Secret Location chef Jefferson Alvarez gives a South American dish a West Coast twist

    1 of 11 2 of 11

      If you ask Jefferson Alvarez where home is, you’re unlikely to get a straightforward answer.

      “I was raised a little bit of everywhere—Venezuela and Brazil, then I moved to Canada when I was 16, to Ottawa and then Toronto,” Alvarez tells the Georgia Straight during an interview at Secret Location (1 Water Street), where he’s executive chef. “When I decided to travel, I went to New York, Philadelphia, and then Europe. Spain is what changed my life.”

      Alvarez lived in Spain for four years, learning from some of the country’s top chefs and tasting as much as he could. In 2010, he moved to Vancouver and started cooking at Commercial Drive’s now-closed Divino Wine Bar.

      “That was my very, very first place and my beginning,” he recalls. “The owner was great. He believed in me. The kitchen wasn’t very equipped, but it showed me that if you have a passion to cook, all you really need is a stove.”

      After stints at West Vancouver’s shuttered Fraîche restaurant and Coal Harbour’s Lift, Alvarez began working at Secret Location last year. The modern restaurant and high-end clothing boutique is located in the heart of Gastown.

      “We’re trying to do a different style of dining,” Alvarez explains. “We’re doing only tasting menus, and we’re the only restaurant in Vancouver doing this. It’s like you basically have a personal chef. When you come in, you have the choice to either read the menu or say, ‘You know what, I’m going to have five courses. Tell chef to make something for me.’ ”

      Alvarez and his team create different three-, five-, and 10-course tasting menus daily. There are always vegetarian options for each menu, and wine and cocktail pairings are included in the price. Secret Location occasionally hosts special events—famed street-style photographer Scott Schuman and New York fashion blogger Leandra Medine visited the clothing store in 2012 for a book signing and a holiday party, respectively—and on July 15, the restaurant will welcome chef Thiago Castanho from Brazil’s acclaimed Remanso do Bosque restaurant. (Tickets to the Four Hands Dinner are $300 and include a 16-course Brazilian tasting menu and drinks; see the Secret Location website for details.) Alvarez will likely draw on his own experience of living in Brazil for some of that night’s courses. Describing his dishes as “innovative and experimental”, he says he’s constantly inspired by the food he encounters, from Venezuelan street food to Spanish tapas.

      “Of course you always have your childhood, places you have been, things that have caught your attention,” he adds. “Now I’m more inspired by West Coast ingredients. So I’m using all my travelling and childhood memories to accommodate West Coast ingredients.”

      Ceviche is a seafood dish popular in South America that Alvarez remembers eating as a child. Now he makes it with West Coast ingredients such as spot prawns or salmon, as in the recipe below. Even though the fish is cured in orange and lime juice, Alvarez recommends purchasing the salmon fillet from a shop that specializes in fish and seafood and using it right away.

      “Explain to them that you’re making ceviche, and get sashimi,” he says. “You have to buy the freshest ingredients possible, which is not hard to find here.”

      Ceviche should be eaten as soon as it’s made and not be left out in warm temperatures. Alvarez suggests pairing the dish with a margarita, a light beer, or a glass of Sauvignon Blanc.

      Jefferson Alvarez's salmon ceviche


      2 Tbsp (30 mL) kosher salt
      1 oz (28 g) fresh dill
      10 oz (285 g) fresh salmon fillet, skin and bones removed
      1 orange, juiced
      2 limes, juiced
      2 ramps or 1 green onion, sliced thinly
      1 shallot, sliced thinly using a mandolin
      1 Granny Smith apple, sliced thinly using a mandolin
      1 tsp (5 mL) mustard oil
      Cilantro leaves for garnish


      1. In a coffee grinder or food processor, grind the salt and dill until powdery. Let dry for at least 2 hours at room temperature.
      2. Cut the salmon into 1-inch cubes. In a medium bowl, toss the fish with an additional pinch of salt. Add half of the orange and lime juices once the salt has been absorbed by the salmon; stir until the salmon is evenly coated. Refrigerate for 1 hour.
      3. In a separate bowl, combine the ramps or green onion, shallot, and about three-quarters of the apple slices. (Reserve the remaining apple slices for garnish.) Toss the mixture with the remaining orange and lime juice.
      4. To serve, transfer the salmon to a plate. Spoon the apple mixture over top of the salmon, sprinkle with mustard oil, and garnish with cilantro leaves and extra apple slices. Serve the dill salt on the side and add to taste.

      Yield: 3 appetizer-size servings.

      Recipe has not been tested by the Georgia Straight.