At Clayoquot Wilderness Lodge, exclusive, off-grid camping meets five-star comfort, facilities, and service. The award-winning, luxury eco-safari resort sits off Vancouver Island’s wild west coast within the UNESCO-designated Clayoquot Sound Biosphere Reserve. It offers an escape to the tranquil beauty of a remote landscape along with a full itinerary of extraordinary nature-based adventures. The cuisine is inspired by the surrounding wilderness and sustainable, locally produced products. The only way in is by boat, seaplane, or helicopter. In preparation for reopening on June 17, the lodge has undergone extensive upgrades, including new tents with cast-iron wood-stove fireplaces, heated bathroom floors, and exclusive British Columbia-designed furniture.
This back and beyond location wouldn’t appeal to every celebrity chef, but for Australian Asher Blackford — who recently assumed duties as director of food and beverage — the location and its ingredients means he is living the dream.
Vacay.ca: Tell our Canadian audience about Baillie Lodges.
Asher Blackford: When Australian entrepreneurs James and Hailey Baillie founded Baillie Lodges in 2003 they put Australian luxury lodging on the international map. They had a goal to create a portfolio of standout exclusive lodges, in extraordinary destinations, each one with a sense of place and a ‘WOW!’ factor. I joined them as executive chef five years ago. When they bought Clayoquot Wilderness Lodge, their first Canadian property, the Baillies asked me if I would be interested in doing a stint in Canada to bring this lodge up and running and back up to where it deserved to be.
Vacay.ca: 13,000 kilometres is a long way to travel for a new job. Particularly when it means coming from way down south to way north off the isolated coast of British Columbia. Had you been to Canada before?
AB: I was in BC very briefly for my cousin’s wedding four years ago. I fell in love with the area and the small communities on Vancouver Island. Coming over here to work has been on my bucket list for some time. My wife, Hanna Rachow, and I have worked together at Baillie Lodges for five years. So, we are here as a couples package. She is manager of guest services.
Vacay.ca: Have you visited any other areas of the country?
AB: Before coming to Clayoquot, I had a culinary tour of Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver, eating in 15 of the best restaurants in the country. When I go to a new location, I like to see what the top chefs are doing and get an understanding of the food culture.
Vacay.ca: And what did you discover?
AB: That there is a strong link between Canada and Australia in terms of pushing culinary boundaries and thinking outside the bottle. Both countries are multicultural and I love the diversity that immigration creates in a culinary scene.
Vacay.ca: When you arrived on Vancouver Island, what was your first impression? What did you think was its sense of place?
AB: We took a float plane from Vancouver. First, it was the staggering white-capped mountains, then the vast forests, and when I noticed the convergence of waterways and the seaways, I got excited about seafood as well as foraging. When we landed at the dock, I was overcome with the rugged yet beautiful aesthetic of the property. I knew immediately I wanted to showcase the best of BC in the food we served and each dish should create a link to the area.
Vacay.ca: Can you give us an example?
AB: The grilled sablefish on the dinner menu comes from Gindara Sablefish and is produced in partnership with the Kyuquot-Checleseht First Nations on the northwest coast of the Vancouver Island. We serve it in an aromatic broth along with locally produced vegetables and sea herbs. The menu includes a full description of the origin of the food in each dish.
Vacay.ca: How would you describe your culinary style?
AB: Earthy, witty, and wise! I like to fish with the Indigenous fishermen. What we catch is what guests eat that day. Sometimes guests come with me to fish or to forage. I follow a nose-to-tail approach to meat and root-to-shoot one for produce.
Vacay.ca: When did you know you wanted to be a chef?
AB: At 14, I worked as a dishwasher at a little café, then I started to cook, and I knew this is what I wanted to do. I learned about apprenticing from a chef who said, ‘You can start tomorrow at 10 a.m.’ I loved the mentality behind the food and the group of supportive peers. Next, I decided I wanted to spread my wings and to work at Melbourne’s best restaurant. Which I did. I had a bit of an ego then and thought I could take on the world. I finished my apprenticeship in five years.
Vacay.ca: What happened after that?
AB: I worked at up-and-coming city cafés, supper clubs, and some of Australia’s best hotels. I wanted to travel, especially to remote luxury resorts. But the only way I could stay at these places was to cook, which turned out to be an incredible way to see the world.
Vacay.ca: What are the challenges and experiences you expect your job at Clayoquot Wilderness Lodge to provide for you?
AB: My goal is to interpret the sights, scents, tastes, and emotions of the incredible surroundings with locally sourced produce. I want to create a genuine spirit of place with the landscape and wildlife, local food and wine producers, and to the local culture.
Vacay.ca: The lodge is situated on the ancestral lands of the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nation, whose people have occupied the territory for more than 2,000 years. How do you honour their legacy of the area?
AB: We work very closely with the three tribes that are on this land. We plan to build a recreation centre for their communities and we are putting in a training program at the lodge so the younger generation can get exposure to the hospitality industry.
Vacay.ca: Is this a long term commitment for you?
AB: With the additions planned, I expect it will be five years to get the lodge up and running the way we want. I am committed to three years full-time and after that, if there is a new Baillie Lodge in New Zealand, I would like to spend six months of the year here and six months there.
Vacay.ca: Where else in Canada would you most like to visit.?
AB: I would love to check out Fogo Island because it is the total flip of where we are now. I’d like to see what the east coast is like and I get goose bumps just thinking about it.
Vacay.ca: What would you like to be remembered for?
AB: Lots of very, very happy tummies and fantastic memories for the culinary experience from both my guests and my staff. Also, that I created memories of their restaurant experience that they will have for the rest of their lives.
MORE ABOUT VISITING CLAYOQUOT WILDERNESS LODGE
Location: Bedwell River Valley, Alberni-Clayoquot C, BC (see map below)
Rates: The lodge offers all-inclusive accommodations with stays ranging from three to 10 nights. Rates are per person, per night and for 2021 start at $1,700 for peak season (June 17-September 8) and $1,400 for shoulder season (September 9-20). The rate includes all dining, a premium selection of wines, beers and spirits, signature guided experiences, and one 60-minute relaxation massage per stay. Check the website for details.