Interview: Chef Robin Jackson (Sooke Harbour House)

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Chef Vancouver Island


Are there any dishes that you can’t imagine taking off the menu?

Taking off the menu? How do you mean? We change the menu every day.

There are no dishes that repeat?

Not exactly, no. We always try to offer Dungeness crab because it’s harvested right out here by local harvesters, and we always try to offer fresh oysters. It’s another Vancouver Island, Pacific Northwest kind of a thing. It’s nice to have on, but the preparations change every day.

So there’s no such thing as a signature dish here?

Signature dish here would be the overall combination of food from the wild, food from the ocean, food from the woods and food from our gardens. That’s the Sooke Harbour House signature, incorporating the woods, the water, the nature, the land. Basically everything.

Would you say that you have any other culinary mentors?

Absolutely. The past chefs that have worked her have all been inspirations as well. Everyone who comes to Sooke Harbour House has contributed their style to the menus and to the gardens and to the overall restaurant. I have to say I give cheers to all the past chefs of the Sooke Harbour House. It’s been a great opportunity to work with the ones that I’ve worked with, and from the ideas that have been passed on as well.

Now that you’re building on what other chefs have done here, what do you feel like you’re adding to move the restaurant forward?

I get out and do my own foraging, rather than wait for something to be delivered. I get out in the mornings and head in my kayak and pick seaweeds or crabs, or get out into the woods and do the foraging for myself. So it’s an absolute luxury to be able to not only describe what ingredients are on the plate, but also to tell them under which tree I’ve harvested this mushroom, or this herb, or be able to point out across the water – somebody might have some lamb on the menu – and I can point out across the way, and you can probably see little lambs right now. [Jackson points] That’s where we get our lambs. That’s Silver Spray, that’s one of the farms. I go to the farms as well before work sometimes. There’s Ragley. Ragley does probably 40% of our farm production, and I stop there twice a week on the way in, to see what’s up and coming, and to pick and bring the harvest of the day into the restaurant.

You hinted at it earlier, but what are your favorite outdoor activities when you’re not working?

Hiking, fishing, kayaking, just spending time in the woods and spending time on the water. I lucked out. I have a little rental cottage that’s right on the water, so if I’m not here, I’m just sitting out and watching the seals or, right now, we actually have baby geese that just hatched a couple days ago. So spending time outdoors goes a long way towards happiness, and it’s my passion, my absolute passion.

Basically learning about food culture. If I’m not here – say January – in January the restaurant closed for renovations, so I went down to Peru and Bolivia to learn as much as I could about a lot of the ingredients that we use here at Sooke Harbour House. A good 30% of them come from the Andes and the Amazon basin. Being able to see what indigenous people have traditionally been using, and how they’ve been using these ingredients and how they are living and building their health on these things is an ideal for me to continue to be learning, not how to cook the food, or make it look good, or taste good, or the presentation, but the actual history behind the ingredient.

How has that trip affected your approach?

I have a lot more respect, not just for the ingredients, but for the flavors as well. A couple of the things that I harvested down in South America were tubers. Peru and the high Andes are the origin of the potato. They’re also the origin of the chile pepper, the chile plant, called aji down there. I was able to identify and find specimens, the seeds, of a lot of different varieties of these things. I’ve been planting them in greenhouses around southern Vancouver Island. Just kind of experimenting on growing them, so they’re not just heirloom or organic, but they’re ancient crops, because I got them from the Quechua people, who are the descendants of the original Inka people. So basically being able to have the understanding behind all of these ingredients makes me that more able to apply the respect to the plate, and the people who are eating. From learning about to the things to the experience of actually dining, I feel like it’s a whole experience. It’s not just coming out to dinner and being able to enjoy what’s on your plate. The understanding behind it is also there, the understand of the chefs, cooks, people like the foragers and farmers, basically the respect is given to a whole stream of things, rather than just the monetary system, coming in, sitting down, paying some money and eating a boring plate of food. It’s more a piece of artwork that has life. Food has absolute life. A lot of the ingredients that go out on our plates here are actually still alive when they hit the plate. They may have just been trimmed off the garden – or it might be a little bit morbid – but the spot shrimp that we use come in live. And when they hit the pan, or hit the fryer, or hit the steamer, they’re still alive, generally. The scallops that we use are local from Qualicum and they’re the only Pacific scallops that are in use right now in western Canada, the fresh live ones basically.

When you’re not working here, where do you like eating and drinking?

I’m easy. I like street food. There’s a taco truck. I’m sure being from California, you see that a lot, and I miss that like crazy. I love street food. Taco wagons, and there’s a Pig barbecue place that’s wonderful. I love sushi places, raw foods are always great. And then farm dinners. Local farms and friends will put on farm dinners in their own gardens. Or you might have a combination of farmers come together. So little farm dinners and wine tastings and things like that are more ideal for me than to go to a fine dining restaurant.

What’s the taco truck you like to go to?

There’s a place called Amigos de Puerto Vallarta, and it’s downtown Victoria on the corner of Store Street and & Yates. It’s almost like I remember Northern California being. It’s almost like home, where you have a Latina grandmother making the food for you, singing in the background. Things like that, people putting soul in food, that’s what I appreciate. I don’t need to go into a little stuffy place where you have to dress up nicely, and sit down and have tiny courses. I like people with soul. I like people with a good attitude, and it shows in the food, I think.

Is there anything particular that you like to drink when you’re not working?

At home on my rocks on the beach, I like to sip wines. I get a lot of sample wines from our fine cellar and the vineyards on Vancouver Island. I like to have a glass of wine when I unwind. Generally outdoors on the beach is the best place to do it. Otherwise there are a couple of fun places downtown Victoria, but here in Canada there is a zero tolerance for drinking and driving, so I don’t ever consume anything when I’m out or dinner, just when I’m staying in at a friend’s house or at my own place.

If you could only cook with one more protein, what would it be?

I’d say salmon.

How come?

Because it’s not just a protein, it’s not just a food staple. It’s something that generations, and historically, people, have been reliant on. There are people in this area who have returned to certain rivers or returned to certain inlets just because of the salmon, and their ancestors have done so for thousands of years. For the cultural reasons as well as the wonderful cultural reasons, salmon is great for pairing so many different ways. Culturally, it’s an amazing thing as well. Not that civilizations have been built on the salmon runs, but there are generations and generations that have moved to an area – there are towns, there are villages that are based on the salmon run, and that’s not just the Pacific Northwest here, but a long time ago, Scandinavia would have been the same kind of thing, when the Atlantic salmon run was good.


Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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[…] can “stay in the hotel and get hands-on cooking lessons and a delicious dinner with Head Chef Robin Jackson every Wednesday! Book a room for two nights starting on Tuesday night and play in the kitchen on […]


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[…] can “stay in the hotel and get hands-on cooking lessons and a delicious dinner with Head Chef Robin Jackson every Wednesday! Book a room for two nights starting on Tuesday night and play in the kitchen on […]

Robin has always been amazing with food: at 4 years old after a car trip across North America, the first thing he wanted to do was make a chopped salad and vegetable soup.

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