STYLE

Eclectic fare of Tofino's SoBo Restaurant can be recreated at home with cookbook

01/19/2015 03:30 EST | Updated 03/21/2015 05:59 EDT
TORONTO - What happens when a classically trained chef whose heart lies in street and ethnic food from around the world ends up cooking out of a truck?

For Lisa Ahier, her popular food truck won over Tofino, B.C., locals and got her a celebrity fan. Then came a busy restaurant. Now, a cookbook.

The chef, who trained at the Culinary Institute of America and did a stint as executive chef of Cibolo Creek Ranch in Texas, the state of her birth, drew on her southwestern culinary roots in launching her restaurant SoBo, derived from Sophisticated Bohemian.

Using locally sourced, seasonally inspired ingredients from family-owned producers, her cuisine has "been called a lot of different things through time. I've never quite figured out what it is. Some people say it's grassroots gourmet. I'm cooking for Tofino, so it's all over the map," Ahier said during a visit to Toronto.

The new "SoBo Cookbook: Recipes from the Tofino Restaurant at the End of the Canadian Road" (Appetite by Random House, 2014) is filled with stunning photographs showcasing the spectacular area.

"I love Tofino, I love it, love it, love it, and I want the world to love it too and that's why we made it a big part of the book," she says.

Jeremy Koreski, who specializes in nature and surf photography, took the pictures. They didn't use a food stylist or special lighting, striving to keep the effect natural.

The book has a celebrity endorsement, with a glowing foreword written by friend and Canadian songstress Sarah McLachlan.

Ahier and McLachlan formed a bond when their eldest daughters were learning to crawl. Ahier had just started her business in 2003 and the musician, who has a second home in the area, used to drop by the taco stand for lunch.

"I would have never asked in a million years, and she wrote this beautiful introduction about the realness of the place and the heart and soul of the community and the restaurant. I couldn't be more honoured to have had her do that. It was extremely generous," says Ahier.

Her menu is driven by the fish, seafood, cheeses and organic vegetables she obtains from local producers and is geared toward a community of active outdoors people, such as surfers and kayak- and whale-watch guides.

"They like healthy eating and it has to be economical for them because these are young people — the average age is 34 — so there's not a lot of extra income for them. ... They're also our community's big world travellers during the off-season. ... They come back craving all these flavours around the globe. So I'll take the farm products and try to integrate those global influences into our food."

Ahier, 54, loves foraging for wild food when she has time but usually depends on others who show up at her back door with ingredients. In the early days, she didn't know what to do with seaweed when it was presented. Now it's a part of her repertoire.

"Right now the big thing for me ... is gooseneck barnacles. Oh, my goodness, gooseneck barnacles. Hello, world. This is fantastic. And they're just growing on the rocks," she says.

"They look like an ET finger, that wrinkled long finger of his. ... It's very intriguing and odd, but it's very sweet and there's not a lot of meat to it so it is definitely a little bit of work to it, which I think makes it better. Slow down and savour the food. Buttery, meaty. It reminds me of conch a little bit, but it's more tender."

Gooseneck barnacles are good in curries and any dish where you would use steamed clams or mussels, though her favourite way to eat the sustainable wild food is simply with white wine and butter, "kind of like oysters for me."

"There's nothing much better than a good raw oyster. You can cook it in a thousand different ways, but if I got my last oyster of my life I'm going to take it naked," she says.

"I sort of feel the same way about gooseneck barnacles. It's just so lovely on its own and so unique that I'm going to take it with as little dressing as possible."

Ahier is content with her lifestyle of cooking and being near her family and home. She says she can't see herself moving from Tofino or starting another restaurant.

"I feel like I'm synonymous with SoBo. It's fulfilling what I need right now and has for a long time and I can't see in the future changing much about it at all. It's just the lifestyle and living the life."

— Follow @lois_abraham on Twitter.

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