Ian McHale’s decision to pursue professional cooking goes back to a conversation over tequila he had with two friends while snowed in during a blizzard in his native Maryland: they would all go to culinary school. A decade later, McHale is the only one still in whites. “I got hooked,” says the executive chef of Wildebeest.
After graduating from his state’s Lincoln Culinary Institute in 2011, McHale made use of his Irish passport, with a six-month visit turning into six years of revelatory and intense on-the-job training. After 16 months at the Merrion Hotel in Dublin, McHale became chef de partie at the Michelin-starred Chapter One Restaurant in that city. Through his experiences abroad, he developed a style rooted in simplicity.
“My whole philosophy I attribute to my time over there,” McHale tells the Georgia Straight by phone. “That’s where I honed my craft. At Chapter One, I learned about provenance. Everything on the menu is grown locally. There’s that integrity of ingredients.”
McHale made his way back to the States, and—while waiting for his Canadian visa to be processed so he could follow the woman he loved back to her Vancouver home in 2016—worked at a whole-animal butcher shop. His time there deepened lessons learned in Ireland.
“The butcher shop really drove home the point that there’s no sacrificing anything: everything has no less than two uses, and that’s something we do at Wildebeest: minimal waste,” he says. “We use the wagyu fat that comes off the whole animal to fry potatoes in, baste our steaks in, finish pasta, make infused butters, and basically replace butter altogether if we can. The carrot peelings go into a stock, the tops go into garnish, and trim bits go the bar. We do our best to close the loop.”
Things are coming full circle for McHale in other ways, namely through the upcoming Dine Out Vancouver Festival. Featuring a range of culinary experiences and three-course prix fixe dining deals, the event is now in its 18th year. Wildebeest is participating in World Chef Exchange, a fest highlight wherein select local restaurants host culinary talents from all over the map for elaborate, collaborative, one-night-only dinners.
On January 27, McHale will reunite with chef Ahmet Dede, whom he met at Chapter One. Originally from Turkey, Dede worked at several highly rated dining establishments in Ireland, Holland, and Norway before taking on the role of executive chef at Mews Restaurant, a hyperlocal Michelin-rated spot in West Cork. Sourcing exclusively from the tiny region of the southwest tip of Ireland, Dede cooks with ingredients such as pine, cod, seaweed, and sorrel. (The restaurant shuts down in winter.)
“Our ethos is similar,” McHale says of his long-time friend. “We had the same kind of upbringing, working at Chapter One. We get all excited about seasonality.”
The pair’s Dine Out menu showcases Pacific Northwest cuisine, from sablefish and shore greens to quail and smoked duck.
“We have been planning this menu for months, working with farmers, ranchers, and fishmongers to help us highlight B.C.’s best,” McHale says. “Dine Out is a fantastic food festival that gives people a taste of what we do. You can get a rockin’ meal, and we get to tell our story.”
Elevating Vancouver’s culinary profile internationally is one of the goals of World Chef Exchange, which Dine Out launched five years ago. Since its inception, the cross-cultural initiative has hosted leading chefs from England, Australia, China, Japan, and beyond. The hope is that those visiting chefs will share their take on Vancouver’s diverse dining scene back home. Sometimes the invites are reciprocated, with local chefs going on to participate in culinary events elsewhere, shining a light on Pacific Northwest cuisine. The collaborations are also a way of cultivating connections.
“World Chef Exchange is really all about relationships,” says Lucas Pavan, Dine Out Vancouver’s festival coordinator. “There’s the relationship between the chefs themselves, but there’s also the relationship between guests and servers, between two people at the dinner table, between chefs and ingredients, between chefs and suppliers, wineries, vintners, and distilleries… The whole idea of relationships and community is a key part of the entire festival.”
Three other dinners round out the World Chef Exchange. Chicha’s Shelome Bouvette will join forces with PEI native Charlotte Langley for a seafood meal. (It’s an all-female team at the Chicha dinner, with wine pairings by Heidi Noble of Naramata’s Joie Farms Winery.) Salmon n’ Bannock Bistro, Vancouver’s only Indigenous restaurant, hosts Maori chef Rewi Spraggon from Auckland, New Zealand, and Edmonton-based Enoch Cree Nation chef Shane Chartrand for Off the Hook, an Indigenous feast. WildTale executive chef Francisco Higareda will share the Yaletown seafood restaurant’s kitchen with Monterrey’s Guillermo Gonzalez Beristain, a star chef whose portfolio includes 10 restaurants. The pair are developing a menu that will highlight authentic Mexican cuisine, complete with mezcal, tequila, and wine pairings.
Festivalgoers will be able to experience all sorts of new tastes at this year’s Dine Out, which is presented by Tourism Vancouver with its festival partner, Wines of British Columbia. There are 315 restaurants offering three-course meals—a new record. Brunch, lunch, and dinner menus are $15, $25, $35, or $45 per person, not including beverages, taxes, and gratuity. (Participating restaurants will be revealed January 9.)
Although the prix fixe meals are what started it all back in 2002, the festival also features an array of culinary experiences. Beer and food tours, day trips to Fraser Valley wineries, farm-to-table pop-up dinners, pizza- and dumpling-making classes, and Street Food City 9—the city’s original street food festival—are among the other offerings.
Dine Out’s overarching sense of community extends to the festival’s charity partner, the B.C. Hospitality Foundation. The organization supports industry workers in financial need due to health conditions and also provides a range of food-, wine-, and hospitality-based scholarships.
“Dine Out Vancouver Festival gives our charity an opportunity to reach a new audience of both hospitality workers and consumers,” says the foundation’s executive director, Dana Harris. “Personally, I love that it keeps the hospitality workers and owners busy at what used to be a slow time of year, gets consumers out trying new places, and has lots of fun events added to the program to attend outside of dining.”
Dine Out Vancouver Festival takes place at various venues from January 16 to February 2. For more information, visit dineoutvancouver.com/.