Out of the Woods
Chef/Owner – Wolf in the Fog, Tofino, BC
You won’t find it spelled out in the official tourism brochure, but Tofino is really far from fucking anywhere. The town of 1,800 is hunkered down where the Trans Canada Highway finally ends in a whimper of two-lane blacktop on the isolated west coast of Vancouver Island, about 10 hours and a ferry ride north of Seattle.
Despite its isolation, the area’s spectacular beauty – framed by a National Park and a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve – attracts more than half a million visitors a year. But with the exception of a few storm chasers and hard-core surfers attracted by the epic waves driven onshore by frequent winter gales, most of those visitors leave come November.
It’s in this temperate coastal rainforest that Chef Nick Nutting and a crew of fine dining renegades have dropped anchor and opened Wolf in The Fog. Designed to appeal to locals and well-heeled summer visitors alike, the Wolf doubles down with everything from a “burger done right” to a charred Humboldt squid with Vietnamese Slaw.
Nutting says, “Wolf in the Fog is basically three guys who have been in fine dining forever; two front of house guys and me in the kitchen. We want to cook with the same level of precision and technique, but do it in an approachable way -- get away from white tablecloth kind of dining and make it fun.
The seasonality of the locale calls for a carefully considered business model, and you know that Nutting – a former University of Victoria economics student as well as a classically trained chef – has done the math.
Nutting bailed out of university three quarters of the way through a four-year degree program when he began to imagine what his future as an economist might actually look like. “It was going fine but I’m thinking, ‘once I’m done here, what the fuck am I gonna do?’ I don’t want be a guy working in an office,” he explains.
“You hit a certain point in your life where you realize you can either do a job that’s gonna make you money, if that’s what you want, or you can live the life that you want and get paid what you get paid. For me, cooking is what I love to do.”
That look into a desk-bound future led Nutting to cooking school in Calgary. His experience there – which included being on an apprentice team that won some serious hardware at an international culinary competition in Singapore – launched a career that has seen him cross the country from the Canada’s West Coast to Montreal and back.
Chef Michael Nobel – who competed on the original Japanese Iron Chef – tapped Nutting right out of school to be one of just three apprentices on a team of 25 to help him open Catch in Calgary. Shortly after opening its doors in 2003, Catch got the nod as enRoute magazine’s Best New Canadian restaurant.
At Catch, Nutting was part of a crew that rocked hard and cooked like demi-gods. A bunch of those guys have since gone on to do some exceptional things in Canada and internationally.
The Catch crew included English chef Neil McCue, who would go on to earn a Michelin Star at the Curlew in East Sussex, England. Nutting says he was lucky to be taken under Chef McCue’s wing at Catch, calling him “the most talented cook I’ve ever seen in the kitchen.”
But after three years earning his bones “working every station in the restaurant”, Nutting was ready to head back to the coast and called renowned Canadian chef Andrew Springett (Bishops, North 44) who was running the kitchen at The Pointe -- the fine dining room at Tofino’s Wickaninnish Inn, AKA “the Wick”.
Nutting says, “I called Andrew and said I want to go back to the West Coast. He’d just had two guys quit and he said, ‘can you be here tomorrow?’ I packed my stuff up, got on a Greyhound and bused to Tofino.”
Nutting thought he knew Tofino from summer camping trips as a kid “in the Volkswagen van with the dog and my brother and sister.” But he says landing there in March in the pissing rain was a different experience. “I’m in the little staff accomm in the parking lot of the Wick and I’m saying ‘what have I go myself into’?”
Tofino’s isolation means a chef can’t approach things the way he would in the big city, says Nutting, explaining, “its guerilla cooking. If something doesn’t show up on the order that day you’re not getting it. You need to be organized and write your menus in a way that gives you the freedom to improvise if something goes wrong.”
That, and you also have to be prepared to cook by flashlight during one of the town’s frequent power outages, or just hold on to your shit when an earthquake rumbles through.
It was at the Wick that Nutting says he got his first real taste of running a busy kitchen during a service.
“I started as saucier and after three or four months he (Chef Springett) promoted me to Chef de Partie. I’d gone from never having to make a decision to having some responsibility. There was a while there where Andrew was doing the days and I was calling the service at night.”
Nutting says his team at the Wick included pros like Joel Aubie, a buddy and future Top Chef Canada competitor, along with some un-papered locals who’d been cooking at the town’s pizza joint.
“We got these Tofino guys – pizza cooks – stoked on cooking and for a year and half we all grew as a little unit,” Nutting says.
Of course, 36 months is an eternity in the life of a young chef and Nutting says he felt a need to get back to the city. Any city, really. Chef Springett hooked him up with a stage at Danielle in New York City, where he spent a week and applied for a job.
He was offered the job, too, but had to head back to Canada to wait on a work visa. That process dragged on and Nutting has what he calls ‘a change of heart.’ That turnaround saw him pass on the gig at Danielle, buy a van and light out on a cross-Canada adventure that ultimately saw him wash up broke in Montreal.
Spanish may be the kitchen language in a lot of U.S. restaurants, but in Quebec it's French. Nutting says that at the time his French consisted of classical cooking terms and a ‘bonjour’ or two he picked up in public school.
“I got myself a job at a place called Garcon which had the only English-speaking chef I’d heard of in a good place.” That chef was Irishman Mark Gaffney, who’d cooked at Michelin-starred Le Manoir in Oxford, England, before coming to Montreal.
Nutting says, “I rolled in and there’s this guy calling bills in French with a thick Irish accent. It was hilarious. He (Gaffney) was hardcore. He’d put a sauce on at the end of the shift and sleep under the prep table, wake up and strain it.”
After a steady diet of cooking seafood on Vancouver Island, Nutting says it was good to tackle a wider variety of proteins. “I really like the style of food you can do in Montreal. We weren’t doing veal or foie gras on the West Coast, so to go to Montreal and be in the kitchen with this guy who had just come from Europe was pretty cool.”
It was also in Montreal that Nutting had a crack at opening his first restaurant when one of the managers from Garcon left to open his own shop. Nutting tapped his old pal Joel Aubie as Sous Chef.
“We took this place up on the plateau and polished it all up. It was a shitty little breakfast joint that was pretty fucking gnarly. We took a sledgehammer and destroyed the walk-in and rebuilt it, retiled the walls, put in a nice wine cabinet and got it all dialed.”
Their bistro-style Restaurant Truffert had a simple menu – five apps, five mains and a dessert.
“We changed it up whenever we wanted to. We’d go for a coffee at 8:00 AM at the Italian Social Club and then up head to the market, buy our stuff, go to the restaurant to write up our menu then cook. We’d do that every day. We completely fucking burned ourselves out but it was sweet.”
After a year and some positive press in Montreal, Nutting says he got a call from the Wikininnish Inn.
“Andrew was leaving and they were putting a whole new team together. We’d been getting pretty good reviews in Montreal and they wanted to know if I would be interested in coming back to the West Coast. It was like February, it was snowing out and I’d worked like 100 hours that week.”
“We were closed on Sundays so they flew me out for an interview. I finished dinner service on Saturday night, flew out on the first flight Sunday morning, made it to the Wick at three in the afternoon, had a three-course meal on the table by six and flew back that night.”
Nutting won the competition and headed back to Tofino to run the kitchen at The Pointe as Restaurant Chef. He says, “I wasn’t interested in being the Executive Chef at the hotel, I was just interested in being the guy that got to do the menu and the fun stuff.”
As chef at The Pointe, Nutting was able to continue developing his own take on contemporary Vancouver Island cuisine, like wedding the silky textures of a pan fried lingcod to prosciutto deep fried in a spring roll wrapper.
Nutting says Wolf in the Fog gets even more regional, with he and his crew working to put an original ‘Tofino’ spin on West Coast cooking. “We kind of want to define what Tofino cuisine really is.”
“We’re basically trying to create a place that offers something unique in our town. We want to have some familiar dishes, like a burger done properly, but have the ability that if the forager comes in and says ‘I have this’, and the fish guys says ‘we just caught a bunch of skate wing’, that I can just fire it on the menu and do something fresh.”
The Wolf is big, running over two floors. In The Den, the smaller main floor space, Pastry Chef Joel Ashmore has days covered with a coffee and pastry offering that caters to the early crowd, and sandwiches featuring house charcuterie on deck for lunch. For dinner service, the same menu will be offered on both levels.
While the opening menu touches on classic carnivore faves like the burger and a confit duck leg, seafood is the star.
“We have the probably the best product in Canada coming off the docks; people would fucking kill for the stuff here. We had some pretty deadly fish when I was at Catch in Calgary, but you can’t really compare when the guy calls you and says ‘the boat’s going to be at the dock in an hour’. That shit doesn’t happen anywhere else.”
Locally forged food -- everything from a range of wild berries to any of a half-dozen or so mushroom varieties that can be found seasonally in the nearby forests -- will also make it onto Nutting’s plates.
“I’m big into foraging. I love mushroom hunting. Over the course of the mushroom season here you get chanterelles, hedgehogs, yellowfoot, angel wings, chicken of the woods, pine mushrooms… all this stuff. There are some late season berries that are pretty exclusive like the evergreen huckleberries that grow up here, and sinamoka berries
Last year, when I first started dating my girlfriend (Hailey Pasemko, who is now the Wolf’s bar manager), we went out and picked heaps of salmonberries and she made bitters out of them. They’ve been aging for a year and they’re just deadly.” Needless to say, a top-flight cocktail program is in the Wolf’s mix.
“I love that stuff; when you have that connection to your food it’s unreal. Before I moved to Tofino I’d never been mushroom picking. The first time you go into the woods and see them growing, it’s kind of a life changer.”
If the bright city lights beckoned Nutting out of the forest when he was younger, this older incarnation say’s he’s pretty much rooted in place.
“For me, moving back to the city just doesn’t have any appeal. I feel I can do everything I ever wanted to do right here. I’ve got all the toys, I’ve got the best product right the door,” he says