All winter long—rather like some dictator of yore, flipping feverishly through the pages of Jane’s Defence Weekly—Nightingale head chef Phil Scarfone pores over his favourite catalogues, looking for new seeds to order for springtime.
Because his plans for local culinary domination hinge on procuring the latest organic fruits, vegetables, leaves, stems and roots. “I look for anything new, anything at all, like puntarella [chicory], or spigarello [an ancestor of broccoli rabe], or some obscure strain of arugula,” Scarfone explains.
“Then I take it to our main supplier, Zaklan Farm, and get them to grow it for us. And then we buy all of it—literally, their whole crop.”
Nightingale restaurant is in downtown Vancouver. Zaklan Heritage Farm is an organic micro-farm a 35-km drive away, in residential Surrey. Pop by Nightingale later this summer and you might well find Zaklan’s heirloom tomatoes and plums on the menu—say, with their flavour intensified through partial dehydration, loaded up on grilled bread with whipped ricotta, and sprinkled with (Zaklan’s again) fennel seeds. Or perhaps a salad of Zaklan’s arugula and Persian cucumber, paired with manchego and the sweet tang of verjus.
Nightingale is not alone in understanding that such simple, ingredient-forward, under-manipulated dishes can only be built with great products, ultra-fresh and locally sourced. Nor is the restaurant operating in new territory by cultivating close, individual relationships with the small organic growers operating nearby—from Zaklan to Foxglove Farm on Salt Spring Island and apple growers in the Okanagan. What’s unique is that Nightingale is following this small restaurant model with 180 seats and a kitchen that often turns out more than 500 covers a night.
For many, farm-to-table dining too often means a small, well-intentioned and worthy little operation where dinner comes with a lecture about the provenance of your fermented beet leaves and eating them feels like doing homework (good for you, but not fun). At best, it conjures up some over-priced fine-dining operation in the countryside with its own pretty vegetable patch that stars on Instagram, while it secretly produces only 2 per cent of the restaurant’s needs. So we salute Nightingale for changing the script, taking the proselytizing out of the farm-to-table formula, supporting small producers with big regular orders, and turning their product into great dishes that are an unqualified pleasure to eat.