Barbara Schellenberg was tired of courting controversy. So, naturally, she named her Commercial Drive restaurant Controversial Kitchen.
It’s Schellenberg’s second restaurant, and she learned her lesson after naming her first one Ethical Kitchen. That eatery opened in 2008 at 1600 MacKay Road in North Vancouver. It claims to have environmentally sustainable practices and serve “ethical” meals. Almost everything in the café—from soups, stews, and sandwiches to ketchup, kimchi, and carbonated beverages—is made from scratch. The restaurant doesn’t stock the standard takeout containers, instead charging a $1 refundable deposit for reusable ones. Ingredients are organic and are sourced as locally as possible. There’s no fish or seafood on the menu because Schellenberg feels that marine ecosystems need a rest period.
But as her sister Fiona Schellenberg reports, despite all their efforts to be ethical, the name doesn’t sit well with everyone. “We have a lot of vegans and vegetarians who come in [to Ethical Kitchen], and they have a big problem with the fact that we serve meat.”
While Barbara runs Ethical Kitchen, Fiona manages the new Controversial Kitchen, which opened last October with a menu and operational practices similar to those of its sibling on the North Shore. The sisters knew they were going to encounter a lot of vegetarians on the Drive, so they decided to head off controversy by acknowledging it upfront. “We didn’t want to have to argue the same point all the time,” Fiona says. Their position is they believe it is ethical to serve and eat meat produced in a certain way. They’re also followers of the Weston A. Price diet, which posits that nutrient-dense whole foods and animal fats are good for your health.
On the line from Commercial Drive, Fiona explains that the Schellenbergs grew up eating a lot of meat on a ranch in B.C.’s Cariboo region. Their parents still own the certified-biodynamic ranch, which produces certified-organic, grass-fed and -finished meat under the Pasture to Plate label. (She explains that “grass-finished” means they don’t feed animals grain to bulk them up just before they’re slaughtered.) Both restaurants serve Pasture to Plate meat—beef, lamb, chicken, pork, turkey, goose, and duck. Customers can also buy frozen meat to take away.
The sisters have gone so far as to post two menus on the wall of Controversial Kitchen: one for omnivores, the other for herbivores. But since the restaurant opened, the dual theme has died off, and vegetarian options have become more limited, although the menus are still there.
Fiona explains that because their Commercial Drive cooking facilities are very basic, they bring in most of their food from Ethical Kitchen, where it’s made from scratch. Daily selections vary but usually include four kinds of meat-based soups and a vegetarian lentil dahl with rice. Cheese and fruit crepes are made on-site, as are eggs Florentine and various kinds of sandwiches. (Most items fall in the $8 to $13 range.)
Some dishes on the posted menus, like Moroccan chicken stew, aren’t always available, and a more flexible menu that reflects this is in the works. “We don’t think it’s necessary to have everything available every day,” Fiona explains. “It’s kind of like how you’d cook in your own kitchen.”
Indeed, Controversial Kitchen has a down-home vibe. It’s a bright, cheery place with a checkerboard floor and a sign that reads Take Back the Food Chain posted on its sage-green walls. The furnishings have a grandmother-y sort of feel—if your grandmother ferments kombucha and hangs hand-beaded chandeliers. A charming antique stove decorates the entrance, and mismatched wooden tables and chairs provide seating. Old-time lyrics lilting on the sound system (“I found my thrill on Blueberry Hill”) give the place a slow-paced atmosphere.
When I visited—before I had spoken with Fiona and knew the score—I went to the counter and attempted to order several menu items, only to be told that they didn’t have any of them. Finally, I asked what they did have and selected from that. Comically, I then watched two other customers go through the same routine.
Thankfully, what they did have was delicious. I tried two of the sandwiches, both on fantastically hearty sourdough baguettes. The first was filled with a warm, toothsome roast duck sautéed with soft apples and quince, then mixed with a crunchy slaw made with carrots, celery root, cucumber, fennel, and turnips. It was reminiscent of a Vietnamese bánh mí¬ sandwich, and although I found it a bit sweet, it was enjoyable nonetheless. The second was a cold lamb sandwich made with three kinds of cured lamb: smoked and cured sausage, cured lamb shoulder, and bresaola (a prosciutto-textured lamb cured with spices), all topped with the same crunchy slaw. Fantastic.
I also sampled the borscht, a ruby-coloured, beef-broth-based soup thickened with tiny lentils and packed with rough chunks of beet. I felt healthier the moment I lifted the spoon to my lips. It tasted as good as it looked.
Although the prices are steep ($8 for soup, $9.50 for a sandwich), you’re paying for quality ingredients and generous portions; one baguette could be split to satisfy modest appetites. If your ethics allow it, wade into this controversy.