Stacy Thomas wasn’t much into rice before she got to know Nicki Zamora, a Manila-born and New York–trained chef.
That was in the summer of 2019, and at the time, Thomas was taking up a creative-writing program at UBC. For her part, Zamora was working as head chef of the Field & Social salad-bar chain in Vancouver.
“It definitely was not a staple in my life until I met Nicki and she started introducing me to Filipino food,” Thomas said about rice on the phone with Zamora for an interview with the Straight.
They became a couple, and not long after, in 2020, the two moved from East Vancouver to Squamish, where they opened Cul De Sac Kitchen later the same year.
The takeout and food-delivery business operates at the Klahanie Campground off the Sea to Sky Highway (36583 Darrell Bay Road). Clients can also have their meals at picnic tables outdoors.
Cul De Sac Kitchen specializes in organic-rice and rice-noodle bowls with a selection of toppings. It goes by the slogan “Rice Is Life”, which reflects the culinary tradition Zamora grew up with.
Rice is part of the daily life of many Filipinos, whether they’re in their native land or elsewhere in the world.
The staple is eaten for breakfast, lunch, and dinner as a companion to meat, fish, and vegetable dishes.
Rice is also used as an ingredient in many desserts.
“Just like life, rice can be tough or sticky or just perfect,” Zamora told the Straight.
Cul De Sac Kitchen is the latest chapter in the culinary journey of Zamora, which started when she left Manila more than 20 years ago.
She went to New York City to study at the Institute of Culinary Education. Later, she apprenticed at various restaurants in the city.
Zamora continued on to Toronto in 2004, where she took sous chef and head chef roles in a number of establishments. She returned to the Philippines in 2010 and started teaching at the Academy for International Culinary Arts in Manila.
In 2013, Zamora came to Vancouver and became head chef at Koerner’s Pub in UBC. She also helped the owners of the pub open Loafe Café at the university, and Café MOA at the Museum of Anthropology.
Life with Zamora has made Thomas a rice lover. “I’m excited to see exploring this with her and sharing her culture,” said Thomas, who is a journalist with the community paper Squamish Chief.
Zamora does most of the food preparations at Cul De Sac Kitchen. The venture has also allowed Thomas to rediscover baking.
Thomas developed a hand-pie recipe for dessert using ube (pronounced ooh-beh). It’s purple yam, a favourite ingredient in many Filipino sweets like ube halaya jam, cakes, ice cream, and halo-halo, a mix of shaved ice, milk, candied fruits, jellies, and often topped with leche flan milk custard.
“It’s allowed me to express my own creativity in the kitchen and connect with the young me, who used to love baking and making up recipes for my family to try,” Thomas said.
At the Klahanie Campground, which offers majestic views of Howe Sound, Stawamus Chief, and Shannon Falls, Zamora brings a taste of Manila to her rice bowls.
One selection is the Kanto Bowl, which is topped with Filipino-style barbecued pork and veggie spring roll. It also comes with pineapple, house-made pickled red onions and carrot, grape tomatoes, spinach, and green onion.
The word kanto is Filipino for “street corner”, where grilled meats on skewers and other street food are often found in the Philippines.
For her meat marinade, Zamora uses banana ketchup, which is a favoured marinating sauce among many Filipinos, and kombucha vinegar.
Also on the menu is the Manila Bowl, with roasted eggplant simmered in coconut cream and tamari, a Japanese sauce much like Chinese soy sauce.
Zamora said that Cul De Sac Kitchen’s popular offerings also include the Kari Bowl or Thai green curry, the Greek-inspired Opa Bowl, and the Rambla Bowl, which is her take on paella, the famous Spanish rice dish.
The eatery gets pork and free-range eggs from Stony Mountain Farm in Squamish. The establishment also procures meat from Two Rivers Specialty Meats in North Vancouver, which sources its products from B.C. farmers.
Food has been very central to the life shared by Thomas and Zamora.
“We’ve been together for two years, and we both love to eat,” Thomas said.
When they were starting out as a couple, they liked exploring new restaurants and visiting hole-in-the-wall eateries.
“We talk about food probably 24-7,” Thomas said.