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On the Pass: Sooke Harbour House

The legendary Sooke Harbour House restaurant and inn on Vancouver Island prepares for its comeback.

THE BIG CULINARY NEWS ON VANCOUVER ISLAND this year was the announcement that celebrated chef Melissa Craig will take over the kitchen at the long-dormant Sooke Harbour House, with Andre Saint-Jacques as managing partner. The couple worked together for almost 20 years at Bearfoot Bistro in Whistler, where he was the ebullient host, greeting guests and sabering bottles, and she the modest, self-effacing chef, turning out dishes of unfailing quality.

Quitting Bearfoot, says Craig, was “the hardest decision I’ve ever made.” But the chance to work again with her life partner, live on Vancouver Island (where she grew up and has family), and return to where, as a teenager, she began her culinary journey was too enticing to turn down.

Owners of Sooke Harbour House since 1979 (the original inn dates to 1929), Sinclair and Frederique Philip were pioneers in seasonal menus, hyperlocal sourcing, and a wine list built around little-known Vancouver Island bottles. No one did more to inspire the 100-mile diet and the farm-to-table movement in B.C.

After the 2008 crash, ready to retire, the Philips crossed paths with a British-born investor who — in a slow-motion, decade-long, litigation-filled nightmare — left them bankrupt. After 40 years of blood, sweat and tears turning the place into a global destination, it was pilfered by a con artist. Sooke was bought out of bankruptcy in 2020 by IAG, a real-estate investment firm, while the villain was ordered to pay $4 million to the Philips, who are resigned to never seeing a penny.

Craig goes back to a place very different from the one she left. The property is being extensively renovated. The former Potlatch Room, a tribute to the island’s indigeneity, is now a wine cellar. Rooms are being updated, gardens redone. A new outdoor patio will extend seating capacity. The lounge may open before Christmas, with the full relaunch expected early next year.

Craig’s culinary program for the dining room is still in development — “It will be a chef ’s menu” — but it seems a safe bet that she will find a way to pay tribute to the Philips’ unique legacy while she continues to embellish her own. “With Melissa,” says Frederique, “we know the kitchen will be in good hands.”— Gary Ross

Photo by Sooke Harbour House