Original story can be viewed at www.urbandiner.ca
As you walked in through the front doors, the hostess would greet you, find your reservation, and in the background you couldn’t help but notice the bar in full swing, making the finest classic and contemporary cocktails. The sound of the espresso grinder, great music, and of course, a faint sound of the infamous cowbell dinging from the basement kitchen. Food runners pop up from the back stairs, with plates of gorgeous food, artistically presented, and the flavour was off the charts. This was Chow. One of the tastiest secrets on South Granville. Sadly, with bouts of heartache, Chow closed its doors in May 2009, and in the last 4 months, everyone had seemed to move on. For Chef/Owner Jean-Christophe Poirier (JC) in particular, this was a tough loss – although he had much support from his girlfriend, the community, and his many peers, losing your restaurant, something you’re so passionate about, is just as hard to get over as a hideous break-up. Little did we know that the restaurant closure would take this talented chef beyond Vancouver’s hungry clutches and we had T minus 16 weeks until blast off. This is the story of a “Chef’s Last Supper” – a series of trips, dinners and goodbyes had at the knife of a talented young chef, and his passionate entourage.
In early August, I organized a trip to the Okanagan Valley – this trip was for the staff at Chow. Something truly epic to remember British Columbia for. Sharon & Lawrence Herder, owners of Herder Winery in Keremeos graciously offered their home to us for 4 days – the condition? JC would be cooking each night, but I wouldn’t tell him until we got there! Another talented cook, Dominic Auben (entre-metier at Chow) joined us with his girlfriend Melissa (also a cook), from Penticton, where they moved just after Chow closed. It helped of course that the Herder kitchen was completely pimped out! Must’ve been built by a chef. In-counter steamer, deep fryer, grills, you name it. So, here we were, 10 people cooking and dining together each night.Day 1 – we arrived at the winery pretty late in the day, it was around 8:30 pm. The shining lights of the Herder house on the little rocky perch illuminated rows of Pinot Gris and Merlot vines on either side of the long gravel driveway. In the front, Nadia and JC made a poor attempt to hide the remnants of our highway lunch – hotdogs from Dairy Queen, corn-nuts and empty cans of Lucky Lager. Journey was blasting as we pulled up. I was content in the backseat of the roofless jeep with my blond wind-blown afro to baby-sit the shink-wrapped organic chicken for a few minutes more. Our host, Sharon, greeted us at the door with glasses of the Herder Pinot Gris – a fantastic start to our stay. Lawrence, husband and talented winemaker, showed us around the “compound” – we each had our own bedroom, plus a guest house, a little golf course out back, and a pool.JC promptly started dinner. Roasted organic chicken, with smashed vegetable and buttermilk potatoes, grilled asparagus and mushrooms, and an heirloom tomato salad, with poached Okanagan peaches, and basil. Lawrence happily brought out the good stuff – we sampled through a variety the Herder Pinot Gris and Chardonnay vintages – and I have to say, their wines are absolutely exquisite. Here’s a quick background on Lawrence Herder, just in case you weren’t entirely sure just how good his wines were – he’s been responsible for many winemaking projects, specifically first vinatges of BC’s Orofino (Merlot; Cab Franc/Merlot; Pinot Noir), Seven Stones (Meritage) and Stoneboat (in varied capacities) plus consulting for Robin Ridge. The way Lawrence talks about his wines is intoxicating; he is so humble, but blends a little bit of California attitude. We tried a few vintages of the Herder Josephine (a Merlot dominated blend), the popular Merlot and the rather rare Cabernet Franc. We finished off the meal with a round of Old Fashioned cocktails, followed by a poorly choreographed 80’s dance party in the Herder tasting room, which naturally doubled as a cathedral-ceilinged dance floor.
Day 2 – The late night dance party, followed by the late night swim led to a harsh mishandling of an Alberta Rye bottle and countless bottles of Herder wine – poor Kris event lost a tooth over it. Needless to say, it was a late morning rise the following day. In our finest attire, we traipsed past the tasting room where Sharon was already giving bottle samples. Should we be embarrassed? “Good morning children!” Sharon yelps from the tasting room. I guess she was delighted to have us! We all congregated in the kitchen to learn JC had been up for hours, and there was a fresh frittata on the stove for us to chomp on. “No big deal…” JC begins, “… just has fresh goat cheese, eggs, mushrooms, bell peppers, zucchini, basil, tomatoes, with brioche and coffee,…” Ya, you’re right – no big deal, half of us didn’t even know our names, let alone how to make breakfast. I was prepared to make my own “continental breakfast”, shaking profusely while slicing into my supermarket constructed blueberry muffin, “…slow and steady wins the race, just move your hand outta the way…”.
Before Dominic arrived, we had to search out a butcher shop. We needed meat, and lots of it. Being that I was the only one in the group that had a blackberry, I promptly found signal with my arm stuck straight up into the sky. We found a listing for Grimm’s Sausage Co. in Penticton. “… Hello? Do you carry anything other than sausages?” I was not exactly in the right frame of mind to call anyone; JC was laughing hysterically in the background. The lady, clearly dumbfound by my question replies “uhh ya, we’re a BUTCHER SHOP”. We left JC in charge of the actual dinner requirements, and the rest of us were buying 10 ft ropes of sausage, and charcuterie, stuffing our faces between the parked cars. After a quick visit to a cheap ‘n cheerful farmer’s market, it was back to the house. Lawrence had been up since 5:00 am, he was super tired… but he was still dancing with us at 2:00 am the night before. He’s definitely hardcore. He was outside moving barrels around, and siphoning barrel samples, with a highly concentrated demeanor.JC, Dominic, and Melissa started dinner. The rest of us tried to be productive, but you know what they say about too many cooks in the kitchen…. I think I peeled carrots, Nadia peeled onions, Kris had a staring-contest with the pork tongue (it was a stalemate), and Craig just told stories about his use of interesting words and vocabulary that no one else seems to understand, “you’re pedantic, and I was like, no you’re pedantic”. Day 2 dinner was incredible. It was hard to top the chickens from the previous night, but they did. This was Dominic’s birthday dinner too! Rack of pork, with super crispy skin – it was like candy, with a fricassée of apricots, pearl onions, and prosciutto; pork tongue with a spring onion “salsa verde”; and ratatouille-style gratin with zucchini, heirloom tomato, eggplant, onion and red peppers. The wines presented were equally as incredible as the night before.Dominic’s birthday dessert? Melissa made fantastic use of the deep fryer, with homemade “churros” (Spanish-style doughnuts) with beautiful flecks of vanilla, a cinnamon and raw sugar dusting, plus a gorgeous pool of dark chocolate to dip. I was busy in the kitchen at this point with Kris, making a locally inspired cocktail for Dominic’s birthday. Fresh watermelon, honeydew and cantaloupe met the blender, with tons of salt. The fragrant liquid was pushed through cheesecloth, and shaken with gin, egg white, lemon juice, sugar, and topped with fresh black pepper. It was mighty tasty.
As per the usual, there was a Michael Jackson dance party, followed by more whisky, more wine, and more “swimming” – unfortunately my camera got soaked, and ultimately busted, so most of the evidence went down with the ship. Around this time, 3:00 am, Lawrence and Sharon had sent themselves to bed, and we were left having heart-to-heart conversations in the pool, and in various parts of the house, while listening to Enigma’s “Pure Emotions”, in bathing suits and full face goggles. Like a trail of bread crumbs to find your way back home, there were water puddles throughout the house.
Day 3 – Everyone was up late. This was the morning that we DID have to make our own continental “muffin” breakfast. Whoever was in charge of making coffee made a royal mess – Ethical Bean liquids pouring right over the top of the carafe all over the stone counters, and floor. As the boys finished up their golf game out back, Nadia and I cleaned the kitchen, and got ready for our wine tours, obviously starting at Ground Zero – Herder Winery. In the basement of their gorgeous house, the Herder’s had built an incredibly state-of-the-art contemporary winery. Huge steel fermentation tanks especially built for the Herder’s and sent over from Scandinavia; Medium Toasted Oak Casks line the next room over on floor to ceiling racks, holding barrels ranging from various forests in France, including Limosin, and an accidental Russian Oak Cask that Lawrence decided to use anyway; and a little lab where Lawrence performs the more scientific vinification procedures, like phenolic ripeness, yeast cultivation, and determining alcohol levels. In this room, there was a little cubby holding Lawrence’s favourite wines – it was nothing fancy, a simple little cellar where everything was still in boxes. Lawrence gave us such an intense tour – it was at least 3 hours. After dozens of barrel samples, he introduced us to his beautifully shiny crusher/de-stemmer, sitting politely in the driveway.
We made our way to Naramata and managed to squeeze in a visit with Stephen at Poplar Grove, where an intense tour was had, similar to Herder’s. We were able to try barrel samples of some amazing stuff – single origin + single vintage Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Cabernet Franc before each went into its respective blends, like the “Legacy”. For whites, the Pinot Gris and the Chardonnay were delicious, as usual. Poplar Grove’s secondary label, Monster Vineyards, had launched a new product “the bag in a box” – fitting 4 bottles of wine in a $60 bag/box. We graciously accepted a deliciously crispy white wine blend from Stephen… I’ll tell you what happened to that box later on.
Back to Penticton. Back to Grimm’s Sausage. Back to the farmer’s market. Back to the long ropes of sausage. With a quick stop at a peach stand, 1lb for $1 – wow – I bought 6lbs just for The Refinery.
Day 3 dinner – an enormous rib-eye, seared and roasted to medium rare with Montreal Steak Spice, roasted bone marrow, with parsley and fleur de sel, escargots with red wine braised onions, carrots, cauliflower, and garlic, with olive oil tossed spaetzle – it was official, I was going to die the food was so rich. “I love stuff like this. I will take the richness, and many helpings of it anyday…” Lawrence announces, as he’s well onto his third portion of bone-marrow-spread-on-ribeye sandwich. Our dessert of sugar poached peaches, with vanilla ice cream and raspberries – simple, but awesome. Like clockwork, the anticipated dance party, and late night/early morning swim – with the Monster Vineyards “bag in a box”, which was used as the gun as we reenacted parts of Scarface, holding up a store at gun point, drinking the wine, and spraying some in the eyes of the uncooperative sales associate. The funniest thing about the pool, was that it was small, and had a “continuous swim machine” built in, and it was always on full blast – we were constantly fighting the current.The following day, we waved goodbye to the place we called home for 4 days, and to our “pseudo parents” Sharon and Lawrence, whose hospitality was gracious, generous, and hilariously wonderful. We stopped at the little diner in Keremeos called “K Cafe”. They had green eggs and ham on the menu, described as “Doctor Zeus’ favourite” – I’m pretty sure that Doctor Zeus could be a medically talented Greek god, with no recollection of Doctor Seuss’ favourite breakfast buffet. Judging by the look of the place inside and out, it seemed appropriate to only order deep fried items, although the likelihood of its grease traps and oil being cleaned or changed in the last 3 years was doubtful. “… what’s your soup du jour?” says Nadia “… are you insane? No one who wants to live through the next 4-6 hours orders soup here!” I belted. All of us order the exact same thing, fried eggs, with fried meat, fried bread, and fries. We left our server a 40% tip; “I’m totally going to buy a new pair of shoes for work!” she chimes with her less then hygienic smile. We glance down in unison just in time to see our server’s ripped and dirty shoes, filthy toes hanging out, it was like the “Flintstones”.
Once we returned to Vancouver, and over the next 2 weeks, there would be a fare-thee-well party at Chef Jeremie Bastien’s house – a good friend of JC’s, and talented Executive Chef of Gastown’s Boneta Restaurant. After some 30 of JC and Nadia’s closest friends and family wolfed down homemade sausages, foie gras parfait, steak tartare and roasted leg of lamb (among countless other items), we stayed until the wee hours of the morning, doing Old Fashioned cocktail demonstrations. We were in teams: JC and myself, and then Jeremie and Steve da Cruz.
The finale to the Chef’s last supper was had at Maenam, where JC’s good friend, Chef Angus An would tantalize Nadia, JC and myself, with a tasting menu from his unreleased fall lineup. Pork tendon soup, Thai red curry duck, clam salad, fried oysters, and Thai fermented sausage. The food was amazing, and we were spoiled, again!
The night before the pair would embark on their new adventure, near Santiago, Chile, there were many a “Je t’aime” said.
To have this opportunity, as a chef, to live seaside, in new surroundings, near Argentina’s prized Mendoza and Chile’s wine regions, with nothing expect Spanish language books, your girlfriend, a backpack, a guitar, and culinary skill, the sky’s the limit. Although Vancouver – the food passionate city – will miss him as a mentor, a chef, and a friend, who could really blame him for leaving? Erase the sadness of Chow’s closed doors, with an adventure that opens doors.
Close to month later, I’m still full. Godspeed you, Chef. ~ Lauren Mote