“It’s literally everything,” Andrea Carlson asserts.
She’s reflecting on the 10-year anniversary of her restaurant, Burdock & Co, and its focus on produce grown by local farmers.
“It’s about food security in our region,” the celebrated chef says via phone. “If I wasn’t able to use these organic wholesale growers, I wouldn’t continue this line of work, because it wouldn’t have meaning. It’s really about keeping this community healthy and keeping things going and having those relationships with the growers.”
When Carlson and partner Kevin Bismanis opened Burdock & Co on the corner of Main and 11th a decade ago, the conversation around food was decidedly different. “Support local” wasn’t part of our regular vernacular the way it is today; people were starting to buy organic, sure, but it was far from the norm. For Carlson, though, it’s long been a focal point of her cooking. She credits her time spent at Vancouver Island’s Sooke Harbour House as pivotal to her slow-food education.
“I had a real epiphany moment there in terms of the quality of the product that was all coming from growers in East Sooke, so literally just down the road,” she explains. “There was this handful of incredible organic farmers that we would source our product from every day, and we also did a new menu every day. It was a really fantastic culinary exercise for the brain. And that was the point when I realized how absolutely important the product is for your experience, both cooking it and eating it. It was definitely the moment when a lot crystallized for me in terms of the importance of local production and supporting those small-scale organic growers and keeping that network alive.”
Today, Carlson does this on multiple fronts. For one thing, there are the community supported agriculture (CSA) boxes, which people can pick up from her noodle shop and mini grocer Harvest Community Foods in Chinatown.
“We always wanted to have that component as another avenue for people to access all of this incredible product,” she says of the CSA boxes. “Ten years ago, the network of farmers’ markets was not as robust as it is now, and you would only see a lot of this really excellent, premium product in the high-end fine dining restaurants.”
Harvest’s CSAs include rotating produce from the likes of North Arm Farm in Pemberton and Klippers Organics in Cawston; each one also comes with a recipe for how to use lesser-known ingredients.
Of course, this focus on local is also central to her restaurants (Carlson and team also run Chinatown’s wine and snack spot Bar Gobo). At Burdock & Co, where Carlson is head chef, the seasonal tasting menu is themed out in two ways: the moon, and one single ingredient. The current fall menu, Radiant Radicchios Under a Frost Moon, plays off of Carlson’s long-time love of this slightly bitter member of the chicory family.
“I’m a total radicchio nut—I love it so much,” she says. “I was chatting with our grower at Glorious Organics and he mentioned that he was growing over 40 varieties of radicchio. I was like, ‘Okay, that’s it. I know what my next menu is going to be.’”
This concept translates in playful, sometimes surprising, always delicious ways. The menu opens with the variegata di chioggia variety, which is served with confit sablefish, Saltspring Island citrus kosho (a fermented Japanese paste), celeriac, and miso-cured local ginger plum sauce. It’s succulent, buttery, yet somehow refreshing. A little later in the eating journey, the sugarloaf variety is tenderly made into a butter that tops fermented potato, blue cheese, and Cedar Isle wheat berry risotto. It’s decadent and warming, at once comforting and adventurous. Even the still-thinking-about-it-days-later dessert—a Bramley apple cake with local honey caramel—is given the radicchio treatment thanks to the Castelfranco variety, which is incorporated into the almond marzipan and the whipped cream.
It’s an inspired menu, making it clear why Burdock & Co caught the attention of the mysterious Michelin judges and earned itself a star in 2022—making Carlson the first woman in Canada to receive one. A year later, Burdock has officially retained its star for 2023; both small red awards hang modestly on the restaurant’s northern wall.
“We’ve had such a fantastic year,” Carlson says of the Michelin nod. “I was thrilled to retain it, because when you don’t really know why you got it in the first place, you don’t really know if something’s going to change. Fortunately, we just keep doing what we’re doing, and I trust that’s the reason we got it in the first place: that we have our own ethos and our own language, so to speak, in terms of how we express food at the restaurant.”
It begins to make sense when it’s tasted. The focus on local, the respect for the ingredients, the attention to detail, the decade of doing things her own way: it’s all right there, humble yet elevated, on the plate.