Commercial Drive's Controversial Kitchen puts its ethics on the table

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      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.


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      Amanda H

      Jan 29, 2010 at 10:35am

      There is absolutely nothing ethical about this restaurant. There is no ethical way to kill animals. People can eat what they want - and you can serve what you want to at your establishment... but seriously, are you really that shocked by the controversy?

      Slaughtering animals for food is, by definition, NOT ETHICAL. So - call your damn restaurant something else!

      Rustic Kitchen, Hommade Kitchen, Home-grown Kitchen... Calling it Ethical kitchen is just a lie. And "Controversial Kitchen" is just pompous. I'm so sick of this meat eaters vs vegetarians bull. Why rattle the cages? Bring peace to the drive - not trouble!

      Lindsay Brown

      Jan 29, 2010 at 1:25pm

      I agree with Amanda. Trying to market yourself in that fashion is not appealing.


      Michael from Monkey in the Garden

      Jan 29, 2010 at 4:53pm

      We've now eaten twice at Controversial Kitchen- and honestly, the food 'saved our lives'. We have a small organic farm and restaurant out in the beautiful Nicola Valley, and during our visits to Vancouver- find it difficult to find truly wholesome, local, organic meals that our prepared with better health in mind.
      When we first ate at the Controversial Kitchen in early December, I'd been battling with a pounding headache, was feeling nauseous, and wanted to crawl into a hole and disappear..... We'd been eating on the run and at various restaurants (different to our carefully prepared meals at home), and were feeling louzy. At the Controversial Kitchen we ordered up a couple of dishes and truly felt completely revitalized and energized and felt like dancing in the streets.
      For what you get- the food is bargain basement cheap- as it's a rare establishment that honestly has your better health in mind. Not only that, but the food is wonderfully delicious, tasting like it was made right on the farm!
      If you want to find out more about where we're coming from- check out our website at and drop us a line at
      Don't delay- get out there and support the Controversial Kitchen and Ethical Kitchen- you'll kick yourself if you miss out and this incredibly important restaurant disappears into the wind.
      Remember- you're really voting with your dollars.....


      Jan 29, 2010 at 4:54pm

      get a life tree huggers. they make good food - better than most of what else is available in the neighborhood. let them rise or fall on that.


      Jan 29, 2010 at 5:55pm

      I think the problem is the staff are so holier-than-thou about it all. So you have home-grown ingredients, well-cooked food and an 'ethical' dietary standard. Does that mean that people should be greatfeul to eat there? Yes. Does that mean that you should look down on your customers who don't look like they make their own shoes? Eh, no.

      Give us all a break and let the food speak for itself. With a smile, if it's not too much trouble.

      12 9Rating: +3


      Jan 30, 2010 at 1:56am

      Ethical ---> conforming to accepted standards of social or professional behavior.

      Amanda, quit being such a drama queen. I guarantee you the majority of our society doesn't find moderate meat eating unethical. You're in a huff because it doesn't fall in line with your personal ethics, and it's just a little self-centred for you to think the rest of us should care.

      Mike H

      Jan 30, 2010 at 11:03am

      Hey Amanda

      Why not chill out and take a second to remember that humans aren't the only things on the planet that kills and eats meat there are several species that consume flesh to sustain themselves. All you need to do is have a look in your mouth and you will see the evidence that we were meant to eat meat. We have evolved with teeth not only for crushing things like Vegetables but also teeth for gripping tearing and cutting flesh. So the act of eating or serving meat in itself is not unethical. I could see you taking offense it they were not using meat provided from labels that use ethical methods in raising there animals for meat but that isn't the case here. They aren't serving up chickens that have been force feed food that is unnatural for them to eat or genetically altering these animals to make them unnaturally bigger then they are supposed to be. They are just taking and animal that is lower on the food chain and that has been killed for food and they are feeding it to the people that want it. If you don't want it I am sure they are not trying to force feed it to you.

      If you want to live a life denying what you are and by that I mean an omnivore like the rest of the species then you go ahead and do that. But leave the rest of us alone because we chose to be normal.


      Jan 30, 2010 at 4:42pm

      As an environmentalist and former vegetarian I want to say that not all vegetarians or "tree-huggers" would react in such a nasty to a restaurant that happens to serve meat in a way that is more ethical than 99% of restaurants.

      I am curious why FinerDiner commented on them being holier than thou? I went in there once to apply for a job and got a slightly negative reaction, maybe they felt I didn't seem like an environmental sort of person and was randomly applying to some place "special"? But Perhaps I overthink. I've never been there to eat though and I would gladly pay good money to get ethically treated food, planning on going.


      Jan 30, 2010 at 9:23pm

      Do your research people. Stop living off societal fads, going in and out like the tides. There are indigenous cultures that lived mainly off meat - were they unethical? An ethic is an individual freedom. I'd rather eat a steak that has come from a cow i killed with respect and gratitude than a vege burger full of ingredients grown in all parts of the world shipped in. So, what;s really ethical? We need to make choices based on real investigation and that lie close to our hearts - and, most importantly, not get caught up judging others for there choices. I know the impulse of this resteraunt, and it has great intentions. Let us live with the intentions of people trying to do good - and lets leave the fixations on dietary dogmas behind us. Bless your food - what ever it is your eating, and be grateful you got it. Were not in Haiti starving!

      Blessings on the meal (whether its meat or lettuce).


      Jan 31, 2010 at 8:18pm

      Joy, I guess your 'negative response' is akin to what I've expereinced there.

      See, I really like the look of the Controvercial Kitchen. The reclaimed furniture, veneer table tops, the stack of home-made goodies at the counter. And the menu is good too with their hearty soups and beautiful fresh-made crepes. It's what keeps me coming back.

      But everytime (and I mean every, single time) I go in, I feel like I've interrupted a private conversation when I go to order. I get the impression I'm not good enough for them, and I have no idea why. Perhaps they can't tell I'm ethical cause I dress more conventionally than the average staff memeber. And to that end, excersing my freedom of choice in what I wear would seem to alienate me from them. Even though they are supposedly part of an accepting, peace-loving and thoughtful counter-culture. It's mind boggling when you stop to think about it. And it negates some of the goodness of the 'ethical' work they are doing.