Chef Rob Clarke started kitchen life like many in the field, in the dish pit.
Years of school and experience later, he now starts his work day at Sooke Harbour House early with jaunt to the adjacent beach.
Those few moments spent sweeping the shoreline for sea lettuce, mean patrons of Sooke Harbour House restaurant enjoy a naturally sea-salted crab.
Utilizing all that grows in the fertile ocean, fields and forests, of the West Coast is part of the ideal at the beach-front restaurant.
“It’s almost a romantic ideology here. We’ve got a farm up the road and can go pick a zucchini or artichoke,” he says.
Even mid-service he can zip into the stunning and productive gardens surrounding the heritage house on Whiffin Spit Road in Sooke to snag a fresh sprig or blossom, meaning there are mere minutes from garden to table.
“It’s really driven by what’s available,” he says of the menu that changes daily. “It doesn’t become stagnant. I never really thought of myself as being creative but being here has really pushed me. You get driven by the ingredient.”
The gardeners and seasons have a say in what the kitchen produces. Nodding onions are a relatively new, and intriguing, ingredient for Clarke. His favourite creation with them so far is a pistou, a French pesto-like sauce.
Local sourcing puts things like vanilla and olive oil on the ‘do not use’ list. But lemon verbena mimics lemons and sweet cicely creates a clove-like flavour.
“You’ve got to be innovative,” said Clarke.
For desserts the pastry chef uses daylilies to create vanilla-like tones while roasted fig ice cream is a favourite dessert. “It tastes like marzipan,” Clarke said.
The kitchen garden provides part of the lure that drew Clarke back to the West Coast â€“ he grew up in Port Alberni â€“ last April a decade after his post-culinary school career began. He gets a kick out of meeting hotel guests in the gardens or at the shoreline.
“I like that interaction instead of being in the kitchen all day,” Clarke said. “This was my dream gig.”
His most recent four years spent at Panagaea in Toronto set the course for a new addition at Sooke Harbour House this fall. He’s passing his charcuterie and cheese making skills along, and expects to have some handmade sausage and cheeses on the menu. Already they’ve created elk sausage and head cheese in the kitchen.
“Come late October I’ll start bringing some supplies and we’ll start making some cheese,” he said. “This is what I enjoy, learning and teaching and I enjoy feeding people.”