Food & Wine Photo Credit: Evaan Kheraj

Okanagan Dinner: Nights at the Long Table

Culinary Artists Dana Ewart and Cameron Smith of Joy Road Caterings host a long–table dinner at God's Mountain Estates.

It’s been a while since I’ve been called to dinner with a bell. But how else would you summon 40 individuals scattered along a bluff drinking in cinematic views of lake water that mimics the blues and greens of a peacock’s tail? Of red–tailed hawks riding summer thermals over orchards and rambling vineyards? Ding, ding.

We follow the sound of the tiny dinner bell toward a long table, impeccably set in crisp whites, where an edible welcome—a fresh sour cherry, picked from the trees just steps away—has been placed at each setting. Half of us will dine facing West and continue to gape at the views from our perch atop the cliff at God’s Mountain Estate, a quirky whitewashed Grecian–Okanagan B&B on 115 acres overlooking Skaha Lake. The other half—my side—looks up at towering granite rock faces that cut into the huge blue above, our backs and necks warming in the late–day rays.

WL0913.okanagan.42

Joy Road Catering’s alfresco long–table dinners have become the destination food–and–wine experience of the West. On one side of you there may sit an up–and–coming winemaker from the Similkameen, and on the other, a chef from Quebec’s most buzzed-about restaurant. Dates and reservation details are announced in early spring. By late June, good luck finding a seat.

Cheers erupt as Dana Ewart, 36, and Cameron Smith, 38, the chef–owners of Joy Road Catering, place reclaimed fir planks along the length of our table. We clink our glasses of Blue Mountain Brut across fresh baby carrots, pickled beets, pickled asparagus, French breakfast radishes and a selection of charcuterie on fresh vine leaves that create a garland of food down the middle of each seven–foot–long board. The table falls quiet with the first tastes of rustic flatbreads slathered with creamy preserved apricot-topped pork rillette, followed by house–made prosciutto and the crisp snap of a perfect raw radish.

Ewart takes advantage of the silence to explain that the flour from the bread was milled in Armstrong, and that the vegetables were grown by their farmer friends in Peachland, Oliver and the Similkameen. She radiates pure passion about the local, seasonal produce they hand–select from a family of growers, foragers, beekeepers and orchardists for each meal. “Justene, who grew these radishes, just had a baby today,” Ewart announces. “And she was in the field working until yesterday!“

WL0913.okanagan.1WL0913.okanagan.11

 

Next we are served a bowl of chilled cucumber and buttermilk soup, with a garnish of peeled, multicoloured cherry tomatoes and Espelette peppers flecked with bright green micro–basil. The attention to detail is maniacal. “What we do is a logistical nightmare,” laughs Ewart, only half–joking. Nightmare or not, it’s a perfect pairing with Wild Goose Winery’s God’s Mountain Riesling. Yes, the wine now in our glass was made by Wild Goose winery, from grapes grown on a sun–soaked bench of land just a few hundred metres below.

This is the genius of Ewart and Smith’s Okanagan long–table dinners. Nothing is random. Everything has context, purpose and meaning that we’re eating and drinking tonight. Theirs is a true cuisine de terroir–food shaped not only by the climate, soils and seasons of the Okanagan, but by its personalities, farmers and winemakers. There’s a refreshing spontaneity to tonight’s set menu too. It’s not just an exploration of a local, seasonal, fresh food philosophy, it’s their interpretation of what is local, seasonal and abundant today.

Just before the main course is served—family–style on communal platters that we shuttle back and forth across the table—Ewart reads a passage from Alice Waters’s The Art of Simple Food. You can trace a direct line from the radical, place-based cooking that Waters pioneered at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, in the ’70s to Joy Road’s Okanagan experience today. Ewart gently drums home that it’s one thing to give lip service to a local foodshed, but it’s entirely, deliciously, different to fully commit. “Food and wine are precious in that they come from somewhere, and someone,” Ewart reminds us. We raise our glasses of Pentâge’s Hiatus, an inky red of spice and oak, over plates of wood-oven roast chicken and confit leg, perfect thin green beans perfumed with fresh tarragon and toasted local hazelnuts, glistening baby leek risotto and braised beet greens with quince, cream and grainy Dijon.

WL0913.okanagan.9WL0913.okanagan.18

Despite their youth, Ewart and Smith have arrived at their deeply personal philosophy after 15–plus years of professional cooking, first separately, and now together. Ewart trained at Stratford Chef’s School and began cooking professionally in restaurants in her hometown of Kingston, Ontario. Smith trained at George Brown in Toronto, “long before cooking schools modernized,” Smith quips. They met and fell in love at a now–defunct restaurant called Avalon, in Toronto.

They went on to cook for the likes of Jamie Kennedy, in whose kitchen they’d routinely spend 16–hour days charring and canning peppers in the heat of summer, and canning local tomatoes, beets, pickles and such to last throughout the entire year.

After Toronto, they spent five years in Montreal. Ewart acquired her artisan breadmaking and pastry chops, and Smith soaked up the craft of curing meats. As young cooks, they also travelled to Europe. They lived out of their backpacks, saving their money for three–starred Michelin dinners when they could, noting the smallest of details that went into truly spectacular culinary moments and filing away taste memories for future use.

In 2005 they came out to the Okanagan on a busman–s holiday/mountain bike excursion. Arriving in the full furnace heat of an Okanagan summer, they spent two weeks working at a friend’s B&B and farmhouse cooking school in Naramata. The quality and variety of fruit and veg at the Penticton Farmers’ Market impressed them, as did the pockets of quality–driven vineyards and winemakers. “For the first time in Canada, we really saw the potential to do what we wanted, food- and wine-wise,” says Smith.

In 2006 they moved to Penticton and began baking artisan sourdough breads and seasonal fruit galettes for the farmers’ markets. They organized pop–up dinners (well before the trend) at God’s Mountain B&B and in other unexpected settings. And they catered private events in the 125 kilometres between Kelowna and Osoyoos.

Since then, they’ve steadily strengthened their relationships with their suppliers. In doing so, they’ve created a whole new category for food and wine experiences in the Okanagan. The season is physically demanding, and they push themselves and their staff incredibly hard to deliver dinners that are not just about presenting what’s local, but showcasing exactly which characteristics of the local ingredients are expressing that very day. “We live the seasons out here,” says Smith. “You just can’t do that in the city.”

WL0913.okanagan.4

In the past two years the pair have kept a flock of laying hens, not just for the fresh eggs, but because chickens make use of vegetable peelings and other kitchen scraps. Likewise with their herd of heritage breed pigs, which are matter–of–factly destined to become next season’s charcuteries, salumis, rillettes and hams. “It just makes sense,” Smith explains. “The pigs are gaining incredible amounts of weight at the time of year when we have the most to feed them.” Smith adds that leftover sourdough bread is a favourite for the pigs, especially when soaked in whey from a local cheesemaker who would otherwise have to throw it out.

As the light fades, tea–light candles and lanterns take over from the sockeye–red sunset. We sip tea brewed from fresh chocolate mint from Joy Road’s herb garden and scrape up every bit of plum and sour cherry tart from our dessert plates. It takes me a few moments, but I realize that Ewart and Smith have brought the experience full circle. From that tiny, perfect, hand–picked sour cherry that so elegantly greeted us just hours earlier. wl

Comments

[…] counters in Barcelona’s Boqueria food market; Mexico City’s 5000-stall Mercado de la Merced; Joy Road Catering al fresco dinners at God’s Mountain in the Okanagan; street corner tacos just about anywhere in Mexico. But here’s one from a memorable road […]

Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Instagram Diary