What Distinguishes Canada’s West Coast Cuisine?

By Isabelle Kirkwood

 (Tourism Vancouver) 

(Tourism Vancouver) 

I think Ontarians often feel cocooned by their province’s vast population in comparison to the rest of Canada. However, as a Vancouverite and avid West Coast Best Coast flag-bearer, I’d like to take a bit of time to bring light to a distinguished yet often overlooked subculture of Canadian cuisine. This neck of the woods has crafted a distinctive chow in a corner of the world where you don’t need to worry about the temperature, where the great Pacific meets the coastal temperate rainforests of beautiful British Columbia.

Our food scene isn’t too dissimilar to that of Ontario, as Chef Makoto Ono of Pidgin restaurant in Vancouver says, “There’s no east vs. west, there are no egos. It’s the only way to make Canadian cuisine happen.”

Now, mind you, that’s a very pacifist, Canadian response to the frank question: “Who does it best, east or west?” And although every corner of the country has its own culinary magnum opus, I’d like to take some of your time to sample my own turf’s gastronomy. That’s right, the best eats from the saltwater hub, the city of glass, the Hollywood north, Vancouver, B.C.  

It saddens me that Vancouver is now widely known as the “No Fun City.” Besides the endless supply of ocean and wilderness at your fingertips, let it be known that we come with some pretty good grub. Also, eh hem, it doesn’t always rain. We have actually have mostly sunny days.

I’ve learned that Vancouver cuisine, although ever-evolving, comes down to three principle F’s: Fish, Freshness and Fare to Share.

1. Fish

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Many of Canada’s major cities lie quite far inland, which makes fresh fish hard to come by. Vancouver lies at the mouth of some seriously lucrative wild salmon migration routes; from Chinook to Coho, to Sockeye and a medley of other subspecies. Let’s also not forget the mussels, oysters, Dungeness crab and spot prawns that are local to the area. Now, my ex-vegan conscience weighs heavy on me here, but I’d be fibbing if I didn’t say fish is a staple of West Coast Canadian cuisine.

Actually, one of the first restaurants I worked at was The Salmon House; a fine dining establishment overlooking the whole Fraser Valley all the way to Mt. Baker, serving salmon in any form you could imagine; in an omelet, a spring roll, even in a cobb salad. Give us a fillet and we’ll find a way.

Many of Vancouver’s top Michelin-star restaurants make fresh-caught fish the cornerstone of their menus. Our cuisine is also heavily-influenced by east-Asian dishes; believe me, even Tokyo doesn’t consume as much sushi as we do in Vancity. Whether you like it sashimi-style, grilled, poached or pan-fried, you’re at no shortage of fresh and delicious fish when you’re out west.

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2. Freshness

I think most Canadians hold the view that Vancouverites are snooty, so hopefully, I’m not indulging that stereotype too much here. West coast cuisine is without a doubt committed to organic, local and responsibly sourced ingredients. Menus will often list the farm, fishery, artisan or butcher responsible for the elements on your plate at any given eatery.

Maybe it’s because we’re surrounded by impressive mountains, lush rainforests and briny ocean, but whatever it is, we’re pretty environmentally-conscious here on the west coast. This means that we like to make sure our nosh isn’t hurting the planet. Vegetables are often grown in the Fraser Valley, seafood is accompanied by an Ocean Wise mark of sustainability and our meat is nose-to-tail. So, whether I’m humouring the health-nut sugar mommies of West Van or the hippie-vegans of the Island, I think it’s pretty fair to say that the Canadian West Coast prides itself on fresh and sustainable food.

Top Chef Canada finalist Trevor Bird is the head chef and owner of Fable  - a restaurant donned by a catchy take on the term “farm to table.” Fable makes sourcing local products and delivering great flavours in a fun and non-pretentious setting its main mission.

“I like to think ‘farm to table’ is not a trend anymore,” Bird says. “Nobody wants to go into these big chain restaurants anymore, everyone wants independent restaurants, and each of those independent restaurants has their own unique style. Nobody wants the norm.”

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3. Fare to Share

This has been a new and exciting discovery for me as a West Coaster, as Vancouver is often known for not really having a distinctive “culture” like Toronto and Montreal do. But to my surprise, share plates, charcuteries and tapas are slowly becoming hallmarks of Vancouver fare.

What this city does best is polished food with chill vibes. Our most upscale restaurants, such as Nightingale, owned by celebrated chef David Hawksworth, zeroes in on the combination of fresh ingredients on shared plates. Vancouver is a hub for business magnates and laissez-faire millennials alike, and you’ll find that these two worlds often collide in the laid-back yet chic dining rooms of our restaurants.

Hong Kong native Curtis Luk is chef at Vancouver’s Mission Kitsilano.

“I like the diversity of sharing,” he says. “You can have a lot of tastes without feeling the need to commit to a single plate of food, and, obviously, if you want more, you can always order more. You can try a bit of everything.”

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I’m proud to say that Vancouver is a pretty international city, so we borrow much of our own cuisine from those abroad by integrating the best of the nations around us into the heart of our own diverse yet budding dining culture.

There are many reasons why you need to venture out to the west coast if you haven’t already: world-class skiing, hiking, biking and surfing, the unforgettably gorgeous landscape, the coastal mountains, the wildlife. But don’t forget the delicious food while you’re here… be sure to make it a part of the journey!

This post was edited by Sukaina Jamil.