have the knowledge of how the produce or meats have been raised and grown. Also it shows that we are supporting small producers (and our neighbors), and that we are not part of a large agri-business model.”
Vancouver Island’s Wickaninnish Inn Executive Chef Warren Barr does not consider winter a sourcing challenge. Barr’s philosophy pivots upon “continually adapt[ing] our menus to ensure we are featuring the freshest, seasonal products,” for all three of the luxury island resort’s restaurants, The Pointe Restaurant, On the Rocks Bar & Lounge and Driftwood Café. Collaborating closely with Tofino-Ucluelet Culinary Guild (TUCG), Chef Barr procures seasonally available, British Columbia-sourced seafood, game and organic produce.
This winter, Chef Barr announced the addition of Hope Farm, a new island source for ducks. The farm, run by the Mustard Seed, employs recovering addicts. Hope Farm will produce ducks exclusively for The Pointe Restaurant as a pilot project, and may eventually expand to other venues, if production goes well.
“Connecting with a new farm is always exciting, especially when they can provide fresh products to us during the winter season,” remarks Chef Barr. “Hope Farms is an extra special collaboration for us in that they are providing employment to those in recovery. We look forward to serving Hope Farm ducks for many winters to come.”
In addition, Chef Barr works closely with other partner farmers planting cellar-worthy crops like parsnips and beets to include on winter menus.
Yes, winter may be coming. But as these island chefs demonstrate, a little planning, ingenuity, and attitude can kick that culinary bête-noire to the shore.