Surviving the Wreck
Chef Brock Bowes
Executive Chef, The Sonora Restaurant at Burrowing Owl Estate Winery, Oliver, BC
You’re 20-something, fresh out of cooking school, and picking herbs at a your first restaurant and the sous is climbing up your ass because you’re not picking fast enough. You’re beginning to think maybe ripping it up on a snowboard all day and rolling into work with two hours sleep wasn’t such a good idea.
But it’s Whistler, B.C., the early 2000s, and you’re living and working in a ski town where the party runs 24/7. Kind of like Vegas in snow pants with drinks that are three times more expensive.
The average pre-recession house price is $1.7 million and the only thing bigger than the peaks glistening outside in the moonlight are the mountains of weed and mogul-sized piles of blow that will be waiting to tempt you when you punch out and hit last call with your crew.
Time passes and some guys have moved on, a few back to university so they can get ‘real’ jobs and others -- causalities of a shitty work ethic and the never-ending party -- winding up plating the lunch-hour beef dip at some skanky strip joint down the highway in North Vancouver.
But you stick with it and with Whistler. You listen hard, bust your ass and earn your stripes, and you wind up cooking for a chef who is demanding, but knows his shit. Equally important, he seems to give a shit about you. He’s made a name for himself helping drag Canadian cuisine out of the dark ages -- and he rolls in a shiny new Porsche that smells, well, like the future.
You start to think, “Maybe, I could make a life for myself in this business.”
So he has. Brock Bowes is now Executive Chef for The Sonora Restaurant at Burrowing Owl Estate Winery in B.C’s south Okanagan Valley. It’s situated on a rocky hillside overlooking the expansive vineyards, chaparral and the occasional rattlesnake that dot this northernmost extension of the Sonoran Desert that begins far to the south in Mexico.
He’s two seasons into his second stint at the winery, following on the heels of a gig designing and building the food operation for Victoria’s new Oak Bay Hotel from the ground up
"That was fucking nuts,” says Bowes of the Oak Bay project. “The opening was huge. We were doing 500 to 600 covers a day, plus banquets.”
Before heading to Victoria, Bowes helped out his former Whistler chef, Bernard Casavants, open up his Wild Apple restaurant farther up the Valley in Kelowna.
Bowes credits the early guidance he got from Chef Bernard in the kitchen -- and his example of how to make a life in an industry that some consider a detour -- for much of what’s he’s achieved today.
Along the way, Bowes says he also convinced his brother it isn’t a bad way to make a living. That brother is now his Chef de Partie and equally bearded wingman in the kitchen at The Sonora Room. The two can be found rocking the line and sending out jars of house mustard to give props to customers who show up for a service sporting admirable facial hair.
Bowes says he’s observed a lot of changes in the valley, even in the five years between his two tours. There’s a real food culture now, grounded in the award-winning wines being produced in the area.
He’s also seen some changes in the industry generally, and admits he laughs when he sees things that independent restaurant chefs were doing five and even 10 years ago showing up on the menus of big chain outfits.
“Sliders and pulled pork sandwiches? C’mon…”, he says, then adds, “Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t say ‘no’ to doing a corporate menu for $5 Million.”
His own menu shows the influences of his travels with his sommelier wife, a lady he knew in high school and became reacquainted with 15 years later.
You’ll find everything on the sheet at his restaurant from a miso broth to house made pasta -- plus a lot of local produce -- all designed to dance with the incredible wines being turned out by his own winery and others in the Okanagan.
While the whole ‘local’ thing is getting a little overdone these days, Bowes says, he’d have to be an idiot to ignore the amazing product that is literally at his restaurant’s back door.
Bowes says the other benefit to cheffing in the valley is that things almost “go dormant” in the middle of winter. That allows time for travel, writing menus and adding to what he calls an “excessive” wine cellar that already has more than 600 bottles.
Is there a Porsche in his driveway? Not yet says Bowes. But with the effort he continues to put into his craft, chances are a sweet ride of that caliber is parked just down the road.