Does Vancouver have a signature dish?
Chicago’s got deep-dish pizza; San Francisco has sourdough bread. Buffalo has chicken wings and New York City is known for its cheesecake. While many cities have a signature dish—or two or three—Vancouver’s culinary claim to fame is a little trickier to pin down. So the Georgia Straight called up several local chefs and asked what dish defines our city best—and exactly what “West Coast cuisine” means to them.
George Siu, who co-owns the Memphis Blues Barbeque House chain, believes Vancouver’s cuisine is guided by many different cultures.
“Think of all the Asian ingredients and dishes that appear on menus that are not in Asian restaurants: the use of bok choy as a side vegetable instead of your usual acorn squash or broccoli or carrots sautéed in butter,” he said in a phone interview with the Straight.
Siu doesn’t think Vancouver has a signature dish, but he feels that’s a good thing. “Once you do a signature thing, everybody’s going to want to try to duplicate it. They may not do it as well as you do, and that might be a bad representation of what it is,” he said.
Instead, Siu noted that Vancouver is known for several signature ingredients, specifically seafood, with chefs infusing their own styles of cooking to create a distinct West Coast taste.
“In the last 10 years, we have had some really talented chefs that are using these ingredients to create something fantastic for us to all enjoy, but I think a lot of it is the heart and soul of their cooking techniques of where they came from,” Siu said. “For instance, somebody who might have a classical French background will use these ingredients to cook in that style, but maybe make it lighter for the West Coast taste because we are very health conscious here. Instead of a heavy cream sauce, they might do a light broth sauce. I think it’s the use of all these ingredients combined with their talents that makes Vancouver so unique.”
At LIFT restaurant, executive chef Jefferson Alvarez cooks with many locally grown ingredients, often foraging for mushrooms and juniper berries when they are in season. While Alvarez, who was born in Venezuela and has lived in Spain, found it difficult to name Vancouver’s signature dish, he had no trouble listing what he thought of as signature ingredients.
“We are the West Coast, so our halibut is known everywhere to be the freshest and best ingredient,” he said. “Most of our local fish are what people come here for—and our morels. I remember when a chef came in from Italy, that was one of the things that he was impressed by—the size of the morels.”
“One dish that’s been on a lot of people’s menus through the years has been the miso-glazed sable[fish],” Hamid Salimian, executive chef at Diva at the Met, told the Straight. “It’s because of the Japanese influences that we have, with so many izakaya places and all the beautiful sushi restaurants.”
Salimian, who was raised in Iran but received his culinary training in Vancouver, describes West Coast cuisine as soft, feminine, and lightly influenced by the flavours of Asia and the Middle East. However, he is quick to clarify that he wouldn’t call it fusion.
“I think the word fusion is used in the wrong places,” Salimian said. “I think 10 or 15 years ago, you’d say fusion if you put lemongrass on a dish. Now, it should have lemongrass in it, and if it doesn’t, it’s missing.”
Makoto Ono, executive chef and co-owner at PiDGiN, also identified fish as Vancouver’s signature ingredient. “The first ingredient that pops in my mind is albacore tuna. Not even many sushi restaurants will serve bluefin or Hawaiian tuna. It’s usually just the local albacore,” he said.
Ono, who was raised in Winnipeg and has worked in China, believes that Vancouver’s cuisine is similar to that of California and credits American chef Alice Waters as the founder of West Coast cuisine. (Waters opened her Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse in 1971.) He says that Vancouver is still a young city and that its style of cuisine is still evolving.
For chef and restaurateur Dale MacKay, who also grew up on the Prairies and will be returning to Saskatoon to open a restaurant there this summer, Vancouver’s culinary forte is the strong, culturally specific styles that are found throughout the city.
“I guess a Vancouver dish, if you’re looking at what people eat, is probably pho or vermicelli,” he said. “For me, if someone was coming into town and had time to try only a couple things, I’d probably take them to Phnom Penh for some wings, and then La Taqueria for some tacos, and probably go to Lee’s Donuts for some doughnuts. Those are the things that I miss—and will miss—when I’m away.”