BRITISH COLUMBIA

Tofino culinary scene adds more flavour to west coast surf town

03/23/2015 02:20 EDT | Updated 05/23/2015 05:59 EDT
TOFINO, B.C. - One of the more memorable meals chef Tim May says he prepared in Tofino on British Columbia's remote West Coast was a wedding feast for a young couple who just eloped.

The newlyweds from Toronto exchanged vows on the beach, ran back to their honeymoon nest and watched as May, described locally as a culinary rock star, cooked their romantic dinner.

"It was kind of bizarre in a way because there's this couple and this is their wedding dinner," said May. "They just got married on the beach with the justice of the peace and then they come back to their little vacation home and here I am standing behind the bar cooking them dinner."

May is one of the many highly trained and visionary chefs who have migrated to the Vancouver Island coastal community known more for surfing and whale watching to contribute to a growing culinary scene that is adding more flavour to Tofino.

Located 315 kilometres west of Victoria, Tofino, population 2,000, and neighbouring Ucluelet, population 1,600, are massive tourism destinations, with their rugged coastal beauty and endless beaches. The area explodes with visitors in the summer months, with estimates of 22,000 people in the area on some days in July and August.

The growing list of award-winning restaurants is a product of the many retreats that offer visitors first-class treatment within the velvet embrace of coastal rainforests and roaring waves. But ask May and others who came to Tofino for the chance to kick back on the beach year-round, it is the locals who drive the scene, wanting it fresh, local and the best.

"Think of Vancouver Island as Europe," said May, who runs the RedCan Gourmet, an open-concept commercial kitchen where customers can interact with the chefs as they create West Coast dishes. "It's a New World Europe in a sense of the different kinds of micro climates and the farms that can grow certain things in specific areas. That's what Vancouver Island is."

Chef Lisa Ahier, who owns Tofino's SoBo, billed as sophisticated bohemian, agreed it's the locals who created and support the community's top-notch foodie scene.

"I have never seen a town with this few residents that has such a high level, consistently, of cuisine," said Ahier, who started in Tofino in 2003 with a food truck and now wins awards at her bricks-and-mortar location.

"The people who live here is why I do what I do," she said. "I set up my business 13 years ago for locals and the locals demand quality, the best fuel for their bodies. You can't fool our local clientele. They want good food that makes them feel great."

She's seen people who started in her restaurant as dishwashers and food preparation staff fall in love with the industry and open their own restaurants.

"Visitors can expect probably the freshest seafood they'll ever see," said Ahier, who recently published "The SoBo Cookbook."

"We have local people who harvest our gooseneck barnacles. Our oysters just came in 30 minutes ago. There's not a lot of transportation in our food. It's coming directly from the water to here."

May said local chefs pride themselves on working together even though they depend on the same customer base. The Tofino-Ucluelet Culinary Guild, which helps source the freshest and most in-season items for the restaurants, binds the locals, he said.

May, who has prepared meals for movie stars and Olympics Games officials, said the catering business can mean one day preparing for a wedding with hundreds of guests and the next serving a family dinner in their hotel suite.

"I'll get phone calls from a fishing guide and he'll say, 'I've got two people on board and they've caught some crab and a bit of salmon; can you cook it for their dinner tonight?'"

May said he was happy to be part of the celebration of the newlyweds who eloped.

"I did a charred rare tuna dish. I did a scallop ceviche dish. They wanted beef tenderloin and crab, like a surf and turf all in one. I did a cinnamon roast peach with some homemade ice cream for dessert."

If you go to Tofino and are hungry check out: RedCan Gourmet, food@redcangourmet.com; and SoBo, Fresh Food From Here and There, rtahier@gmail.com, among others.