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Food

The 100-Mile Chef Meets the Pandemic ‘Apocalypse’

Andrea Carlson expects ‘the best summer ever.’ But only because, by playing it smart and local, she kept her restaurant alive.

Serena Renner 2 Jul 2020 | TheTyee.ca

Serena Renner is a journalist and editor who writes about culture, social justice and the environment, as well as creative change-makers and their big ideas. She is completing a practicum with The Tyee.

On the last Thursday of June, at the end of a season she’s been calling the “apocalypse,” chef Andrea Carlson is in an upbeat daze. She reminds me of someone who’s just woken up from a strange dream. “I combed my hair today and painted my toenails,” she laughs. “I’m ready to go. Let’s do this.”

Here at her Main Street restaurant, Burdock & Co., on the reclaimed wood tables where people once dined on small plates like miso caramel duck leg and grilled Romano beans with goat curd and harissa, there now are stacks of takeaway containers. In them, she’s been packing more pandemic-proof comfort foods such as tofu in kimchi sauce, her famous fried chicken in sandwich form, and even burgers — complete with bacon, American cheese and iceberg lettuce.

Carlson is famous for moving the 100-Mile Diet onto restaurant menus in Vancouver. So how local are the burgers? “We’re trying to use Anita’s flour and buns from the Flourist, and the beef is local,” she says. “But that’s about it.” Desperate times demand desperate measures.

The COVID-19 shutdown presented a tough transition for someone who’s built Burdock & Co. as well as her second business, Harvest Community Foods in Chinatown, on supporting local farms and bringing their seasonal delicacies to a wider segment of society. Not only do her subtle flavours and textures not translate well to takeout, the lower price point means she can’t afford some of her favourite greens and garnishes — which often cost more than her meats. She’s counting down the days to July 9, when Burdock & Co. will open for patio service.

“When we do that, we’ll be back to doing Burdock food, which is using a lot more of the farm ingredients.”

Luckily, she could continue buying seasonal produce from the likes of Oyster & King, Glorious Organics, Zaklan Heritage Farm, the Local Harvest, Hazelmere Farm, and Hannah Brook Farm for her Community Supported Agriculture bags, which shoppers can order by Tuesday for Thursday afternoon pickup. On the Thursday of my visit, paper bags burst with mushrooms, baby carrots, Hakurei turnips, gem lettuce, snap peas, leeks and golden beets — all harvested within 100 miles of Mount Pleasant.

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CSAs have been a staple at Harvest Community Foods for the past seven years. But when the pandemic hit, orders surged 20-fold, to 400 a week. Carlson’s shifting job description meant pouring more time and effort into stocking and moving those CSA bags — so many more that she had to split pickups between Harvest and Burdock & Co.

“This is the most accessible way we’re distributing food to people,” she says. “We hope to continue doing this as long as there’s a market for it.”

Making delicious local produce accessible has been a mission since Carlson’s earliest days cooking. One of her first “aha” moments about the superior quality of local produce came working at Sooke Harbour House on Vancouver Island under Sinclair Philip, known as a godfather of B.C.’s locavore dining scene. Among the bounty of spring ingredients available to the restaurant were turnips plucked from down the road. Carlson — who had been cooking for a decade, at Star Anise and C Restaurant before Sooke — took one crunchy bite of the sweet root vegetable and was forever changed.

“When you have that moment with a turnip, that is so humble and generally overlooked, it’s a real mind opener,” Carlson recalls. She wondered what other revelations were ripening right under her nose.

Her first chef job, at Vancouver’s Raincity Grill, helped her taste-test the Lower Mainland. She was already sampling Farm House Natural Cheeses from Agassiz, touring sprout and pork farms in the Fraser Valley, and meeting with Bruce Swift — who used to grow wasabi in wastewater from a coho salmon operation — when The 100-Mile Diet by Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon came out, setting off another lightbulb in her mind. That inspiration ultimately led to the first Canadian 100-Mile Diet tasting menu, featuring only foods and wines produced within 100 miles of the restaurant.

“It was just all happening at the same time,” Carlson says. “It was like, ‘Yeah, this is super cool. We have all of these nut producers and amazing cheeses and people doing these cool systems right here!’”

While it’s been difficult to create that kind of menu during a pandemic, all the soul-searching of the last few months has made Carlson’s mission more resolute than ever.

“If we’re not going to do this type of food, we’re not going to do this,” she says frankly. “If you were to take away the single driving thing that I believe in, there’s absolutely no reason for me to do this.”

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A batch of Community Supported Agriculture bags awaiting pickup at Burdock & Co. restaurant. Stuffed with seasonal produce from local food growers, their popularity exploded during the COVID-19 shutdown. Photo by Serena Renner.

Seeing the community support for her own businesses as well as farmers markets gives her hope that the local food scene that’s been mushrooming over the last 15 years will withstand the recession.

She’s particularly pleased to see that plant-based foods have grown in popularity. “When I got into this business it was not a culturally accepted norm for restaurant chefs to spend the money on the organic local product, which was obviously a lot higher in price. It just was not in the mindset to spend that much money on, say, carrots or onions. People were more interested in the fancy meats or the fancy seafoods.

“Things have shifted, and I’m so happy for that. Customers want increasingly to see vegetarian and vegan foods on the menu, and they shop at the farmers markets themselves. They want to see that same produce in the restaurant and they want to know where it’s coming from.”

To see how far the culinary culture has moved since 2005, when Smith and MacKinnon published their first 100-Mile Diet piece on The Tyee is “so shocking,” says Carlson. And the pandemic has brought that journey into sharper focus. “It’s been a reminder that this is so important,” she says. “We are just this tiny little moment and we have to be self-sufficient and support our own food security.”

Starting July 9, diners can reconnect with farm-fresh Burdock fare and natural wines surrounded by wild fennel and anise growing in the side garden. The restaurant has a patio license for 10 people and hopes to soon allow eight guests inside, separated by plants and floral arrangements.

In the meantime, Carlson will be enjoying the season’s first strawberries from North Arm Farm and the fragrance of Nootka rose petals from Glorious Organics (“one of the best smelling things in the world.”) She says she’s grateful for the sensory experiences with food and plants that keep her grounded, even in an apocalypse.

“I’m so, so thankful that this didn’t happen in December,” Carlson says. “It literally happened right at the beginning of spring. So we’re going into the absolute golden season. We’re going to have the best summer ever.”

Tomorrow: Someone give this man a beer. A 100-Mile beer. J.B. MacKinnon, co-author of the 100-Mile Diet and guest editor of this series issues a challenge: Does anyone brew a beer in B.C. made completely from ingredients found within 100 miles?  [Tyee]

Read more: Local Economy, Food

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