From now until the end of the summer, Capital News reporters are going behind the scenes in the industries that make the local economy tick and we’re bringing the stories to readers. The first of this series looks at the food and drink industry.
If you pull your stereotypes from popular TV programs, successful chefs should be bombastic tyrants, hurling insults and cutlery at anything deemed less than perfect.
Wrapped in crisp double-breasted chef coats with jaunty white hats atop their heads, they’re alluring and repugnant all at once.
A walking contradiction reflecting the base pleasures inherent in gloriously culinary concoctions and the ugly work needed to deliver them, night after night.
Of course, reality is rarely found on TV.
What those screen-dwelling caricatures have done in the real world, however, is build the public’s appetite for fine dining, making way for real chefs in cities both big and small to build on their trade and grow their profile.
Locally that rising culinary standard has been further shaped by the success of the valley’s wine industry.Those who really have succeeded know how to capitalize on both.
That brings us to Mark Filatow, the chef at Waterfront Wines who’s also a sommelier.
He makes the news often, so I was familiar with his name before I took Okanagan College’s three-day food and wine pairing intensive class last week.
It was still, perhaps because of those stereotypes, a bit daunting to walk into the classroom of which he was at the helm, but luckily the day started with wine.
Also, Filatow’s remarkably pleasant demeanour was a stark contrast to all preconceptions usually attached to someone whose background reads like the society pages for chefs.
He began a culinary apprenticeship in 1996 working with chef Rod Butters at Tofino’s Wickaninnish Inn. After two years, he headed back to Vancouver and worked for chef John Bishop at Bishops Restaurant, followed by Diva at the Met Restaurant under Canadian Iron Chef Michael Noble. In 2001 he joined Butters, and with Audrey Surrao, became part of the opening team of Kelowna’s Fresco, which is now RauDZ.
He started running his own restaurant in November 2004 and opened Kelowna’s Waterfront Restaurant and Wine Bar.
It’s won numerous awards including being dubbed one of Canada’s Best New Restaurants by EnRoute Magazine and tallied five consecutive years of Wine Spectator’s “Award of Excellence.” Most recently Vancouver Magazine named Waterfront Wines the best in the Okanagan.
Filatow offered up a truncated version of that history, which focused a lot on food-loving European parents and skipped the name-dropping I just included, when the class got underway.
He then asked those in attendance what brought them to the class, what their favourite/least favourite food and wine combinations were and offered up encouraging nods and comments to every nugget of information offered.
It was abundantly clear from that moment onward that I had no business being among the collection of industry types and connoisseurs.
Searching my mind for qualifications I remembered when a soju-soaked fortune teller in Seoul said that I’d never find my life purpose until I ran a restaurant.
Or maybe I could tell them I was there because I’m Greek-ish and that’s just what Greeks, even the “ish” ones, seem to do?
My grandfather was a pastry chef who classically trained in Paris and other stops across Europe. When he grew up and had a family, he immigrated with them from Cyprus to Montreal where he and my grandmother put their combined skills to work and opened a restaurant.
It went on for awhile, and then it was gone.
The recipes that they and their children continued to make lived on and made me a great eater—a skill I leave off my resumé, though it sticks to my hips.
The most legitimate reason for me to be there, however, is the belief that all Okanaganites, especially those of us who have been here awhile and watched the food and beverage industry explode without much of an idea of how to get our bearings, should get a crash course in what’s become the defining characteristic of the valley.
A wine tour just doesn’t cut it and I don’t have the budget or the stomach for trying everything.
So, I was there to eat, learn, drink, for us—the common Okanaganite.
Not the stuff of a Julia Roberts movie, but somebody needs to make the sacrifice.
And what a sacrifice it was.
The class tasted a selection of quality local wines paired with foods Filatow prepared in front of us.
My classmates tossed around terms like “barnyard-y” and “orange peel.”I mostly said “red,” “white,” “good” and “bad.”
We talked about how a good wine stays on the palate longer, and applied free market economic theory to drink appreciation.
“If you pay for it, you taste it differently,” said Filatow, who, for the record, keeps wine notes in his phone, under headings like, appearance, nose, palate.
And, as he goes, he puts in notes about what foods the wine may pair well with.
There’s an app for that, but he’s not a fan. Nor does he particularly like the fact that Gewürztraminers always come with the suggestion that they pair well with “spicy Asian food.”
It’s a cop-out in labelling and a disservice to consumers that apparently really bothers him.
Filatow explained that a wine that has a lot of tannins—that stuff that makes your gums feel dry—needs a big protein like steak.
He also taught us that some foods can make a wine sing, while others are pure mouth-torture.
And there were some dishier nuggets. Filatow once mentioned, without naming names, there are some wines in the valley he would never feature in his restaurant, regardless of the seal on the label.
Another in-the-know classmate talked about how bulk wine sales are going to become more common because some wineries have reached land-lease agreements that left them a massive amount of grapes they made into wine.
The trouble with abundance, however, is finding the supply a home, thus the big-quantity sales of the future.
Best of all, however, was when we were taken out of the classroom and put into situations where we got to see Filatow interact with the men and women who produce the products he uses in his restaurant. They all had their own pairings prepared.
Stops on this tour included Bad Tattoo brewing, where locally made beer rivals wine in its story and adherence to production.
Brodo restaurant in Penticton was also featured.
And the one that sparked my appetite for more was the Upper Bench Winery and creamery.
Its cheeses and wines were delicious, but you know that feeling you get when you meet people you want to keep talking to? That’s what this place oozes.
The owners, wine-making husband and cheese-making wife Gavin and Shana Miller, decided to get into business when Gavin wanted to make a wine he could afford to drink— or so the charming anecdote began.
He’s known for big red wines, and built up his reputation through wine making at Poplar Grove and Painted Rock. Shana became a cheese-maker at Poplar Grove.
Somewhere along the way they decided to branch out.
At the tail end of a remarkably romantic sounding post-bankruptcy sale, they and a partner became owners of a gorgeous little spot on the Naramata Bench, where I’m almost sure people fall in love with them daily.
They talk about their cheeses and wines like they were beautiful living creations.
All Shana’s cheeses are boys, “which is why they’re so difficult.”
It makes sense because all the things worth loving are difficult, and it’s clear love of her craft is a not so secret ingredient.
Gavin said he’s woken up in the wee hours on more than one occasion to see her illuminated by the warm glow of YouTube’s cheese making clips.
Her cheeses are paired with Gavin’s wines, which he said he’s lucky enough to make on a smaller scale, allowing a focus on quality.
That, he explained while bringing us into the fields behind the shop, is a reflection of what’s in the vineyard.
Before the Millers took over, the space had been bankrupted twice, and the land was used at maximum capacity. Abused, they intimated.
To make things right, Gavin reduced the volume of grapes they produced and they stopped using chemicals, like Round-up, which from the sounds of things, is a vineyard favourite.
They even showed how to spot the difference between a vineyard that uses chemicals and one that doesn’t. Check between the vines. If there is unruly grass and underbrush, then you’re in a chemical free zone. If it’s parched and clear, something less than organic is going on.
And that is kind of the foundation for his wine making. He told us that he was once told by a successful wine maker that the job is not about making wine, per se. It’s about taking care of the grapes from start to finish, and if it’s done with care you can be sure of a quality product.
The Millers have an attitude that isn’t totally unique in the valley. It was reflected in Filatow’s lectures, as well as the comments from others woven into the course.
Good quality food and drink that’s ultimately an homage to the geography it springs from amounts to a story in every bite, sip, or slurp. And that’s something we uninitiated Okanaganites know a thing or two about.
While not all of us may have the palate or paycheques needed to really immerse ourselves in the Okanagan’s flashiest industry, the geography is a good chunk of why we are all here.
So, next time you have a sip or a bite, take a minute to think about its story. I know I will. And it will taste all the more “barnyard-y” for it.
Unless that’s a bad thing…I’m still not sure. But I’m certainly not going to be afraid to ask in the future, especially if I come across the likes of those I met in the program.