CooksCamp encourages culinary resilience

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      Picture this: you’re walking in the woods with BC’s foremost foraging expert. You learn to collect ingredients that will be used for dinner later that night. An hour later you’ll take in a butchery demonstration from the owner of Vancouver’s most respected butcher shop—and then gorge on the meats you just saw get portioned.

      Tomorrow you’ll watch how to clean a sturgeon and then complete a workshop on how to choose the right knives. Everyone around you is just like you—passionate about food and the people who make delicious dining possible. Are you dreaming?

      It sounds like a foodie’s fantasy. In fact, it’s CooksCamp, a real and unrivalled celebration of gastronomy that will take place this September at North Arm Farm in Pemberton.

      Hosted by the Chefs’ Table Society of BC (CTS), CooksCamp is designed to support the future and well-being of chefs. Taking place this year from September 6-8, the three-day affair features a mix of hands-on learning activities, rare cooking and feasting, and—for many attending culinary workers—a break from their chaotic day-to-day lives.

      CooksCamp was initially inspired by a 2010 initiative called the Canadian Chefs Congress, chef Robert Belcham tells the Straight over Zoom. Organized by culinary vets Rob Clark and Vikram Vij, the congress took place at Providence Farm in Duncan, and featured discussions on food policy and sustainability, plus activities like wine tastings, cook-offs, and communal meals.

      “We had 150 chefs that had never really been together before all cooking for each other,” explains Belcham, a long-time CTS board member and former president. “Everybody who was there still talks about it to this day as being one of the pivotal points in their careers.”

      With CooksCamp, the goal has been to recreate that feeling, he says. But while the focus of the congress was directly on ocean sustainability, CooksCamp centres on the sustainability of the chef as a career.

      “We wanted to try to figure out a way to support the people who love the industry and support the people who are really trying to make the industry better every day,” Belcham says.

      The first CooksCamp was held virtually in 2021 with online talks on topics like work/life balance, mental health, and how to publish a cookbook.

      “​​It was really great. But it wasn’t what we wanted to do,” Belcham shares. “We wanted to be able to break bread together, and be able to just hang out, talk to each other, and make conversation.”

      Last year, the vision was made real. A total of 180 cooks—and cook-adjacent professionals—came together for two nights at basically the foot of Mount Currie. And many faced the same dilemma as chef Johnny Bridges when they arrived: a choice between setting up their tent or jumping right into the culinary action.

      “There were so many talks happening when I arrived… that I was faced with the question of do I get my ducks in a row or do I go and see these two people speak?” recalls Bridges, who is vice-chair at CTS. He chose the speakers, who included people like Thomas Haas and farm owner and author Bill Jones.

      Each night of the festival the meals carry special meaning. In 2022, the first dinner featured cooking by Indigenous chefs including chef Kil Tlaa’sgaa Brodie Swanson (Haida), chef Paul Natrall (Sḵwx̱wú7mesh), and chef Scott Jonathan Iserhoff (Mushkego Cree).

      The 2023 opening night feast will be driven by Chinese culture, he reveals.

      On night two of CooksCamp, guests are treated to what Bridges calls “the largest staff meal in Canada.” Staff meals are special group meals that an eatery serves its employees to not only satiate them but to foster camaraderie and teamwork. With nearly 200 attendees, CooksCamp achieved this feat on a massive scale. This year, they want to get bigger.

      There are multiple reasons to grow the event, but raising money for a large-scale project is near the top of the list. Ticket and sponsor revenue are being immediately invested in the CTS Culinary Arts Centre—a planned physical culinary educational resource centre, accessible to all hospitality professionals of any level. Any profits from the camp will be used as “seed money to start to get the library actually off the ground,” Belcham shares.

      The long-term hope is that this facility will also serve as a centre to share knowledge about cuisine from Indigenous, Japanese, Chinese, and South Asian cultures that contribute to the building of BC.

      “One of our ultimate goals is to build this culinary library,” Bridges emphasizes, “this hub for the community.”