A Fresh Food Revival

March 5, 2010

Canadian pioneer of local cuisine reflects on business as usual in the midst of “new” food trends

By Janet Collins

Locavore: a word coined by Jessica Prentice from the San Francisco Bay Area on the occasion of World Environment Day 2005 to describe and promote the practice of eating a diet consisting of food harvested from within an area most commonly bound by a 100-mile (160 km) radius. – Wikipedia

A casual observer of the North American food scene may be forgiven for thinking the idea of eating fresh, locally procured foodstuffs is something new. In fact, that is how most people ate until the post-war era when time-pressed modern societies increasingly came to rely on the wonders of mass-produced, prepackaged food.

Thankfully, the locavore is experiencing a very healthy comeback. Much of the credit goes to enterprising restaurateurs such as Alice Waters of Chez Panisse (in Berkeley, California) fame. In Western Canada, a similar honour is rightfully bestowed on John Bishop.

John Bishop

photo: Jordi Sancho

“Thirty years ago, all the restaurants imported food,” says Bishop, who opened his namesake restaurant on Vancouver’s trend-conscious Kitsilano back in 1985. Since that time, Bishop has proven success can be achieved by stressing hospitality, cultivating local sources and paying close attention to what’s freshly available and when. It seems like a logical move given today’s food-centric culture, but at the time it was a rather unique approach for any restaurant let alone one fresh on the market.

Those were the days when a menu was cast in stone. Diners expected certain dishes to always be available at specific restaurants, and if the restaurant failed to deliver on that expectation, it would lose clientele. “Now things are much more revolutionary,” says Bishop. “Menus are frequently based on what fresh ingredients look best at the market, so things can change on a daily basis. It’s very exciting.”

Shortly after moving to Vancouver from the UK in 1973, Bishop and his new bride Theresa Krause (whom he met while working at Vancouver’s now-defunct Harp & Heather Club) rented a 12-acre farm in the suburb of Fort Langley. There the couple raised their own beef, poultry, fruit and vegetables, and in doing so learned first hand what it takes to produce good quality, fresh food. Little wonder then that when Bishop’s opened its doors in 1985, the owner/chef was eager to introduce Vancouver diners to a fresh approach to regional cuisine – with fresh and regional being the operative words.

“Bishop’s is small [with room for only about 40 diners] so it’s easier to obtain local ingredients [than a large chain establishment],” he says.

The real epiphany came in 1992 when Bishop  met Gary and Naty King of Hazelmere Organic Farm in South Surrey, a key supplier to this day.  Hazelmere boasts an astonishing variety of produce – more than 110 varieties of plants on a mere six acres. But they didn’t grow everything and for good reason.

“I remember being surprised to learn that Gary wouldn’t grow carrots, celery or strawberries because he would have to spray the crops or lose a large percentage of them [to pests or a number of diseases],” Bishop recalls. “That told me a lot about the man’s ethics, about his concern for what and how he farmed, and his concern for the land and the people who ate the food he produced.” In recent years, Bishop and Hazelmere’s relationship and shared philosophy resulted in the development of programs to help young farmers and culinary students nurture a sustainable food future.

Although Hazelmere also distributes products from neighbouring meat, dairy, egg, and produce producers, Bishop’s also features ingredients – including wine – from other regions of British Columbia such as Vancouver Island and the Okanagan Valley.

“Folks are becoming more conscious of what they’re buying,” says Bishop. “I can appreciate and see advantages to having access to everything no matter what the season or how exotic the ingredient, but it’s also nice to know we can make choices of what we eat and when. [Consumers] are starting to question the need for all that imported food, and we see their appreciation of what we serve [at the restaurant]”.

Bishop’s dedication to local, seasonal, fresh ingredients has built a loyal following over the years. “We certainly have our regular clientele,” says the ever modest Bishop. “The restaurant has also become something of a destination for celebrating special events such as birthdays, anniversaries, that sort of thing. We serve a lot of families, a lot of couples. The room is small so it’s easy to create a buzz even on a slow night.”

One of the biggest compliments Bishop’s receives is when someone says going there is like entering someone’s home. “It really is an extension of my own home,” Bishop admits. “The cooking done at the restaurant, like the cooking I do at home, is strongly associated with local agriculture. That’s really the restaurant’s foundation, the earth. I can’t imagine cooking any other way.”

Bishop says much of his inspiration continues to come from cooking for his own family. His son has planted a small kitchen garden near the house, and many a meal has started with one or more of those fresh ingredients.

Over at the restaurant, Andrea Carlson wears the executive chef’s toque. “She’s a wonderful example in the kitchen,” enthuses Bishop who witnesses Carlson’s culinary acumen and food ethics on a daily basis as he helps expedite the food for each evening’s service.

Carlson isn’t the only one continuing along the path Bishop has laid out for the local food industry. John Bishop has schooled many of BC’s culinary elite who also advocate the merits of local ingredients. Vikram Vij, Andrey Durbach and Chris Stewart all “studied” in Bishop’s kitchen as have James Walt, Jeff Van Geest, and an impressive roster of other revered regional chefs. Even Iron Chef Rob Feenie stopped by for a time. All have come to see the value working with suppliers who know the provenance of the ingredients they have on offer, the food’s origins. In many cases, like Bishop himself, these other chefs order directly from farmers, fishers, and other primary sources. The result of all that trouble is literally palatable.

“The reason is simple,” Bishop says. “Food that is locally and organically grown is always fresher and tastes much better than food produced thousands of miles from your table.”

To try John Bishop’s recipes in the comfort of your own kitchen, check out his cookbooks.

About the Author Janet Collins is a freelance writer/editor based in Sechelt, BC. A self-taught cook and a certified Spanish wine educator, she writes about all things culinary in addition to architecture, design and travel.

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