Table for 20

Chris Van Hooydonk goes less executive, more chef.

Standing at the counter of a (temporary) commercial kitchen in the basement of his rural Oliver home, chef Chris Van Hooydonk methodically explains how to butcher a lamb. “I like to de-bone it, to get the most use of the meat”, he says as he navigates the ribcage with certainty and deference, “it’s about respecting the animal.”

This scene is miles away from how Van Hooydonk was working two years ago. In 2013, Van Hooydonk quit his job as executive chef at an Okanagan winery restaurant to fly solo. After three busy seasons of catering, this year he will open a 20-seat private dining room. It’s not a move many on the culinary ladder would make: while the area’s food scene might be growing, full-time opportunities for a skilled chef are a challenge to land in what remains a largely seasonal gig. But if we redefine what a culinary experience means, that seasonality argument heads for the door.

Raw wood edging for the shelf adds a natural touch
Chef's kitchen-eye-view-2
A full renovated mid-century split-level gets a new lease on life

“I’ve never been so busy”, says Van Hooydonk. “I’m hiring a sous-chef for the summer, but could use one right now.” It seems there’s a year-round appetite for what Van Hooydonk’s cooking, and the expansion to a learning-focused dining room and kitchen can’t come soon enough.

Artisan Culinary Concepts offers an a la carte menu: consulting, education, cooking classes, private chef services, catering, and handcrafted preserves are available under the Backyard Farms label. Recently, Van Hooydonk’s wife and partner Mikkel quit her job and joined the venture full-time. What busy means for Chris today is radically different from that of his former executive career. “I almost couldn’t recognize myself”, says Van Hooydonk. He was working full-tilt seasonally and dropping from exhaustion during winter months. “I like cooking for people, showing them what it is to really enjoy food.” The feast-or-famine model wasn’t conducive to what he wanted to do.

For Van Hooydonk, the new kitchen-as-dining-space (maximum 20 people) is an ideal way to share his love of food. “From the dining room, it’s like the kitchen is a giant high-definition television screen”, Van Hooydonk says with a laugh. “The ultimate reality show.” The site is a former split-level, mid-century home with vaulted ceilings, and the renovation has resulted in an open concept dining room/kitchen that is both intimate and airy. Set in a 60-year-old orchard overlooking the south Okanagan valley, you can’t get a more authentic sense of place than this.

An impromptu snack - of lamb

Preparing an impromptu snack – of lamb

The current pace Van Hooydonk has is fast but it’s on his terms and in a manner that better fits his food philosophy. Moreover, he’s attracting a like-minded set of clients and producers. There’s a notable absence of large scale anything, including delivery trucks; chef has close relationships with a handful of producers who provide organic products and hormone-free local meats. In a time when marketing people use the terms local and slow food as hooks, Van Hooydonk lives the talk. “I don’t like to call it slow food”, he says. “For me, it’s just food.”

On my last visit, Chris guided me through some of what remains on the to-do list before opening in May: painting (inside and out), lighting, more painting, flooring, cleaning, and replacing the carved, solid wood front door with something more contemporary. “I think I’ll reuse the door as an outdoor table”, Van Hooydonk muses aloud. “It’s beautifully carved wood.” Waste not; want not.

De-boned lamb ready for use

De-boned lamb ready for use

As opening day looms, Chris balances renovating with fulfilling ongoing catering orders, upcoming weddings, and creating kid-friendly dishes for a weekly lunch program at Tul-el-Nuit elementary school. The latter is something he’s worked on in partnership with the local school district this school year, and it seems as much fun for him as it is for the kids. “I’m the young, cool chef with spiky hair and earrings”, he says with a mischievous grin, “I can get the kids to eat all kinds of things.” Parents see their kids getting excited about food, leading to parent/child cooking sessions. “They’re our next generation of farmers and chefs.”

Whet your appetite for local: follow the Artisan Culinary Concepts and Backyard Farms journey on Van Hooydonk’s blog.

 

Written By:

Jeannette is EAT's Okanagan writer. With her rural Canadian roots and love of grand experiences, Jeannette is equal measures country and city. Since moving from Vancouver to the Okanagan in 2007, she quit her day job ...