Mark Filatow is one of British Columbia's best chefs and sommeliers, and he owns and operates Waterfront Restaurant & Wine Bar in the city of Kelowna in the northern Okanagan Valley. He's won countless awards—Waterfront Restaurant was just named 'Best Okanagan Restaurant' for the sixth year in a row by Vancouver Magazine—but I didn't know that when I decided to write an article on him (Northwest Travel Magazine, Dec 2013). It was Filatow's ability to draw out the true flavors of farm-fresh vegetables that grabbed my attention.
In preparation for writing the article, I interviewed Filatow, and he had more fascinating things to say than I could fit into the piece. Most of this stuff will appeal to anyone passionate about eating local, especially chefs. For those fascinated with cooking, it's a great look inside of the mind of a cutting-edge chef, too.
Without further adieu, here is the interview in full:
What is the winter food scene at Waterfront Restaurant & Wine Bar like?
It’s like a warm hug. We tend to start slow cooking a lot of things, so there will be a lot of braise items on the menu and a lot of off cuts.
How do you get the fresh flavors of local produce in the winter months, when so little is growing?
We really work off the storage crops. This year, we worked in a lot of house-fermented stuff, and we’re going to do a lot more in the future. Other dishes might include wild-fermented horseradish with a wild lacto front. Also, oysters will start up in the winter when the water gets cold again. Not that oysters are a warm hug, but they sure are nice when the water’s cold.
I heard that you try to match your dishes to the winter moods of your patrons...
Yeah, for me, my mood kind of changes in the winter. I like roasted vegetables, for example. In the summertime, I like a really light approach to vegetables—if they’re cooked at all. In the winter you get the squashes and potatoes, and the onions. We’re fully stocked with local garlic, carrots, beets, rhudabegas, and parsnips. All those beautiful, delicious, sugary root vegetables. Then there’s the brassica, the brussels sprouts and the kales that just turn amazing with that first frost.
What do you find the most difficult about cooking in the winter and, potentially, the most rewarding?
The most difficult is just trying to not cook outside of what is local and available. You know, it’s pretty easy—you can just grab a tomato or a strawberry—but will it be any good? No, it’s not gonna be any good at all really. The challenge is staying true to what you do and what will taste the best anyways.
You mentioned “empty flavors” in the past, what exactly do you mean by that?
I’m sure that you guys (in Oregon) get inundated with this, too. In March, the California strawberries start to come, and they’re big and beautiful and have great market appeal, but they don’t really taste like a phenomenal strawberry. I think people kinda get lost—they see a recipe and it includes strawberries and they see the strawberries in January and they really want to make it. So, instead of having something fantastic in June, you have something mediocre in January. Those empty flavors abound when food travels long distances and out of season, whereas, when you get a fresh asparagus spear out of the ground and you eat it within 24 hours and it comes form down the road, it’s a different beast.
Who are some of the major players in Waterfront’s life in terms of local farmers and producers? How do you work together?
Big Guy—he’s literally a big guy—an ex-Northern Californian outdoor grower. He moved up here, and he’s a potatoe farmer. He grew a couple varieties at first, but never russet potatoes. After the first year, I convinced him, and he grew about 12 tons and he’s super happy with us. And for us it’s fantastic to have a potato supply, with all types of potatoes, for about 11 months out of the year. His farm is called Sweet Life Farms.
That’s awesome to get to work together like that—to actually help to shape someone’s garden.
Yeah, for me, it brings a great sense of satisfation. For him, it’s economically viable. It’s not that he’s just growing it because I want it: it makes sense for him. And that’s a huge thing. For me, I’m always trying to chase the potato and the garlic and the carrot and the onion in March and April, because that’s when the local supply really starts dwindling. Unless you’ve really done the work, you won’t have much luck and you’ll really have to outsource from outside of the town, the province, and the country.
We also work with Green City Acres and he does everything by bicycle. He has a sort of CSA, where you give him a piece of your backyard and he pays you back in vegetables. He’s also leasing a larger plot of land and they are very restaurant sauvy and ready. They’re growing all types of great things, such as pea shoots, baby beets—all kinds of things that are really built toward the restaurant market.
You referred to him as the “Bicycle Farmer” during our dinner, which was really funny and made me thing: Alright, let’s check this guy out.
Yeah, he’s kinda cheating now. He bought one of the three-cylenderr Suzukis, like the tiniest little toy truck you’ve ever seen. He’s still going to the market and delivering by bicycle, but he’s kinda evolved.
Does he just show up on your door with whatever’s fresh?
No, he’s email and tech sauvy. A lot of the farmers are. You just text him an order and he’ll get back to you with an email that lists the price. It’s first come, first serve, so it’s whoever orders the quickest.
Is there anything you can’t get in Kelowna that you wish you could?
Ah, fresh figs (laughs). I think the only thing that we’re really lacking is a local abattoir, you know, a really local meat supply from the town rather than from farms around the province. We get meat from just outside of town, but, historically, there was a lot of animal husbandry here. But that’s really gone away. It’s the same thing, I’m sure, where you are, the way federal inspection moved in an all of the local abattoirs got swallowed up by the large ones and disappeared.
Lastly, the restaurant was recently renovated, and you said that this allowed you to do more complex things. Do you have some examples?
It’s really changed and jumped our food forward. Mostly because of the space, but also because of the equipment. The way we have the line set up now, we have a person wholly responsible for expediting and plating. So, the cooks can just cook, and the expediter can plate so it frees us up for a little more complex plating. The garneshes have also become more complex. We’ve really just made it more difficult for ourselves (laughs). Oh, this will make it easier (in a mocking tone), we’ve got a big professional oven.
Besides making more bread, we’re doing a lot more drying—we’ve always done a lot of canning and freezing. Also natural ferments, just lacto ferments on everything from cabbage to wild horseradish.
That’s above my head: Is the lacto ferment for like sauerkraut and similar things?
I bet canning and drying plays a big role in the winter menu.
Yeah, we pull from the freezer basically about 600lbs of berries, and we use that on the menu all winter long. And then there’s canned apricots and the canned cherries and it just goes on and on. The sauerkraut, the crabapple jam...
Do you expedite sometimes?
I do, yeah. I probably do three to four nights a week.
I guess that’s it, do you have anything you’d like to add?
I don’t think so. You had the first and foremost experience of eating with us, and I got that you appreciated it and understood it all. For us, that’s the hardest message to get across. We serve a lot of different types of people here, and some people love what we do and some people don’t quite understand it or maybe have only dined in a sort of, narrow window. We try to broaden the horizon in that aspect and try to get people to open their eyes a bit to different things—the different flavors and textures.
I ate your rhubarb dessert and I got a gummy rhubarb and that displays a modern cooking technique, but I think of those different flavors and textures as... well, I really think that what you guys seem to do is give the diner the flavors intrinsic to the produce. What’s already there in the first place.
It really is the basis for it. If you make a carrot soup, it should taste like carrot. Too many people make the mistake of adding other things to it, and they end up masking the carrot flavor. I think that some fo the best stock is made in the style of an Italian brodo, so it’s a one-ingredient stock.
Is there a group of chefs that you look back on particularly for inspiration? Like, French cooking in the 18th century or…
I’m really looking backwards in a lot fo places. My restaurant chef Wayne grabbed this old cookbook for Schewavester [sic.] cuisine, which is a providence in Germany, an area that isn’t demarcated really anymore. They were doing a potato noodle, which was similar to a gnocchi only the potato is grated after its cooked with flour and egg. We do it only we added some tongue and chopped up sauerkraut to it. That book was probably written in the 40s, and we’re messing around a lot with charcuterie and kinda looking back at how simply things used to be done.
It really worked for me, as a diner. I said to myself, one wow: this is how you taste farm fresh. I think it’s really amazing how you’ve turned the whole thing on its head. It really blew me away.
It’s all fun. Heading to Italy this fall for Slow Food. They want to keep their rural techniques alive, and Slow Food sponsored this Italian salami-maker to write a book on butchery and he’s going to teach an old-school Italian charcuterie. We’re going to go there and slaughter a pig and then break it down and make the classics. There’s three of us coming from Kelowna, and it will be a lot of fun.