Dine Out Vancouver Festival’s World Chef Exchange brings together top culinary talents

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      When Vancouver chef Jefferson Alvarez sees grocery-store shelves loaded with several different types of rice milk, he can’t help but be transported back to his childhood in Caracas, Venezuela. Circumstances for him and his three sisters were as tough as that chaotic city itself, yet that’s where the seeds of his culinary career were planted.

      “Cooking, for me, was a necessity,” Alvarez says on the line from Cacao Progressive Latin, the restaurant he heads in Kitsilano. “I come from a very poor family. Sometimes we didn’t have money to buy milk, so we had to make rice milk. When I moved here and I saw rice milk in the store, I remembered how my mom had to make it. We made tasty food with anything we had.”

      Alvarez went on to travel extensively throughout South America and beyond, the need to cook evolving into a desire.

      “I fell in love with it,” he says. “I love the creativity.”

      Having first come to Canada at age 16, he honed his craft at restaurants in Italy, Spain, the United States, then back here—first in Toronto before landing in Vancouver six years ago. With food being an international language, Alvarez will be sharing his passion during the Dine Out Vancouver Festival’s World Chef Exchange.

      Following its successful launch last year, the exchange returns with a series of five collaborative dinners featuring top talents from around the globe. Each one-night event will see a local chef host a visiting one, the cooks drawing from their respective menus and cultural influences to create a memorable meal featuring local, seasonal ingredients.

      At Cacao, Alvarez highlights flavours from places beyond his home country, including Ecuador, Colombia, Brazil, and Mexico, ingredients such as various types of Latin American maize, guava, plantain, leche de tigre, pipian verde, and all sorts of chilies. What makes his approach unique is that he incorporates them into distinctly Canadian items like bison, elk, and B.C. seafood.

      For his World Chef Exchange, Al­varez will join forces with Mexico City’s Jair Tellez, the head of Amaya, which specializes in Baja-style dishes. Tellez is considered a champion of the eat-local movement and one of the country’s most influential chefs. The two have never met each other but will collaborate for an eight-course meal plus pintxo, or snack. Alvarez says he loves the idea of the exchange, having brought in international chefs independently at Cacao in the past.

      “The chefs come in and showcase their cuisine and their style, and we can be really playful with that,” he says. “It’s also a great opportunity to learn, for me and for the diners.

      “Food brings people together,” he adds. “Nobody is a stranger when it comes to cooking; you bond right away.”

      Forage’s Chris Whittaker.
      Welbert Choi

      Tourism Vancouver’s Dine Out Vancouver Festival is Canada’s largest annual celebration of food and drink, attracting more than 100,000 people over 17 days. Celebrating local and regional ingredients, B.C. wines, and the city’s exceptional culinary talent, the fest is known for its $20, $30, and $40 prix fixe menus, which this year are available at more than 280 restaurants.

      This second World Chef Exchange features several other intriguing pairings. On January 22, Vancouver Aquarium executive chef Ned Bell welcomes Galway, Ireland’s J P McMahon. Known for injecting Spanish flavours into contemporary Irish fare, McMahon is the founder of the Galway Food Festival and culinary director of EatGalway Restaurant Group.

      In another, Jamie Bissonnette, a James Beard Award–winning chef who runs restaurants in Boston, New York, Bangkok, and Cambridge, Massachusetts, will pair up with Lee Cooper at L’Abattoir on January 29. Already sold-out is a dinner by AnnaLena chef and owner Michael Robbins and London’s James Lowe, whose Lyle’s is a Michelin Guide restaurant. Vancouver native Ryan McIlwraith, who now heads San Francisco’s Spanish-influenced Bellota, joins Chris Whittaker at Timber on February 1. (The restaurants participating in the World Chef Exchange will also offer regular Dine Out menus throughout the festival.)

      Whittaker, who has worked with McIlwraith in the past, says the two are hoping to offer an evening that is as eye-popping as it is mouthwatering by cooking with fire, transforming the Timber courtyard into a cooking space complete with smokers, open coal grills, and spits. Although the details are still being ironed out, Whittaker says that in addition to the dinner featuring whisky and food pairings, dishes like bison shanks and possibly paella will be served family-style.

      “His kitchen predominantly cooks over a wood fire, and we want to bring an element of that into what we’re going to do,” Whittaker says by phone. “We’ll heat the courtyard and be in an outdoor cooking tent, so it should be a lot of fun. We’ll be cooking right in front of people, so we’ll be pretty approachable for the event. And it will be fairly social, which is a really fun and inspiring way to dine.

      “Everything we do at Forage and Timber promotes that social aspect of dining,” he adds. “It’s what Ryan does too: a lot of big flavours and sharing plates, so it’s a good matchup.…There will be people at long tables at Timber, and for people who won’t know each other, it’s a great way to dine.”

      If food is fuel for strengthening bonds, the World Chef Exchange, similarly, has connection-making at its heart.

      “I think the spirit of the event is very much based on relationships,” says Lucas Pavan, coordinator of the festival, which has partnered with Aeroplan and Air Canada, among other organizations. “It’s about generating goodwill across cultures and nations using food as that common denominator. Who doesn’t love to eat and be merry?

      “The World Chef Exchange is about authentic experiences,” he adds. “It’s a true collaboration, chefs working together on developing the menu, sharing the kitchen, and sharing staff. If you wanted to eat at James Lowe’s restaurant, you’d have to fly to London; we’re superexcited he’s coming here for four days. The exchange puts Vancouver on the world culinary map.”

      The Dine Out Vancouver Festival takes place from January 20 to February 5. For information on the World Chef Exchange and other festival events, visit the Dine Out Vancouver website.