Story by Michelle Hopkins
VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA — I have raised a couple of sons who are serious foodies. I guess you can say it’s a hazard of my job. When my son Jeffrey and his girlfriend Leah’s birthdays were fast approaching I asked them where they wanted to go to celebrate.
“Mom, let’s try Farmer’s Apprentice. Have you heard of it?” asked Jeff.
Have I heard of it? Who hasn’t? The one-year-old eatery off of Granville Street on West 6th has chalked up numerous kudos, including ranking No. 4 in the country in Vacay.ca’s 2014 Top 50 Restaurants in Canada Dining Guide and No. 1 in Vancouver in the listing that was compiled by the country’s leading chefs and culinary experts. I’d have to be living under a rock not to have heard of it.
Since it only seats 30 inside, I made a reservation two weeks in advance.
We arrived around 6 pm and already the eatery was packed, inside and out on the small patio. The cozy room is a casual mix of rustic and mismatched wood, mason jars with wild flowers, high shelves bursting with homemade preserves and some 1970s and ’80s vinyl spinning from a turntable — a throwback to my youth.
The decor is charming, but it’s the food that is the reason the restaurant is garnering so much attention. One of the latest culinary trends is the farm-to-table movement, which supports regional producers. The terms “fresh” and “local” are often used as trendy buzzwords, but at Farmer’s Apprentice the staff lives and breathes that philosophy.
Chef/owner Dave Gunawan’s daily plated menu is dictated by either what the farmers drop off to him in the morning or what he picks up. Then, Gunawan takes it from there, redefining West Coast cuisine with his own analytical stamp.
“Our philosophy is to be socially responsible on how we source our food,” says the shy, affable 33-year-old, who garnered his bachelor’s degree in civil and environmental engineering before realizing the chef lifestyle was more appealing. “We support young agrarians and food sovereignty through creativity.”
Making of a Masterful Vancouver Chef
After university, he studied at two culinary schools — Kendall College in Chicago and the Vancouver Community College.
It was while living in Chicago in 2004 that Gunawan met award-winning executive chef Chris Nugent of the famed Goosefoot. He credits Nugent for “whipping me into shape.”
“Chris taught me kitchen discipline and made me envision the possibility of being a chef,” Gunawan adds.
Goosefoot is where the young apprentice practiced what has become Farmer’s Apprentice’s style of cooking — a tasting-only format of dining.
Back in Vancouver, Gunawan and his work/life partner Dara Young (a former cook at the award-winning vegetarian restaurant Acorn), met while working at Vancouver’s highly touted West (No. 22 on the Vacay.ca ranking). After a short-lived stint as the top chef at West, Gunawan trekked around Europe for a few years, getting inspired by the cuisine in Spain, Flanders and the Nordic countries. He landed at Belgium’s world-renowned In De Wulf, where he honed his skills for three months.
In 2012, he returned to Vancouver to open the widely lauded Wildebeest (No. 61 on the Vacay.ca list). A year later, he left the Gastown eatery to pursue his entrepreneurial dreams. Thus, Farmer’s Apprentice was born. Gunawan works with 10 local farmers, and only deals with free-range, non-medicated meat producers and Ocean Wise-approved seafood fishermen.
The night we dined at Farmer’s Apprentice, the menu was heavy on fish, salads and vegetables. Each dish surprised and delighted. If there was one complaint, it’s that we wanted more.
Meanwhile, when asked how it feels to get so much media attention, Gunawan shrugs and says humbly: “Although it’s flattering, we didn’t expect the accolades nor is it what drives us. … I’ve got a great team who all believe in dishes based on seasonality and sustainability. We can trace 90 per cent of our food sources.”
Lucky for those of us who love to experience dishes that push the envelope of creativity, there’s Farmer’s Apprentice.
MORE ABOUT FARMER’S APPRENTICE
Location: 1535 West 6th Ave., Vancouver, BC (see map below)
Hours: Lunch: Tuesday-Friday 11:30 am-2 pm; Brunch: Saturday and Sundays: 11:30 am-2 pm; Dinner: Tuesday-Saturday 5:30-10 pm; Sunday Supper Series: 5:30-10 pm.
Menu price range: $4-$25; this menu is a shared one and it changes daily depending on what fresh ingredients are available.
You must order: The Octopus: broiled, it’s incredibly tender and served in a jus of kohlrabi, sweet and sour coconut and tamarind ($14). Angus beef striploin tartare is pleasantly moist and delicious ($16). In addition, my son, Mathew, says the poached egg with wild and cultivated mushrooms, asparagus, Parmesan and chili breadcrumbs ($13) was one of the most “incredibly unique, rich and creamy dishes I’ve had in a long time.”