Dine Out Vancouver's World Chef Exchange builds culinary bridges

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      A cheap airplane ticket is what allowed Vancouver chef Andrea Carlson to check an item off her bucket list and travel to Japan last spring. A jet-lagged dinner on her first night is what blew her mind while she was there.

      The chef and co-owner of Burdock & Co—one of the city’s most respected restaurants—was with co-owner and boyfriend Kevin Bismanis. (The pair’s partner at their other venture, chef Gabriella Meyer of Harvest Community Foods, joined them later in the trip.) The two were staying in the Minato District in central Tokyo and, fatigued from the flight, wandered the streets in search of a meal, without lofty expectations.

      They came upon Kantera, a contemporary Japanese restaurant with Korean influences headed by chef Fumihiro Matsumoto.

      “They were a touch hesitant to let us in at first, because they don’t have an English menu, they didn’t speak English, and we don’t speak Japanese,” Carlson says in an interview at her Main Street restaurant. “We managed to convince them it would be okay and get across that we had a translator app.”

      At this point Carlson pauses to relay with a laugh how that app turned out to be some kind of joke; no matter what words she typed in, the results invariably turned up various anatomical descriptions. Nevertheless, the two got a spot at the bar—the only place left in the 125-seat space—and made their way through the tasting menu.

      Creamy uni (sea urchin), sashimi with ponzu jelly and yuba (soft tofu skin), and grilled romano beans with yogurt curd: those were just some of the highlights. Topping it all off were wine and sake pairings, including a natural wine; the style is increasingly popular in Japan, and Carlson herself is a proponent, with Burdock & Co leading Vancouver’s natural-wine movement. All combined, the evening left her in delicious awe.

      “It was fantastic,” she says. “We had the best time. After all of our [dining] experiences on the whole trip, we went back for a second visit—a final meal before we came home.”

      That’s saying a lot, given the excellence of her other meals in the Land of the Rising Sun. There was the Michelin-rated Unagi Hashimoto, for instance, a restaurant that for generations has specialized in traditional grilled eel, simply served on rice or in a soup made with the fish’s liver. Carlson later learned that the reason the former’s flavour was so exceptional was that the eel is killed upon ordering.

      There was the small, beautiful modern restaurant that specialized in the popular street food takoyaki, a fried ball-shaped snack filled with minced octopus. “It was hot and crispy on the outside and molten on the inside,” Carlson says. Another convivial spot featured Japanese cheese, koji dishes, and natural Champagnes; it was so good that the trio ate there twice in one day.

      Then there were the countless exquisite pastry shops and eclectic cafés, including one that has been in business since the 1940s and where the selection of beans includes some that were harvested decades ago.

      What struck Carlson most about dining out in Japan, however, was chefs’ knowledge and attention to detail.

      “I was amazed by the level of the dedication and the understanding that Japanese chefs have,” she says. “There’s simplicity, and the dedication to mastering a single thing was exhibited time and time again.

      “They know the products so intimately that they will give you a life-changing experience,” she adds. “Perhaps the only thing more humbling than the dedication to food is the quality of the service everywhere you go. It’s an incredibly respectful culture.…The well-being of everyone is more important than the well-being of the self. It creates an entirely different experience.”

      When Carlson was invited by Tourism Vancouver to participate in the Dine Out Vancouver Festival’s World Chef Exchange, her mind and her heart returned to Japan almost instantly. She admits that renowned New York chef Dan Barber is one among the many chefs she admires who came to mind. But, still, she kept coming back to Kantera and chef Matsumoto, to his culinary finesse and technique, their shared focus on the purity of local, fresh, seasonal sustainable ingredients.

      “It seemed like this would be the perfect exchange because this is about an experience for everybody,” Carlson says. “I think there’s a tendency in our industry to fall back on known entities. But we had the best time there and just loved the food.

      “It’s always exciting to work with another chef, especially one from a different culture,” she says. “I can’t wait to see his knife and geek out on those chef-y details. All of the cooks are like, ‘We can’t wait to watch him slice sashimi!’ Those kinds of things get us excited. And for him to come here and see Vancouver and go to the markets and pick up things that inspire him: I can’t wait to see how that comes across.”

      The World Chef Exchange will mark Matsumoto’s first trip to Canada. His collaborative, five-course dinner at Burdock & Co on January 22 is one of five events in the series. Presented by Aeroplan and supported by Air Canada and the Westin Bayshore hotel, the exchange has, since it launched in 2016, brought in chefs from New York City, Mexico City, London, Copenhagen, Galway, and beyond.

      This year, the exchange will also see Edible Canada chef Tobias Grignon cook with three of Canada’s top Indigenous chefs: Saskatoon’s Rich Francis, a member of the Tetlit Gwich’in and Tuscarora nations; Edmonton’s Shane Chartrand, of Métis and Cree heritage; and Christa Bruneau-Guenther, a member of the Peguis First Nation and owner of Winnipeg’s Feast Café Bistro, which serves modern dishes rooted in traditional First Nations fare.

      The Westin Beijing Financial Street hotel’s executive chef, Jiuxin Fan, will pair up with Alex Mok, executive chef of HJU:Z Lounge at the Westin Bayshore, for an evening of Asian-inspired dishes.

      David Gunawan, chef and owner of Farmer’s Apprentice, partners up with Irish native Trevor Moran, who’s now based in Nashville and who prides himself on combining Nordic sensibilities and southern hospitality.

      Maenam executive chef Angus An will welcome chef David Thompson, whose Bangkok establishment, Nahm, is rated fifth on the San Pellegrino list of top Asian restaurants in the world. (This event is sold-out.)

      The World Chef Exchange does more than give Vancouver diners the opportunity to experience new flavours from afar without leaving home; it also helps boost the city’s culinary profile around the world.

      “The series has allowed us, as a tourism-destination marketing organization, to elevate the conversation when it comes to sharing Vancouver’s culinary story globally,” says Dine Out Vancouver Festival coordinator Lucas Pavan. “It allows us to build relationships internationally.”

      Bringing in celebrated chefs from other places has a ripple effect. Here’s an example: at last year’s festival, L’Abattoir chef Lee Cooper hosted celebrated American chef Jamie Bissonnette. The evening was a success; that, in turn, led to Cooper travelling to New York last fall, when the two chefs held a pop-up collaborative dinner at Bissonnette’s Chelsea restaurant, Toro. (The James Beard Award–winning chef also has restaurants in Boston, Bangkok, and Cambridge, Massachusetts.) The Thailand-based Thompson, meanwhile, who is friends with An, has never been to Vancouver before; Pavan is confident he will leave impressed by the city’s diverse and robust dining scene.

      If word of mouth remains a powerful marketing tool in the digital age, then having people like Thompson and Bissonnette rave about Vancouver as a food city—with our craft breweries and distilleries, fresh fish and seafood, urban and regional farms, and easy access to wine country—is advertising gold.

      As for what, specifically, people can expect to eat at these cross-cultural dinners, it’s possible that the chefs themselves don’t know yet.

      That’s the case for Carlson and Matsumoto. She knows that there will be sea urchin in some form; she has already ordered some from her preferred supplier, Fresh Ideas Start Here. There will be other fish, such as kampachi. However, that’s about as much as they’ve established so far, both looking forward to making spontaneous decisions. She’ll be taking him to the Nat Bailey farmers’ market, Granville Island, and Chinatown, among other places, to shop for food.

      Joining Matsumoto is Kantera’s maître d’, Kenji Kawamura, who will be working closely with Burdock & Co’s sommelier, Jesse Walters, to develop sake and natural-wine pairings.

      For Carlson, revisiting Japan through the act of preparing and sharing food at her own restaurant is likely to nourish not just body but also soul.

      “In the first 48 hours being there, I felt really emotional,” Carlson says. “I felt like I found my home, like I was in the right place. Despite being somewhat chaotic, I do like a lot of quiet rigour in my life.

      “Plus, at 7 in the morning, the streets smelled like dashi and grilled meat,” she says. “I can’t wait to go back.”

      The World Chef Exchange takes place on five dates during the Dine Out Vancouver Festival, which runs from January 19 to February 4. See the Dine Out Vancouver website for details.