Karen Wilson: Rod Butters, Fresco
If there is one single ingredient that captures Rod Butters imagination it's the ever-versatile yet still humble tomato.
The celebrated chef proprietor at Fresco Restaurant in Kelowna has had a love affair with this red fruit dating back nearly 20 years so much so that he considers the tomato the base of his business. For years guests have dined on his signature tomato soup remarking on its rich flavour, spiked as it is with a surprising dash of Bombay Sapphire gin.
"I'm tempted to say peanut butter and jam sandwiches are my signature dish, but really this is it," he grins, looking up at a rack piled high with more than 35 varieties of heirloom tomatoes. "The tomatoes grown in this valley really are pretty fantastic."
Butters commitment to the twin pillars of today's cuisine fresh and local dates back to his early days as a chef in various high-profile restaurants throughout Canada including Scara-mouche in Toronto, Pacific Palisades in Vancouver and the Chateau Whistler Resort. By the time he earned the coveted Relais & Chateaux designation for the Wick-aninnish Inn's Pointe Restaurant in Tofino, he was firmly established as one of the top chefs in the country.
It was around that time that Butters heard the siren call of the Okanagan Valley, and in 2001 he responded by opening the doors to Fresco and immediately carved out a name as the premium restaurant in the B.C. interior. Within a year, the B.C. Restaurant and Food Services Association honoured Butters with restaurateur of the year not too surprising given that his commitment to fresh ingredients and innovation had already earned the restaurant four diamond AAA status. Last year, the industry formally acknowledged that Butters is no flash in the proverbial pan of Canadian cuisine by installing him into the BC Restaurant Hall of Fame.
As chairperson of the Okanagan Chef's Association, Butters believes the
Okanagan Valley is on the tremendous growth curve and he points to the growing quality
"What this is saying to me as a professional is that there is now the clientele here to support these independents. And we need the support of the population base in order to keep the quality going."
Butters anticipates that June 2009 will mark yet another turning point in the development of the Okanagan culinary arts when Kelowna plays host to the national convention of the Canadian Culinary Federation, which represents more than 100 chefs and cooks from across the country.
But while the conference provides an opportunity to showcase the region, Butters acknowledges the industry remains highly reliant on the people who live here year-round.
"Tourism is about the experience of the whole wine region, but it takes the people who live here to support the individual restaurants, and that comes down to choice. It's easy to have $50 in your pocket and spend it at the Cactus Club."
Looking to the future, Butters would like to see more partnerships established with the farmers markets, and more focus placed on local events that celebrate not only wine, but also food. "Maybe we should look at a culinary festival. We need more initiatives like that so that we can celebrate what's growing in this valley."
Back in the kitchen, Butters launches into the soup with a ripe offering of cascade tomatoes, chosen for its particular meatiness. Once the base is down, he adds a striped Roma, and then garnishes with a Sungold and a hefty dose of fresh basil sprinkled on top.
Butters shakes his head thinking how much things change with time, and how we grow to appreciate the things we once shrugged off. Truth is, he never liked tomatoes as a child. Fortunately for everyone, tastes change, and that's a sweet fruit to swallow.
Karin Wilson is a journalist and Associate Director of the Okanagan Institute.