When one chooses to work in restaurants for virtually an entire adult lifetime, that choice affords certain luxuries amidst the often-chaotic conditions of a busy professional kitchen. Those luxuries are few, trust me.
But one of these privileges is being allowed to handle ingredients that many food geeks dream of on a regular basis. Those chanterelle mushrooms that you see in food magazines that don't even look real — chances are that somewhere in Canada a low-wage restaurant slave cook is cleaning more of them for tonight's dinner service than you will touch in a lifetime.
While we as cooks are able to conspire and collude in the kitchen over many specialty items, we get equally excited over humble vegetables that are freshly picked and haven't experienced border crossings.
Most of us know the usual suspects in the grocery store's tomato zone. Roma, beefsteak, hothouse, cherries, possibly even tomato gems or campari tomatoes nowadays. Local home gardeners, who are not fanatical enough to purchase seed, would be most familiar with varieties such as Sweet Millions or Early Girls — seedlings sold locally due to their general varietal happiness in our climate. Those of us with the "misfortune" of slaving away as a cook know an endless variety— Purple Cherokee, Black Krim, Brandywine, Yellow Taxi — none of these would be recognizable as edible to anyone but a pro cook or a self-proclaimed tomato junkie.
Over the course of my kitchen career, however, waiting for locally grown tomatoes is on par with the salmon season opening up or pine mushrooms starting to pop. Ingredients that aren't available on a regular basis are simply more special to use. Eager to see, touch, smell, and taste, there are not many ingredients that make me as happy as a juicy, ripe tomato plucked off the vine waiting to explode in my mouth.
I experienced my first love, the Sungold tomato, in Vancouver. The year was 1999 and as a junior cook working for Chef Julian Bond, I had the good fortune of being under a chef who was already purchasing from small, independent, provincial farmers long before it was deemed "cool." Having never seen a giant crate of rainbow-colored tomatoes, in a multitude of shapes and sizes, ever before in my life — I was shocked not just by their looks but also at how good they smelled. When the sous chef reached into a separate box and gave me a Sungold I felt as though it was the first tomato I had ever eaten. It was everything a tomato was supposed to be. Juicy. Fruity. Sweet. Perhaps it was the generally bleak quality of all other supermarket tomatoes at this time that made this tomato so special to me. Or perhaps it was simply a perfect tomato. From that point on I was always on the lookout for Sungolds, no matter where I was working in Canada — and that hasn't changed with being in charge of the outlets at Nita Lake Lodge.
Fast-forward to August 2012 and my search for Sungolds led to Rootdown Organics, a small-scale farm operation located on the cusp of Pemberton. The blood, sweat, and tears that produces some of the tastiest and freshest vegetables that Nita Lake Lodge uses over the summer season come courtesy of Sarah McMillan and Simone McIsaac. Rootdown Organics supplies local restaurants with premium just-yanked-from-the-ground vegetables, in addition to providing weekly harvest boxes to locals, and showing themselves at the Whistler Farmer's Market and the Kitsilano Market in Vancouver. They are busy and good at what they do. Sarah and Simone met while completing a six-month apprenticeship at the UBC Farm, learning how to become small-scale organic growers. The mix of both classroom and "in the field" learning has paid off as they consistently produce quality product that tastes as nature intended it to.
Visiting the farm during August, I was able to ask Sarah what she does with tomatoes. Sliced, good olive oil, salt, pepper, fresh basil — pretty much standard for a tomato lover. When asked to provide tips for Whistler tomato growers, she quickly mentioned: get them started fast in a greenhouse or at least covered under plastic and choose an early and quick ripening variety. Sounds like the almighty Sungold could be the perfect Whistler tomato. The Sungold is what I would call a "performer." Once it starts, it most often yields plenty of fruit and is fast to ripen.
Once they are in full swing, we will begin using them for specials at Nita Lake Lodge. Commonly, recipes for dishes coming from professional kitchens are less than desirable for the home cook to produce. As a husband and father of three, and a chef working long hours — I seek ease of use, holding power, and friendliness for the end user when choosing what to make for a treat, snack, or dinner at home. Something so perfect as a ripe local tomato, of any variety, doesn't need a lot done to it. A fresh salsa, or "pico de gallo" in Mexico, is a great use of tomatoes and requires few ingredients, so that you can enjoy the last month of summer instead of running around trying to find ingredients that don't exist on shelves in Whistler shops. If you were to make a stop at the Whistler Farmers' Market this weekend, you may find some excellent local tomatoes starting to appear that would make a great salsa. Chances are you won't see many Sungolds though, as they are all sitting in the kitchen at Nita Lake Lodge.