Barbara-Jo McIntosh

Photo by Tracey Kusiewicz

When Umberto Menghi’s Vancouver restaurants upped the city’s dining ante, several local luminaries were spawned. John Bishop (Bishop’s), Michel Jacob (Le Crocodile), and Pino Posteraro (Cioppino’s) were among them, and so was a slim young homegrown girl named Barbara-jo, who accepted the position as assistant to the manager at Al Porto, initially to earn UBC tuition. The kitchen lured her instead. Barbara-Jo McIntosh spent her dollars and days learning the culinary ropes at Pierre DuBrulle Culinary School and in BCIT’s Food and Beverage management program. She went on to open Barbara-Jo’s Elegant Home Cooking at 10th and Cambie in 1990.

Barbara-jo sips her wine and smiles. “I guess even then I did my best to source local.” And fresh? “Definitely. Hazelmere Farms provided organic vegetables. We fried chicken, free-range if possible, in buttermilk, and napped Dungeness crab cakes with house-made cayenne mayo. Sautéed goat cheese (that was French) on local greens and oyster-and-artichoke stew were stars.”

For years, though, the successful entrepreneur, also an avid reader, had been percolating a passion for owning a specialty cookbook shop. A Saveur magazine piece on Notting Hill’s famous Books For Cooks and its working kitchen sprung Barbara-jo into action. Vancouver’s Books To Cooks—with a demo kitchen—became a reality in 1998.

Chef and cookbook seller came together most impressively. Barbara-Jo was convinced Vancouver’s burgeoning food scene was ripe for top-notch books and guest chefs. Her intelligence, grace and wit have attracted famous chefs local and abroad. Vancouver food lovers have gathered in the kitchen to learn from U.K. bad boy Gordon Ramsay, Saveur’s Coleman Andrews and Michel Roux of Waterside Inn in Berkshire. At press time, Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma) will have made his only Canadian stop—with Barbara-jo at UBC Farm.

Barbara-jo is big on Canadian content, too. Local celebs have included John Bishop, Rob Feenie (ex-Lumiere, now Cactus Club), West’s Warren Geraghty and Blue Water’s Frank Pabst. Guests delight in the foraging stories of Vancouver Islander Bill Jones. Sarah McLachlan has appeared with her personal chef. Barbara Jo has also given us New Brunswick’s Laura Calder and, from Toronto, the travelling cookbook writing duo of Naomi Duguid and Jeffrey Alford (latest: Beyond the Great Wall: Recipes & Travels in the Other China).

A bestselling author in her own right (Tin Fish Gourmet), Barbara-jo served on the prestigious James Beard Awards cookbook selection committee for six years. And in 2003, she received Vancouver Magazine’s lifetime achievement award for her many contributions to the local culinary scene. What is this award-winning bookseller’s recipe for success? Barbara-jo’s response is immediate. “Stay focused on your passion, and occasionally have a strong drink.”

My chat with Barbara-jo reminded me of a comment my husband, a former liquor store manager, made when he first encountered the young restaurateur as one of his licensees: “An interesting place called Barbara-Jo’s just opened up the street. Dealing with the owner and, I guess, chef is a treat. She’s pleasant to all the staff and so very organized. I think she’ll make a go of it.”

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