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‘Mind-blowing’ B.C. Seafood Festival grows bigger and tastier by the year

Mia Stainsby – Vancouver Sun

July 6, 2018

The 2018 festival was three times larger than the previous year and featured an impressive line-up of talent: six prominent international chefs, 36 from B.C. and Alberta, and award-winning mixologists.

You risk gluttony at the B.C. Seafood Festival. Think of it. Two dozen Vancouver Island oyster growers with bushels and bushels of oysters, and shuckers shucking as fast as they can for hours. All yours. That is, as much as you can eat. And this was but one of many edible events at the 12th annual festival in Comox, held June 8-17.

[Laura Matting and Leif Jason knock back oysters at the B.C. Seafood Festival. Mia Stainsby / PNG]

“It’s mind-blowing. It’s decadence,” exclaimed attendee Laura Mytting. “It’s luxurious and being spoiled in all of the best ways.”

I interviewed her because she and partner Leif Jason looked beatific, knocking back oysters and drinks. She’d lost track of how many oysters she’d eaten but guessed anywhere between 10 to 20. It was the couple’s third time at the Seafood Festival.

“It’s a nice excuse to dress up,” added Jason.

[Gordy McLellan of Max’s Oysters shucking oysters for guests.Mia Stainsby / PNG]

Gordy McLellan, of Max’s Oysters, was one of the shuckers.

“I brought 60 dozen and I shucked 35 dozen,” he said. “It’s an awesome celebration of what we do!” You can see why the event is called Shucked. Like the oyster, it’s sort of how you feel at the end.

It would have been easy to overdo it but I kept my crustacean consumption to a level-headed six because I was attending the Friday gala dinner a few hours later.

What began 12 years ago as a one-day event to raise awareness about our seafood industry now stretches over 10 days with some 40 events, making it one of B.C.’s biggest food celebrations.

The 2018 festival was three times larger than the previous year and featured an impressive line-up of talent: six prominent international chefs, 36 from B.C. and Alberta, and award-winning mixologists.

The Signature Weekend at the seaside Filberg Heritage Lodge and Park in Comox is the main attraction (more on that later). But as well as events on the gorgeous festival grounds, there are numerous satellite goings-on like winemaker dinners and tours that showcase the Comox Valley, including wildlife, beach geology, producer visits, snorkelling with seals, a flyover of glaciers and more.

I started on a Friday, signed up for three tours: the Fanny Bay Oyster plant run by a fifth generation of family operators; a geoduck and sea cucumber farm; and Wayward Distillery where all the spirits are honey-based “to shape it into flavourful and complex spirits unlike anything else.” Their Krupnik liqueur was so delicious (tasted of Christmas) my husband decided he must have it and returned the next day to buy a bottle. Urgently.

[Barefoot Bistro’s Melissa Craig and Pino Posteraro, cooking at the gala dinner. Mia Stainsby / PNG]

Friday ended with the gala dinner prepared by 14 female chefs. Melissa Craig of Whistler’s Bearfoot Bistro had high-profile Pino Posteraro working as an assistant on her albacore tuna tataki. At other stations, Eva Chin of Royal Dinette dished out poached razor clams, sea urchin, sorrel and laver bread toast; Shelome Bouvette of Chicha had diners lining up for her Dungeness crab and sidestripe prawn causa; Caitlin Mark of the Westin Bayshore’s H2 Rotisserie and Bar torched scallops to serve with Chardonnay compote and puffed wild rice; and Andrea Carlson created a magical geoduck in custard with fuki and more geoduck shaved on top. Yes, I tried all 14 dishes. Other were making return visits to their favourite stations.

“The female chefs were all so even-tempered,” says Nathan Fong, a festival organizer. “There was no arrogance, they worked as a team and all their dishes were different and colourful. I heard so many people say it was amazing to see a collective gathering of female chefs, I was so proud of them.”

At the dinner, I chatted with guest chef Peruvian-born Jose Duarte of Taranta restaurant in Boston, where he melds Peruvian and Italian cuisine with dishes like gnocchi di yucca. He and Australian celeb chef Mark Best were giving a master class on ceviche the next day.

“The festival is a great opportunity to interact with chefs from other parts of the world, share stories and learn from each other,” Duarte said.

[Gala dinner at the B.C. Seafood Festival, cooked by 14 female chefs. Mia Stainsby / PNG]

He certainly came with ideas and wisdom to share. A passionate leader in sustainability to the point where all ingredients in his restaurant is traceable to origin, he received a Most Influential Latino in Massachusetts Award for defending farm worker rights, developing food traceability mechanisms, and other green initiatives.

On Saturday and Sunday, it was time for the Signature Weekend event, where some 13 food stations and 13 beverage stations (wine, beer, coffee, spirits) set up for the day at Filberg Park.

As well, chefs competed, shucking oysters, shaking Caesar cocktails, and whipping up seafood chowders. But the high-stake battle was the black box competition that went on over two days. Twelve accomplished chefs battled through six heats, until it was down to the winner. That last one standing was chef Quang Dang of Araxi Restaurant in Whistler. Matthias Fong of River Cafe in Calgary took second place.

“With the very last heat, we threw in geoduck as a surprise ingredient,” Nathan Fong said.

[Colleen Christie emceed the black box championship competition at B.C. Seafood Festival. Mia Stainsby / PNG]

While the chefs were cooking, Fong told the audience about the time he and Hidekazu Tojo (of Tojo’s Japanese restaurant) cooked geoduck for Prince William and Duchess Kate during their 2016 B.C. visit. Geoduck, for those unfamiliar with it, looks very much like a giant phallus. Shown one, Prince William said it was a “presentationally challenging species.”  And as they were offered geoduck sashimi with mustard miso sauce. Kate remarked on how “slightly firm” it was.

“Oh no,” Fong thought, the British press will go to town on that. And sure enough, “Kate giggles as she tucks into giant willy-shaped clam,” headlined The Sun the next day. “What is that great phallic thing Kate and William have been getting their lips around?” teased Metro UK. “Kate and William eat ‘phallic’ dish during Canadian food and wine festival” reported the Express.

Fong says it was all good for B.C. seafood.

“It put geoduck on the map, and B.C. is now importing to England, France, Italy, Asia. I had a YouTube geoduck video on and the hits went from 500 to 148,000 after those stories appeared.”

[Enjoying a round of seafood at the Baked n’ Boiled event. Mia Stainsby / PNG]

I spent part of Saturday checking out the excellent Comox Valley Farmers Market, buying some cheese and arepas (Venezuelan corn-flour flatbreads) filled with cheese. Back at the festival, I caught some chef demos in the afternoon. In the evening, what else but more food? At Baked N’ Boiled, where chefs served up heaps of scallops, prawns, salmon, chorizo, veggies, many went for second helpings and some, for thirds, I was happy not to stagger back to the hotel.

[A serving of seafood from the Baked and Boiled event. Mia Stainsby / PNG]

The weekend is family friendly with activities (cooking and crafts) for kids, and music for all. It’ll be back in 2019 from June 7 to 16, so keep a lookout on

“I’m already trying to think of ways to outdo this year,” says Fong.

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