Plating Her Passion: An Interview with Chef Sarah Fiore at Phantom Creek Estates
Phantom Creek Estates, is Oliver, British Columbia’s newest gem, sitting high up on the Black Sage Bench like a diamond forged by the land. It’s an exquisite world-class winery surrounded by some of the oldest Noble grape varieties originally planted in the valley.
Music enveloped me as soon as I stepped out of my car onto the tiled stone walk. The towering and elegant expressive figure group designed by Wu Ching Ju, called Pro Terra et Natura (For Earth and Nature), captivated my attention. It represents the ‘gentle spirits of mother earth and nature’ and are the largest of three sets located throughout the world. Two others are situated in the Royal Gardens in London, England and the Financial District in Shang Hei, China.
All of the art pieces here, I learned later, are all about what is required to make wine. They pay homage to agriculture and the elements we need in order to exist.
Even the pattern of stone tiles that lead guests from their cars to their experience has significant meaning. The pattern which begins small and becomes bigger and bigger the closer you get to the tasting room is a depiction of a cross-section of the Okanagan Valley from the Monashee mountains through rough creeks to creek beds and to the Okanagan River on the valley floor.
Each artistic detail at Phantom Creek Estates has been carefully considered so it’s no surprise that the same thought, creativity, and detail also goes into the food. It’s really about delivering guests an impeccable wine-tasting and food-pairing experience.
An Interview with Chef Sarah
Today, I was here to interview the chef behind the food and wine pairing experiences at Phantom Creek Estate Winery, chef Sarah Fiore.
Sarah is a passionate chef who knew at a young age what she wanted to do. Thanks to a high school guidance counsellor and a few mentors, she found her path and worked her way up in the demanding restaurant world to become recognized by the Ontario Hostelry Institute (OHI) as one of the top thirty chefs under thirty years old in 2018.
From Toronto all the way to New York and back, Chef Sarah is now “plating her passion” here at one of Canada’s finest wineries, Phantom Creek Estates.
Here’s her story.
When did you first know that you wanted to be a chef?
When I was fifteen. I wasn’t a huge fan of high school. I skipped a lot of classes. My guidance counselor pulled me aside one day. She was concerned why I was missing so much school. My grades were still pretty high. I never missed tests or projects.
I told her, “I don’t want to be here,” and she asked, “What do you want to do? What makes you happy?
I was like “Cooking. Cooking makes me happy.” I just loved to go home — my grandmother lived with me at the time — and cook with her.
What is your first memory of your love for cooking?
Cooking with my grandmother. My whole childhood she would watch me and my sister a lot. It was always so magical watching her cook. Everything that she made always tasted so amazing. It wasn’t anything crazy. It was simple but it always tasted really good.
I remember she had this big wooden table in her basement where she would make all her fresh pasta and bread. She had a little stool for me to stand on. I’d watch and help her roll out pasta.
That’s what started my love for cooking.
What training did you do to become a chef?
My high school guidance counsellor told me about a culinary co-op program in the area. They chose specific students from different schools to specialize in the culinary industry, so I joined that program when I was in grade 11.
There were eight of us. The program helped us create business plans if we ever wanted to open our own business. We worked a few days a week at a banquet hall putting out a mass production of food essentially.
My teacher took us downtown for a school trip to show us one of the new best restaurants in Toronto. I instantly fell in love with it. It was an Italian restaurant (Buca). The chef (Rob Gentile) said that one of us could come for a couple weeks and spend time to learn what it’s like to work in a restaurant.
My teacher was hesitant to set me up with an interview because he didn’t want me traveling into the city on my own as a young female. I kept pushing for it and he eventually set me up. Me and two other guys had an interview with Rob. He ended up choosing me. It was only supposed to be for a couple of weeks but it ended up being a few months. I finished my grade 11 co-op there and went back in grade 12 and did my first semester co-op.
I got a full-paid scholarship to do a one-year culinary skills training at George Brown College. I graduated high school a semester early, and was already working at Buca full-time before I went to culinary school. I had to make the decision to stay and work full time and go to school at the same time when I received the scholarship. I continued to work at Buca while in school and graduated college on the Dean’s List.
How has your experience been as a woman in a predominantly male industry?
It’s tough, a lot of intense labour, but I was lucky enough to be surrounded by good group of people.
I was the youngest in the kitchen and one of the only females that wasn’t working pastry at the time. I was lucky with the group of guys in the kitchen. They all had ten years on me, but they treated me like their little sister. They were always there to teach and guide me.
People would reach out to Rob Gentile (Buca in Toronto) and he would push me toward certain reporters and writers to help me be recognized as a female chef.
There are a lot of (female) chefs that are getting recognition in bigger cities but it is a pretty male dominant theme. I was working in New York for a bit before COVID (too).
At the end of the day, it shouldn’t matter if you’re male or female. We’re all chefs and we’re all putting out food.
If you could prepare a meal for anyone who would it be and what would you make?
I would love to cook something for (the late) Anthony Bourdain.
I would make him my grandmother’s Osso Buco recipe braised in herb tomato sauce — it always tasted so good — and polenta. It’s one of my favorite dishes of hers. I remember when I ate it how happy I would feel.
He (Anthony) is a huge inspiration to me and I would love to share that with him. I feel like he would have appreciated that.
Are there any foods that you don’t like?
The only thing I won’t eat is insects. I did eat ants once in Copenhagen at Noma. They were on a dish.
In Thailand, they walk around with candied scorpions on a stick. One of my friends said, “Sarah, I’ll give you a hundred bucks if you eat one of those.”
I was like, “No! No matter how much money you give me, I will not eat insects.”
Other than that, I’ll try anything at least once.
Who is your biggest supporter?
I would have to say my mom even though she wasn’t 100% happy about me working in kitchens at first.
She always wanted me to be a lawyer or doctor. I had the grades to go to university but I didn’t want that. Once she saw that I was serious about this, and when I took the job at Buca, and moved downtown on my own (she came around).
I was seventeen and couldn’t sign a lease. I remember couch surfing for three months. She wasn’t too happy about that but when she realized that I wasn’t coming home and this was something that I wanted to do, she helped me find a place.
She’s definitely pushed me to be an independent person. She supported me moving to New York and being out here. Throughout my whole career she’s always been there.
What are you most proud of in your career?
My most proud moment was going to New York.
I had turned down Chef de Cuisine head chef positions (previously) because I felt I wasn’t ready yet. I still wanted to learn.
I had about four years of management experience being a sous chef and then the opportunity came to go to New York.
How long did you live in New York?
I spent a year there. It was great! It was a tough year for sure, but it really pushed me out of my comfort zone to do something different. If I didn’t take that step, I probably wouldn’t have ended up out here (at Phantom Creek).
I was in the process of trying to extend my (one-year) student visa when everything happened really quickly.
I was pretty oblivious to what was happening with COVID because I never watched the news, I didn’t have access to it really, and in New York no one was talking about it.
Then, all of a sudden, COVID started to get serious in New York. We had to tighten up. We started shortening our hours, taking less guests, and then suddenly we were closed. In a week, everything escalated.
A lot of my family (were saying) you need to come home now or else you might not be able to get back.
My lease was up in the middle of April so I left everything there. A friend emptied out my apartment and put everything in storage.
How did you come to work at Phantom Creek?
My visa was terminated because restaurants were closed in New York. Restaurants in Toronto were also closed.
I heard about the job opportunity out here (at Phantom Creek). It was supposed to be a four-month contract. I was like, “Why not? I don’t have anything else right now.”
It was a little nerve wracking being on the other side of the country and so far away from my family during the pandemic but I was here with a friend who I worked with in New York. She was from Vancouver originally. It was nice to not be completely alone.
What do you love most about your job?
I love creating an experience for guests, putting my passion onto a plate and having people enjoy it.
Tell me three things that you consider to be your cooking strengths.
One major cooking strength is balancing a dish well no matter how many ingredients.
Creativity is another.
Also, having pastry experience. Being able to create both savoury and sweet dishes.
What is your favorite Okanagan ingredients to work with?
I’ve had a lot of fun working with the beautiful organic fruits and vegetables that we get from the local farmers around here.
What four ingredients are necessary in your kitchen?
Salt, for sure; a great olive oil; some nice vinegars — we have a beautiful Chardonnay vinegar and Cabernet Sauvignon vinegar; and some fresh herbs to balance well-seasoned food, not to take from the ingredients but to enhance the flavor and highlight it.
What’s your favorite kitchen equipment or gadget?
My Vitamix. A really good blender is really key. At home, at work, the Vitamix is amazing!
Describe your style in three words.
Refined. Contemporary. Minimal.
Do you do the cooking at home?
I’ve been living in the staff accommodations and am in the process of moving into my own place but for the most part I do a lot of cooking.
I do love cooking at home. Living with some of the staff though we all taken turns cooking for each other which is nice.
What passions do you have outside of work that allow you to escape?
I love running. It’s good for mental health. Running has really helped me in that way. It relieves stress.
I (also) love trying new restaurants. My whole life is food and wine.
When I was in New York, I started to learn more about wine. Our sommelier held wine classes on Thursdays. That’s when I started really getting more into it.
I was always intrigued by food and wine pairings. Coming here (to Phantom Creek) and be being able to work with wine more closely is pretty amazing.
On my days off, I like to go to other wineries, see what’s out there, and learn and compare.
How do you feel you’ve changed from the first day on the job until now?
Definitely my knowledge. I’ve always been intrigued by restaurants around the world, what makes a restaurant the best, and why some restaurants have Michelin stars. We obviously don’t have that in Canada.
I became obsessed with the Michelin Guide. Before I moved to New York, it was on my bucket list to dine out at every Michelin star restaurant there. I was curious what makes them so special and why they receive such high accolades. It’s because they offer experiences.
It was expensive but that was my education to me, traveling around the world and trying different cuisines.
My knowledge of food has definitely expanded over the years from when I started.
Experience and Celebrate at Phantom Creek
If you are looking for a premium wine-tasting and food-pairing experience that celebrates the best of Oliver and the South Okanagan, then you must put Phantom Creek Estates on your bucket list!
Here are some of the experiences you can enjoy:
Wine-Tasting & Food-Pairing Experiences
Come and enjoy food offerings prepared by Chef Sarah and her team during your seated wine tasting experience.
There are shared pairings like charcuterie and cheese boards or individualized pairings which are changed seasonally to match the wines that are being released.
Chef Sarah revealed, “We are bringing back our charcuterie and cheese board so every piece of meat, cheese, and all the condiments are all meant to compliment different wines.”
“We (also) have a Sunchoke Dip (with) the savory Jerusalem artichoke. It’s going to be a fun sharing concept that will go with most of the wines that you have with your pairing,” Chef Sarah added.
Lunch and Dinner Series
Indulge in delicious food with family and friends while enjoying a stunning view of the Oliver valley. This March you can experience the Sunday Roast Lunch Series or the Steak Night Dinner Series. Visit the website for monthly updates and to reserve.
Special Event Dinners
Celebrate your special private event with an exquisite wine and food experience in one of Phantom Creek Estate’s exclusive private rooms. Visit the website to place a booking!
Wine Club Members
Phantom Creek Estates will be offering dinners to Wine Club Members this season. Learn the benefits of becoming a Wine Club Member.
Phantom Creek Estates Tours
You can also book a tour of Phantom Creek Estates during which time you’ll learn about the history, terroir, sustainable farming practices, and wine-making philosophy. The Founder’s Cellar Experience, ending in the magnificent Founder’s Cellar shown below, also includes a meticulously curated five-course menu paired with exclusive wines from the cellar!
Get In Touch
There are lots of wonderful reasons to visit Oliver, BC and Phantom Creek Estates this season!