Destination Kelowna: Chef Rod Butters talks community and local sourcing

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Destination Kelowna: Chef Rod Butters talks community and local sourcing

Chef Butters To set the stage- or perhaps I should say - to set the table - for the "supping" aspect of our Destination Travel: Kelowna I arranged to meet Chef Rod Butters at his restaurant, RauDZ, on Water Street, on the first morning of our visit. An icy wind was blowing through the streets of downtown Kelowna and by the time we arrived at the door of the restaurant we were chilled. Chef Butters invited us in and promptly offered to brew Americanos. We stood at the bar and sipped the coffee and I gradually felt the warmth seeping back into my body.

I was familiar with his culinary biography but curious about a few of his culinary adventures so we began our discussion there. A B.C. native, Chef Butters was born in Port Coquitlam and worked at The Keg during high school. He went to Indiana State on a baseball scholarship and then played in Washington State. He returned to Vancouver to attend culinary school, and then worked at Scaramouche in Toronto, Four Seasons Hotels in Toronto and Vancouver, the opening team at Chateau Whistler among other places.

In 1996 he embarked on an exciting venture as the opening chef and co-manager with Charles McDiarmid, managing owner, for the new Wickaninnish Inn in Tofino on the West Coast of Vancouver Island. Opening that quality of world class hotel and restaurant in the middle of nowhere with the challenges of getting staffing and supplies to the West Coast of the Island, was one of the stand-out experiences of his life. Chef Butters commented that this remarkable achievement was a testament to everyone that worked to make this happen from dishwashers, housekeeping and office staff to management.

I understood what he was saying because the Wickaninnish Inn holds a special place in my heart. In October 1999 my brother and sister-in-law came out from South Africa to visit with my husband, who was quite ill at the time. We wanted to show them something special about British Columbia and we picked Wicknninnish Inn as that special choice. The flight we booked stopped in Victoria and then the small plane flew north for a while along the mountainous spine of the Vancouver Island Range. The image of breaking through the clouds into a V of sunlight just before landing at Tofino,is engraved in my memory.

At the Inn we had a beautiful room looking out onto an inlet with huge waves breaking on the rocks. The second memory I hold from that time is soaking in the hot tub in our room  and observing the sight and sound of the crashing waves and foam spraying from the rocks.The third memory is of savoring the flavours of the wonderful meals we enjoyed over the days that we were there. Our visit to Wickaninnish Inn was all too short, but it is one of the treasured times that comfort me whenever sad thoughts come to mind.

In 2000, burnt out from working non-stop for 5 years in Tofino, and needing to "recharge batteries in a big way", Chef Butters took off on a round the world trip of 14 months. He spent three months in India, half a year in Europe and travelled through Asia and the Caribbean. I asked what the standout experience was of that trip and although he commented that there was so much that was remarkable, he conceded that India probably left the most indelible impression.

Unbelievable filth and poverty set against unbelievable wealth, that was a 24 hour a day assault on every sense. In the last few years India is starting to see more of the middle ground between rich and poor. When I commented that it was not high on my desired destination list, he said, "Amazing people - it will change your life ". He had some of the best and most unusual culinary experiences in India; including brain curry in a famous restaurant in Delhi, on the final night before flying to London.

Speaking now from my medical persona, I would have to say that while eating other organs doesn't bother me - I grew up in a hotel that served deviled kidneys on toast as a breakfast treat - I draw the line at brains. At one stage of my research career I remember reading about Kuru, a devastating neurological disease of the Papua New Guinea tribe whose cannibalistic practice of eating the brains of their neighbours was thought to be responsible for transmission of the disease.

Chef Butters also commented that spending a month in Italy really brought what he was taught during his apprenticeships; honouring the simplicity of the product.  Italian food was not revolutionary but  had a commitment to quality and simplicity, for example great tasting arugula or tomato does not need anything to be done to it.

I asked about the Okanagan Chefs Association. Chef Butters has just stepped down as the chairperson and he is excited to have seen an exponential growth in membership during the past seven years. From 20 members 7 years ago, at last count the Association has close to 150 members. It is the most active and growing branch  of the Canadian Culinary Federation in all of Canada and has just hosted the National Meeting. This is the 30 year anniversary of the Association. Monthly dinner meetings always have an educational component. Meetings are not held during the summer because everyone is so busy.

I could not help asking the question that I suppose everyone asks. I got the R and D for Rod and the Au for the charming co-owner Audrey Surrao, who buys the more than 90% local wines for the wine list. But the Z floored me. He just smiled and said" it's better than S". Hmm...

Quince preserveNext I had to know why the switch from Fresco, their award winning fine dining restaurant and lounge, that won the Eat BC Restaurant of the Year award in 2008. Chef Butters' response was that they wanted to get back to focusing on a "friendly restaurant that you can just drop into and get anything from beef tenderloin to great grass-fed burgers". He did not want to put a moniker on the genre of restaurant but when pressed, summarized it as "upscale casual."

I asked how one featured local produce for example for fruits and vegetables when the growing season is not all year round. He pointed out that most farmers have root cellars. At RauDZ they do lots of freezing and preserving. They have a big walk in freezer and though it is too early now for fresh fruit, strawberries on the menu in December, would have been preserved or frozen in July or August. For example they bought 3000 to 4000 pounds of raspberries so they would have them available till the next season of fresh berries arrived.

For those of you who, like me, are not equipped to preserve those wonderful fruits, but love to eat them all year round, RauDZ sells preserved fruits like the poached quince in vanilla syrup in the photo to the right.

Among the places we should visit right now for fruit, he suggested we visit the BC Packing house for apples and pears, as most of the growers participate in the co-op. He also gave us other suggestions and marked places on our map.

A question about fish in the Lake (trout and Kokanee - a lake-bound salmon)  brought forth a passionate rave about Jon Crofts, local fish monger and proprietor of Codfathers, from whom he sources 95% of his fish. Chef Butters pointed out that  he had worked with fish in Hong Kong, and owned a fish store during his time in Tofino, and the fish from Croft is the same quality as that available in Tofino right off the boat. RauDZ gets deliveries 6 days a week and Croft is able to get the best fish from the different boats that go out for ling cod, halibut, rock fish, prawns and salmon.

the communal table at RauDZWe talked a bit about staffing. Working under Chef James Hanna and his sous chef, there are 8 to 10 apprentice chefs at various levels of training. Chef Butters told us an interesting story about how he selects chefs to work in his kitchen. Sadly if I relay the story he will have to change part of his interview technique - so sorry - it will have to remain a secret.    


Chef Butters marked off  a few more  places on our Kelowna map for my navigator and we got ready to leave, having taken up much of his time. But on the way out we got distracted by a discussion about the magnificent 20 seat table that dominates the centre of the restaurant. It was made from 130 plus year-old wood from a cotton mill in Michigan -the same wood that was used in the Brooklyn Bridge in New York. This species of pine is now a protected species in America but a local Merrit company reclaims the wood. A local craftsman,

Will Brundula came up with the idea for the table which is crafted in an old world construction style without nails, glue or screws. The base is designed after the Kettle Valley railway trestles and there is a time capsule buried in the table with the story of its construction.

 Chef Butters envisioned this as a community table - communal rather than the Chef's Table concept. He has found that find that small groups of strangers seated at the table get talking, and by the end of night everyone is engaged and having a great time. Without sounding corny, he wanted just to get people talking  and taking dining and life a little less

seriously. I guess I  need a meal at that table!

He commented that with the emphasis on local sourcing he is not trying to change the world but just be ethically correct and do what he believes in. There are some chefs such as Sinclair Philip, Bernard Casavant and others who have been doing this for so long, that he wonders why it has taken such a long time for the public and the media to focus attention on the concept.

We said goodbye and that we would be back at 5 pm for dinner, and headed off to explore some local food sources..