By Nicole Fitzgerald
Just wrapping up talking to Ryan Leitch about the long-awaited grand opening of The Vineyard Restaurant in Pemberton, I reiterate the spelling of his name and his title.
“Executive chef,” I say.
I can’t see him, but if I could, I am sure he was visibly cringing. Something like when you receive one of those gaudy Christmas sweaters ornamented with jingling bells that doesn’t fit and always has a scratchy collar.
“Just call me chef,” he asks.
Okay maybe no bells and whistles, but the title still doesn’t fit.
“No. Call me a cook,” he said. “I like cooking. I’ve been an executive chef with a sous chef and a first and second chef (under me). I am just in a kitchen cooking food. That is what I love. We are all just co-workers here, all in here making nice food.”
Leitch, tired of spending more time in paperwork than at the cutting board, moved from higher-profile restaurants in Whistler and Vancouver to open the boutique Vineyard Restaurant, a 20-seat cozy affair set amongst the vines at the Pemberton Valley Vineyard and Inn. Like his title, the restaurant is unpretentious and boasts great heart.
“This is a much smaller thing,” he said. “It revolves around food. It’s about the love of fresh produce and product. We aren’t turning 300 guests a night. We all need to make a buck, but we want to do it right.”
I first visited The Vineyard at a special dinner for the Pemberton Winter Fest in February. I loved that you have to drive through tucked away farmlands to get there, then up a long dirt road lined with twinkling lights. You knew you were about to embark on something magical so far from the Whistler Village scene — the 20-minute drive north is part of the fun.
The log-cabin restaurant was nature personified: log archways opened to two dining areas warmed by a roaring fireplace. Amongst wood and local art, white-table cloths were ornamented with evergreens, fresh flowers and candlelight. Welcoming, cozy and naturally beautiful, the open kitchen may walk out fine dining dishes, but the ambiance is definitely Pemberton — think farmer, only in clean overalls with a white collared, pressed shirt underneath.
Local farmers, culinary artisans and foragers will play a lead role in this new dining room, the only fine dining establishment in Pemberton.
“We are trying to be a little bit hippie,” Leitch said. “We want to use as much local product as we can… I want to make sure that every plate that goes out, from bread to appetizer to entrée and dessert, that one ingredient comes from the property. That is our vision. Our goal.”
In addition to utilizing local farmers, The Vineyard will also pull produce from their own soil. The seven-acre property not only grows grapes for their wines, but also apples, pears, cherries and herbs. Fresh will take on a whole new meaning with “cooks” picking garden herbs only seconds before throwing them into a searing frying pan.
Cooks include Leitch and two employees with more than 30 years of combined cuisine experience.
Small kitchen, small team, small seating, but big, big dreams and taste.
The Vineyard only serves a set menu that changes every two to three weeks, with selection under each of the four courses. A restaurant after my own heart, the bread course is considered an appetizer.
“We are really focusing on the bread,” he said. “It’s the first thing you sit down with. There will be a selection of three different types with oil and vinegar, tapanadas and bruschetta. It’s a nice way to relax and start a meal even before making a decision.”
B.C. venison, Dungeness crab, spot prawns, halibut and sockeye salmon are a few mains to work their way onto the menu when in season.
While Leitch is schooled in French cooking, he prefers the fresh herbs, oils and vinegars of Tuscan cooking rather than heavy creams and butters.
An all-B.C. wine list accompanies dishes. Leitch and vineyard owner Patrick Bradner personally visited B.C. wineries to select bottles, such as La Frenz’s Viognier, not available in liquor stores. Of course, The Vineyard Restaurant will uncork their own wines as well.
The public is invited to celebrate the grand opening of The Vineyard Restaurant with an evening of food, wine and local art on Friday, June 1 from 7 to 10 p.m. at the Pemberton Valley Vineyard and Inn.
The Pemberton Arts Council fundraiser will toast food and wine along with artwork by Karen Love, Lisa Komuro, Lynn Pocklington and Vanessa Stark.
Tickets are $30.
For tickets, call 604-894-5857. For more information about the restaurant, visit whistlerwine.com.