“This really is a dream job for me,” said Carmen Ingham, the new executive chef at Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star Wickaninnish Inn Tofino. The British Columbia-born Ingham took over the kitchen at this deluxe property on the west coast of Vancouver Island earlier this year.
We recently chatted with the newly promoted chef about the challenges — and benefits — of cooking on an island, what he’s planning for The Pointe Restaurant’s upcoming menus and why he recently started making art with edible ingredients.
“Tofino is a great community for chefs. It’s very supportive. We all want each other to succeed,” Ingham said.
Known for its long sandy beaches, eclectic surfer vibe and increasingly inventive restaurants, this oceanfront town on the far western edge of Canada seems to attract creative, entrepreneurial types, drawn to its end-of-the-road feel. While there are only 2,000 year-round residents, Tofino issues more than 500 business licenses each year.
“The fact that we don’t have any big box chains here really allows the benchmark to be much higher. There are no bad places to eat.”
As a child, Ingham went camping in Tofino with his family. After relocating here this year with his wife and four-year-old, he said, “I’m excited that my daughter will grow up at the beach.”
The Challenges of Island Cooking
Vancouver Island chefs often work collaboratively to source products, though as Ingham said, “we all do different things with the same ingredients.”
The talented Ingham is no stranger to island life. Most recently, he served as head chef at the well-regarded Olo Restaurant in British Columbia’s island capital of Victoria, and he credits his several years as sous chef at Sonora Resort (situated on a remote isle among British Columbia’s Discover Islands accessible only by float plane, helicopter or water taxi) with helping to shape both his philosophy and his kitchen management skills.
“It’s extremely important to place constraints on yourself to challenge your creativity,” Ingham said.
New Menus and Creative Touches
In Wickaninnish Inn’s window-lined Pointe Restaurant, “we do a different tasting menu every week, so I started by creating new tasting menus.” Recent multi-course meals featured dishes like Humboldt squid and sidestripe shrimp with an English pea sunomono (a Japanese pickled vegetable salad), crispy duck confit with rhubarb purée and sorrel, and steak served in a lingonberry jus with whipped potatoes and king oyster mushrooms.
“Now, the food is a bit more mine,” the chef said after launching the inn’s recent main spring menu. He’s created appetizers like quail with a nettle and sunflower seed pesto, inspired by the idea of “the quail running around in the nettles,” and octopus served in a French Canadian-style split pea broth topped with a poached egg.
Ingham offers sturgeon that he brines, cold smokes, then cooks sous vide and pairs with sauerkraut, trout roe and a juniper vinaigrette. He braises scallops in a brown rice miso and layers them around savory cake-like squares made from salted and dried fir tips.
“The Nordic food movement has been very good for Canada,” Ingham said, because it has highlighted northern ingredients like fir, juniper and many types of seafood that both regions have in common.
“I’ve started doing food artwork using dried fruits or vegetables,” Ingham said. He incorporates rosehips, tomato peels and other edible ingredients into paintings that he posts occasionally on his Instagram feed. “It’s an unwinding thing to do after work, instead of watching TV.”
“Although I’m not a trained artist, I think I have a good eye,” he said. It’s a talent that clearly extends to his beautifully composed plates on the tables of The Pointe Restaurant.
Besides, said the young chef who’s found his dream job, “I love when people are excited about food.”