For the past three decades, Chico, California, has become best known for Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. thanks to the efforts of Ken Grossman and his team, and that’s not likely to change anytime soon, but young chef Robin Jackson could easily become the next hometown culinary hero due to his accomplishments beyond (and above) the Lower 48. He graduated from University of Alaska Anchorage and worked at Sacks Café in-town before persistence paid off with a job at one of Canada’s most acclaimed restaurants, Sooke Harbour House, continuing the nearly unprecedented commitment to local ingredients, sourcing more than 400 edible flowers, herbs and lettuces from the property alone. On May 29, we met in the restaurant’s Sun Room to discuss Jackson’s background and approach.
How did the Sooke Harbour House opportunity come about for you?
It was kind of a struggle to get in the doors. Every time that I’d come down here for a vacation, visiting family, I would come and check out the menus and was intrigued by the style of food, the gardens and the locale, so when I decided to move here from Anchorage, Alaska, I sent resumes down a couple times without response. Finally, when I got here, I just came by the back door and was persistent. When the last chef left, it opened up a door for me to come in and I became the sous chef about two years ago. It was basically through persistence and desire, because this is the kind of cuisine that’s perfect for me. It suits my lifestyle better than any other.
Why do you say that?
I’m a naturalist outside of work. I went to university and studied environmental science and marine biology, so the culinary thing was always to match up with the other side of my passion. I’ve had a passion for cooking and a passion for nature, so being able to put the two together is just ideal, and at Sooke Harbour House, the seaweeds and everything on the water is just perfect. We have wild woods that have wild herbs and mushrooms and all sorts of things for foraging. And I do a lot of foraging, fishing and kayaking, so this is just sort of on the verge of perfection on both sides, with the woods, the mountains and the ocean here.
What were the last things that you foraged and fished for?
Well let’s see. A couple days ago I was out for morel mushrooms and found a handful of them. We’ve got some on the menu right now. I’ve got some wild pepper cress and oxeye daisy greens from the yard, my yard, as a matter of fact. I live in East Sooke, which is right across there [points across harbour] in a nice little parkland area. On weekends, I do a lot of salmon fishing, and in the fall, when mushrooms are in season, I do a lot of chanterelle, pine, hedgehog, boletus, porcini – which is one of the boletus family of mushrooms – boletus mirabilis – so lots of wild mushroom picking. I’m a mushroom dork.
What was the first restaurant you ever cooked at?
It was a place in Chico, California, called California Pasta Productions. It’s owned by a family friend who was a very young man at that point, when he opened his first couple restaurants, did well, and now has a handful of them. My mom is a cook, a chef, and used to teach cooking classes when I was a kid. So I’ve been helping her in the kitchen since I was barely tall enough to reach the counter.
What’s the first dish you ever remember cooking?
My mom’s shortbread…Things that stand out, I remember shortbread and making sausages. Sausage production was something that stood out in my mind, from being really young. They were pork sausages, with maybe orange peel in them. That was with my mom. I think when I was up here visiting, I was 10 or 11 years old, my friends in the area, my little brother and I would go out and gather blackberries, and make blackberry pie for the family. That was the first thing I truly remember doing all by myself.
Is your mom’s family from around here?
What was the most recent dish that you added to the menu, and what was your inspiration?
Well the menu changes every day, so the most recent dish is what I’m creating right now, I suppose. That is roasted lingcod, Haida Gwaii lingcod from the Queen Charlotte Islands, now called Haida Gwaii, and it has nori, so a seaweed and nasturtium crust. Nasturtium leaves – there are some right on the wall back there [points outside]. Nasturtium and nori crust, and I just finished a Dungeness crab and bay leaf broth, and it’s going to have roasted chickpea and potato rosti, and a Dungeness crab and celery root salad that’s bound with an emulsion of borage leaves and a homestyle mayonnaise, basically.
Looking around, it doesn’t seem like it would be too hard to find inspiration.
Not at all. If you ever need an idea or a flavor, just go out for a walk in the gardens, or take five minutes down on the beach. You’ll find some edible seaweed and little shore creatures. It’s not hard for inspiration at all.
I’m pretty interested in your working relationship with the on-site gardener Byron Cook. How does that work?
He’s been a culinary mentor in some ways, because I’m so interested in nature and natural things, but horticulture is another passion of mine that I never got to study in school, so Byron teaches me things pretty much every day. Our latest discussion was about the relationship about buckwheat – which is a celiac friendly thing – so people who can’t eat wheat products can have buckwheat products. So buckwheat, rhubarb and sorrel, because of the similarities in flavor and the seedpods – so Byron brought in some sorrel flowers and sorrel stems the other day, and we were tasting them and trying to figure out what I could use them for. And it reminded me of rhubarb, the sourness of rhubarb before it’s cooked. I remembered that rhubarb and buckwheat are in the same family. So we linked rhubarb to sorrel and buckwheat. They’re all in the same family, and kind of puts together the sour flavor that all of them have, so it’s kind of a cool thing.
You built a dish around that relationship?
Using the rhubarb stems, the sorrel juice and leaves, and then buckwheat noodles. It’s kind of a strange combination, but it works really well together.
Are there any dishes that you can’t imagine taking off the menu?