The fire under the grill is opening the oyster shells, with fennel cream and chives standing by to cover them, as chef John Ferris of The Collective Kitchen prepares the courses for the Sunwolf Summer Feast on the Squamish Valley Road near Brackendale.
This is the third year that Sunwolf, known for its rafting trips and fishing on the local rivers, has invited chefs from around the region to present fine dining evenings under the stars (or under canvas if the weather is not cooperating). They hold the feasts every two weeks in the summer season, rain or shine.
Ferris will be taking over the outdoor grill at Fergie's Café at Sunwolf for six such evenings this summer. Formerly chef de cuisine at Araxi in Whistler, he started The Collective Kitchen as a full-service private dining company in April 2012. He said he was able to go full-time with the company as of early June this year.
Along with the Sunwolf Summer Feasts, he has been catering parties, weddings and taking part in Pemberton's annual Slow Food Cycle in "a nice tent across from the Schramms distillery" at Across the Creek Organics.
At Sunwolf on this particular evening, June 27, the rain is coolish in a pleasant way and steam is rising from the Cheakamus River.
"It was kind of like, 'let's do these dinners out here in this beautiful spot,'" Ferris said. "We're treating this like a pop-up but we're preparing everything like we're in a restaurant."
Along with the fire-roasted oysters, the Ferris menu for the Summer Feast this night includes Green Asparagus Soup with sautéed chanterelles and olive oil, three types of salads, three types of entrees — including single-line-caught ling cod, chipotle-glazed quail and flat iron steak. This is topped off with two desserts, warmed chocolate and espresso brownies and vanilla-poached strawberry and rhubarb tarts.
It's worth pointing out that this not an either/or menu. All these dishes are served on large plates on long tables and guests help themselves to whatever they want. And the portions are generous; the only limitation is stomach capacity.
A different wine is selected for each feast, with Hester Creek from the Okanagan being served this night, and there is, of course, a selection of beer.
Ferris is from Texas originally — his laid back approach and way of talking gives the game away a bit — and is now settled in Pemberton with his family. He has travelled and worked the length of the U.S.-Canadian Pacific Coast from San Diego to Sea to Sky country.
He's dedicated to Pemberton and British Columbia's agricultural delights, and caters to many weddings there, as well as in Whistler and beyond.
"Pemberton is a pretty happening wedding spot and gets a lot of coverage in wedding magazines. They'll do at least 40 weddings this summer at places like North Arm Farms or the Pemberton Valley Vineyard," he said.
The food is local and also from a little farther afield.
"I don't necessarily tag myself 'field to fork' but I'll use the organic local farms as much as I can, but if I only used Pemberton I'd being having just kale, rhubarb and salad at the moment. I definitely stay with B.C.," Ferris said.
"I will go for something, say beets, that is available in Vancouver but not in Pemberton yet, or get something that's available in Squamish."
He says the summer is shaping up to be extremely busy for The Collective Kitchen.
"It's all by word-of-mouth. I've been super happy with the way it has been going," Ferris said.
He cites Christmas party work as upcoming events that will be keeping him busy and gives a shout out to Thornhill Real Estate, who are regular customers.
Jess Freese, who owns Sunwolf along with her husband Jake, said Ferris started cooking at the feasts last year. They've had a longstanding relationship with the chef because Jake previously worked with him at Araxi.
"We love doing these nights, it's because we're such foodies ourselves. People have said things like it's amazing like Tuscany, and we love it here ourselves. It's so beautiful," said Freese, who moved to Squamish from the U.K. about 10 years ago.
She said she would love to see the outdoor space at Sunwolf used for other events, like productions of Shakespeare.
Freese said to check Sunwolf's website (sunwolf.net) to see if other nights or chefs have been added or for more information. Tickets for the Summer Feasts are $40 per person, excluding wine and beer.