Farm To Table: An Interview with Chef Chris Van Hooydonk
I recently had the pleasure of speaking with chef Chris Van Hooydonk, the creator (along with wife Mikkel) of Chef’s Table – Backyard Farm, a unique and refined high-end farm-to-table culinary experience for private groups in Oliver, BC.
Chef Chris explains, “It’s inspired by an ‘old world’ approach to eating. It’s about the history of food culture which starts with the company around the table, the interaction, the engagement, and also about sharing the story of food, where it comes from, who grew it, and why they grew it.”
Upon arrival, you may not know what to expect. A lovely rustic post-and-rail fence lines a gravel driveway, and a spacious front yard showcases a chef’s garden which likely brims with fresh salad greens and seasonal veggies in summertime. A modest house with large front windows sits humbly back partially concealed by foliage.
As soon as you open your car door, your senses will transport you to a time when perhaps your mom or grandma offered you a slice of warm bread fresh out of the oven all smothered in melted butter.
What a pleasant surprise to walk through the front door into a beautiful contemporary-style dining room adorned with large unique lighting fixtures and charming country pieces. Cream-coloured walls, accented with slate-grey, accentuate dark wood floors. Cream vaulted ceilings and large windows in the dining room create a bright and airy spaciousness from where you can enjoy a lovely view of the garden and beyond.
From your table, you can sip your chosen wine varietal and watch as Chef Chris, who is Red Seal certified and who at one time worked as a saucier on a cruise ship cooking for two-thousand guests, creates farm-to-table culinary creations from his kitchen stage.
I was thrilled to have an opportunity to interview Chef Chris about his background, vision, and inspiration behind the unique Chef’s Table – Backyard Farm experience. And let me tell you, he had lots of great stuff to share!
When did you know that you first wanted to be a chef?
At a very very young age. I grew up in Alberta with my mom. My parents were divorced so we were what you call latchkey kids at a pretty young age. Mom worked three jobs to keep us in the house that we were born and raised in.
We started dinner before mom came home from work. I was lucky to be raised in a family setting where homecooked meals were common. Obviously, it’s much more affordable for a single-family home to prepare food rather than go out.
A lot of our weekends and holidays were immersed around family getting together.
I don’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a chef. I’d say probably around eight years old. My mom was a very good cook and my Oma and grandparents all cooked honestly. It was much more than just sustenance. It was also about the socializing aspect, so yeah probably eight-years-old (when) I started cooking at home.
What is your first memory of your love for cooking?
I have a picture of me sitting on the counter at my Oma’s house when I was two years old. Oma did things that drove my mom crazy from this perspective because it was an expectation for me at a young age that I was able to sit on the counter, pull anything out of the pantry, and mix it together. The rule was that I had to taste it. I’d mix peanut butter, rice, and flour together. I was two-years-old so had no idea what was going on.
I don’t remember when I was two, but the picture proves that I used to get to do that and make a giant mess all over the kitchen. But yeah, it was just part of our upbringing. This was common for us. We didn’t really know it any other way.
That’s kind of what developed this business as well as the idea that mealtime should be shared with people that you care about or respect whether it’s business or family. There is so much more than just sustenance. It needs to be an experience. I was lucky enough to have that often, that’s for sure.
What kind of training did you do to become a chef?
I started my apprenticeship in 1998 with Harvest Golf Club under Chef Jim Armstrong. We were rated the #1 and #2 restaurant when Rod Butters opened Fresco so it was the Harvest and Fresco. I spent four years there and then I finished in 2001 and got my Red Seal as the top apprentice in my class.
I needed some money so I worked on a cruise ship instead of going to competition.
The theoretical side of schooling and having lots of time was important to my learning process and getting Red Seal certified was very much the baseline beginning of my career.
The majority of my experience and history have been from one-on-one mentorship. Management training mentorship just continued on. I’ve had so many fantastic mentors over the years. I try and replicate that as much as I can in this kitchen.
What do you love most about your job?
Working, living, and cooking at home and having my kids around every day in a career that is not known for that.
My wife sets the room for service. We set the tables with varietal specific glassware. The kids might be in the back doing artwork on the table in my office while we’re prepping in the kitchen.
I think it’s taking what I love, loving my craft of culinary arts, and being able to add the other parts of my life that I love most.
I love being a farmer as well. The idea of being able to grow a majority of the ingredients that we’re putting on our menus here is a huge benefit and bonus. Being outside and being able to nurture the blossom into two-pound peaches off these beautiful trees and to be able to say that we did this is a huge thing.
Also having the opportunity to really connect with people on a mutually understood level. It doesn’t matter your background, your history, your education, what you do for a living. Everybody has to eat and it’s really interesting to see everybody be on common ground when it comes to food.
What’s the funniest incident that has happened in your kitchen?
After poaching organic potatoes in hot duck fat, I strained the fat into a ‘deli cup’ to cool. Upon attempting to remove said fat, I grabbed the deli cup and it split on the side, causing a projectile spray of very hot duck fat all over the front of me, and my pants.
To avoid a rather scalding burn, Kyle witnessed me very abruptly taking my pants off (not realizing what had happened).
Needless to say, I was successful in avoiding a burn. Luckily there were no guests in the kitchen as I put on quite the unexpected “show”!
We call it the Backyard Farm Duck Fat Striptease.
What is your favorite dish to create?
I would say Duck Confit. I’m all about the classic methods. I do it the old-school way. It’s like taking something that’s not necessarily the most glamorous. With effort, time, a great recipe and method, you end up having this fantastic end result which is geared totally towards our food philosophies. We’re very much French-inspired and ingredient-driven.
(Duck Confit) also helped me acquire my wife apparently too. It wasn’t my good looks or charm, it wasn’t my talent or abilities or my ambition, it was my Duck Confit.
Also, bread. Bread, to me, is a symbol of food culture that you often hear and read about in cookbooks from very well-known chefs and artisans. Breaking bread is the beginning of food culture. You break bread with people that you love and care about. This goes back so many years.
We developed sourdough starters here at the farm. When we bake fresh crafted sourdough bread, it usually comes out of the oven about five minutes before the guests arrive. We bake enough so that people can buy it when they leave and enjoy it the next day.
We have an Italian plum sourdough starter that we developed seven years ago from Italian plums. The white film on the outside is naturally occurring yeast.
After we plate the last plate, either I or a culinary team member talks (with guests) about that meal, how we prepared it, where the produce came from, and what the idea of the pairing was. We do the same for the bread.
Baking bread and seeing something from start to finish (is like) nurturing something. The end result is so great. Something so simple. You can find great bread in a lot of places, in most restaurants here, but ours is very unique to our terroir off the farm which is something that I’m quite proud of.
What four ingredients are necessary in your kitchen?
Salt, butter, olive oil, and duck fat.
If you could prepare a meal for anyone, who would it be and what would you make?
I would prepare a meal for my grandparents who are no longer with us. My grandfather passed away on my 30th birthday. We were very very close growing up. We spent a lot of time there. They didn’t have the opportunity to see what my wife and I have built. They didn’t have a chance to meet our kids.
I would love the opportunity to sit at the table with them again and share all the hard work and effort, and the time and the thought that’s gone into this. I think they’d be so incredibly proud.
I think my grandfather would have been really excited to meet my children. He always knew that I was going to be a great chef and that this was something I had planned but he didn’t get a chance to see.
What would I make? I would probably go old-school knowing the things that they like, very simple palettes you could say. I would probably just do something really nice and comforting like roasted free-range chicken, mashed potatoes, veggies from the garden.
I’d go outside, walk around with them, pick heirloom carrots, beets, and you know, keep it nice and simple for them. Sit around and have a good conversation and a glass of wine.
Describe your style in three words
Quality-minded, ingredient-driven, French-inspired.
What are you most proud of in your career?
This. For sure. Being able to create a life and future for my family while doing what I love every day.
I’m really proud that we’ve come this far in seven seasons and that my kids are getting the life that I always wanted them to have, that I’m able to support my family in such a great community, and able to do it on my terms.
Who is your biggest supporter?
My wife. She stands beside me, shares my vision, and encourages me even in times of undue stress. She keeps me in check and is very honest with me. I can always get an honest answer out of her.
We respect each other as individuals as well as partners in marriage and business. She understands that I’m trying to do the best that I can. It’s nice to know I’ve got somebody that is standing beside me making sure that I’ve got that support system.
What would you want to have as your last meal?
That’s really hard to say. I really love eating so many things. Something somebody else cooked for me. Let’s go with that!
Are there any foods that you don’t like?
I can see the merit in all things for sure and I’m willing to try anything, but there isn’t anything that I’d say I won’t eat.
What do you think is the most challenging ingredient to work with?
Quince, mostly because it’s very limited in what you can do with it. I’ve done a lot of things but you have to cook it. I’ve done pickles, preserves, cooked it in numerous different ways.
Would that be the most challenging though? I like a challenge. I have always appreciated a challenge and to explore those challenges.
What is a quince?
They are the oldest cultivated fruit. Portuguese love quince. Spanish love quince. It goes very well with cheese. Membrillo is a quince paste. You cook the quince into a paste with spices until it’s almost a jelly full of natural pectins. You can’t eat it raw. You can try but all the moisture inside of your mouth disappears and it feels like you’ve got a layer of fur on the inside of your cheeks.
That being said, the reason why these trees were planted was not only for the ability to make purees and quince paste out of them, but they are the first tree to put blossoms out which attracts pollinators to your orchard. So back in the day before you could hire bees, they planted varieties that blossom first. We planted the (quince) tree four years ago now. But, you have to cook it to enjoy it.
Who does the cooking at home?
I do. It’s a blue job (Chris laughs).
The beautiful thing about a healthy, strong, and supportive marriage of mutual respect is that we have fashioned the home around dividing and conquering so I’m happy to cook.
We eat leftovers all the time which when I say the word “leftover” it’s not a bad thing by any means. But I enjoy cooking. It’s much easier for us to do it that way especially with a commercial kitchen design like this. It’s just much more efficient that way and I’m happy to do it.
What’s your favorite kitchen equipment or gadget?
I would say my Vitamix.
Also, I just got a brand new RATIONAL oven. I’ve only had it for three weeks and it blows me away every time I use it. It’s amazing! It’s always been a dream of mine and that dream has come to fruition. I haven’t figured out anything about it yet. I’ve got some training and I’ve just been trying everything I can. It’s amazing!
The blender in this kitchen gets used every single day, multiple times a day. To have this kitchen without a really great blender, I would be at a total loss.
Also my commercial dishwasher!
Tell me three things that you consider to be your cooking strengths
I really love doing Pastry Work.
I would also say Chocolate Work. I’m self-trained from that perspective. It’s something that I just had a lot of joy doing and learning.
You always need to stay inspired. If you want to call yourself a chef you need to be the best cook in your kitchen, the most inspiring, and you need to be able to write and execute your own dessert menus because a place like this doesn’t have a budget for a pastry chef. If you’re going to do an elaborate menu and you finish off with a very simple okay dessert that’s the last thing that people remember before coffee tea service.
And I’m really great at Butchery and cooking proteins. A lot of my career has been based around that as well. Getting into charcuterie has always been an interest of mine for sure. On the cruise ship, for example, I was the saucier for the main galley. I was cooking for two-thousand people, all the proteins for lunch and dinner. That was something that I got really good at real fast!
I should note that 100% of the time we use ethically-raised and harvested meats here. We use Two Rivers Meats.
If you had just one wish what would it be?
I have a little blue Subaru that my wife let me keep after we had the children, not because she had a choice. It was paid for and it was my dream car when I was 19. I’ve been able to take it up there (Area 27 Motorsports Park) three or four times a year. I would like to explore that a little bit more, would be my wish.
I would love to build a purpose-built race car, to be in the GTU series. It would be great to have a membership.
When I’m snowboarding or sitting behind the wheel of my car at the racetrack, I’m thinking about what’s directly in front of me and nothing else for the whole time that I’m there. It’s so good for my soul and stress relief because it’s the only time that I can actually get my brain to shut off. And it’s something that I’m finding to be very important for balance as well. It gives me that sense of release.
Are you working on any big projects right now?
Our patio development is a very big one. That’s something that’s been six years in the making.
Being able to have an outdoor space and have a wood-burning kitchen, in essence, is the next big project for us. The design, the development, all those things are very exciting.
We’ve always wanted outdoor dining because it is very refined and high-end in the actual dining room. There’s a lot of opportunities out there to diversify our offerings.
About Chef’s Table – Backyard Farm
Chef Chris at Chef’s Table – Backyard Farm offers a unique private culinary experience tailored to your group.
It has really taken off here in Oliver, so much so that you need to book way in advance! This is not a place that you can drop in or book only a week ahead. You need to book now for next season.
Menus are based on seasonal ingredients and developed weekly for confirmed clients. Guest will receive their menu the week before they arrive and will be given wine pairing suggestions so they can shop Oliver’s amazing wineries for their wine to accompany their evening courses.