Q&A with Wolf in the Fog chef Nick Nutting

Wolf in the Fog chef Nick Nutting.

The interior of Wolf in the Fog.

The open kitchen is the restaurant’s alternative to TVs.

Spot prawns with heirloom tomato and orange.

Bamfield seaweed salad.

Housemade breads.

The “Tofino blackout.”

The Bollywood bowl.

Wolf in the Fog business manager Andre McGillivray.

Wolf in the Fog front of house manager Jorge Barandiaran.

Wolf in the Fog bar manager Hailey Pasemko.

Wolf in the Fog pastry chef Joel Ashmore.

The chef behind the newly opened Tofino eatery talks about foraging for fresh items, the communal table trend and moving into a more accessible restaurant experience after honing his skills in fine dining

In late June chef Nick Nutting, along with business manager Andre McGillivray and front of house manager Jorge Barandiaran, opened Wolf in the Fog. The Tofino restaurant is one that knows its audience and strives to deliver a dining experience true to island life, with local ingredients and a laid back atmosphere.

Can you tell me about coming up with the idea for the restaurant and assembling the team behind it? I understand a few of you worked together at The Pointe Restaurant at the Wickaninnish Inn.
My contract [at The Pointe] was coming to an end, and for me it was either, do something in Tofino on my own, or move away. I’d been the chef at the Pointe for three years and the restaurant chef before that.

My other two partners, Andre and Jorge, had already been looking around for spaces before I was involved in the project, trying to start something of their own. I got on the hunt with these guys and we originally found another space in town and had just about taken it over, and then the deal fell through. And then the building that we’re in now presented itself. We’d looked at it in the past…. I’m not sure why we didn’t jump on this one right away. It was sort of meant to be. The layout was just right, the space for the kitchen was just right. I think originally, this building, they’d intended it to be a brewpub, so some of the infrastructure was already in place. It was a pretty good fit for us. We reached out and found some investors and got the funding, and designed the place and built it. And here we are.

What came first for you guys? Was it the idea of branching out on your own, or was it wanting to work in a specific type of restaurant or with a certain type of food?
I wanted to get away from the extreme, high-end fine dining stuff. I always thought of my project as being a little more casual. The way that I cook hasn’t really changed—just the delivery to the people and the price point is a little more accessible. I wanted to be working at a place that I would go and eat at more than once a year, just based on the price.

The food that we were doing at the Wickaninnish Inn was excellent, but it’s a different sort of dining experience. What we’re offering here is fun…. We wanted to bring the fun back to it.  

Some of the techniques that I’m using here are ones that I came up with when I was at the Wick, like the potato-wrapped oysters that we’re serving here. The only difference is, over there we were using fresh truffles and serving them in fancy bone china, and here we’re serving them on vintage plates for four dollars apiece.

Can you tell me more about that low-key ambience you’re trying to cultivate? You’ve got a communal table, which is quite a trend right now in dining.
Over the course of the winter, between when I finished up at the Wick and when we started this, I did a series of dinners at the botanical gardens in town here. It was partially to keep working a little bit and the other part was to see what the town was into.

We would host a dinner every Friday night or every other Friday night and have one big long communal table, and it was pretty much all locals that were coming to these dinners. We’d sell it for 40 bucks for a family-style meal, and we’d usually do between six and nine dishes. It was super popular and super well-received. We figured we’d bring that same sort of community dining, family-style dining—talking to the people beside you. Our restaurant’s loud: when you come in here in the nighttime, it just feels like a big party. We have lots of local support.

As far as the ambience goes… the plates that we’re using, they’re all second-hand that we bought at second-hand shops up and down the island. We went vintage shopping from Victoria all the way up to Courtenay. The food we’re serving on them, it’s refined and it’s delicious, but you serve something on granny’s old china and right away the level of pretension is taken away. It’s a fun conversation piece and it’s fun for us to plate on all these sort of wacky designs.

We want people to feel like they’ve been invited over to our house for dinner. In the off-season or in the shoulder season here in Tofino, most of the people that work in the restaurant industry love to stick around—that’s the time of year when you have big dinner parties with your buddies and you go mushroom foraging in the morning and fishing and come together and create awesome food together.

Can you tell me about your food philosophy and how that shows through in the menu?
Well, again, it all comes down to fun. There’s a strong foundation of technique from working with great chefs along the way, but at the end of the day I create food that I would want to see on a menu when I go out. I feel like if you look at probably 75 per cent of the menus within mid-range restaurants on the West Coast, it’s almost like there’s a formula that everyone follows. I don’t want to say boring, but… I want what I do to not fall into that category. And when people come in I want them to know that they’re getting value.

We start with really good product and present it in a way that showcases the ingredient in either a very natural way or in a way that people might not have had before. I take into account flavours and textures and colours. A lot of the dishes that we’re doing here are a little bit more hands-on—we don’t mind leaving a bone in something, and we have dishes to share where you get the platter in between the two people and you have to serve yourselves. It makes for a better dining experience, I think, or a more engaging dining experience.

We don’t have TVs up in our restaurant. The closest thing to a TV is the open kitchen. If you want to watch something or not pay attention to the person across the table from you, you can always watch us cook.

You’ve got a lot of great resources being on Vancouver Island. Is the menu going to be changing up a lot?
Yeah. We’ve already done one menu change since the opening [on June 25]. I changed five of the dishes the other day. This time of year is pretty exciting because you end up getting all sorts of new product every week. We’ve got lots of good connections with farms on Vancouver Island and the foraging and fishing up here is pretty strong right now. We’re starting to get chanterelle mushrooms from our own backyards and fish—cod and halibut and salmon, all sorts of stuff—from our local waters. I’m standing in the restaurant and I can see the ocean from the dining room.

I had a talk with the front-of-house guys the other day and said, “Just be ready. I’m going to change the menu whenever I want the next couple of weeks.”

If you’re trying to avoid that boring, predictable experience, that’s what you need to do.
Yeah. It’s kind of natural to want to challenge yourself. Once you cook something a thousand times—and the volume that we’re doing, you put a dish on the menu, you’ll make a thousand of them in a week—it’s nice to keep things fresh.

What’s your focus with the drink menu?
The drink menu has got some connections to the food menu, that’s for sure. The idea of the shared plates—we have communal punch bowls that you can order like cocktails to share. They’ll come out in an old, vintage, cut-crystal punch bowl.

Hailey, the bar manager, who’s also my partner in life, makes her own bitters, and does her own infusions and uses a lot of local ingredients. One of the most popular drinks on the menu is a “cedar sour.” She infuses rye whiskey with cedar, the wood. The same sort of idea: start with the ingredients that are around you, and go from there. And then make it fun. It’s probably the most fun bar to sit down at in Tofino, because we’re having fun and it definitely translates.

How is opening a restaurant in Tofino different than somewhere like Victoria or Vancouver?
There’s definitely very defined seasons here. You’ve got the busy summertime that pretty much pays the rent for the whole year. You also have to make sure that the locals are satisfied. There’s no way that you’d make it in a town like this—it’s a town of 1,600 or 1,800 people in the winter. You have to make sure that you’re doing something that they like as well, whereas in the big city you can find a niche market, carve it out and people will come to you.

Tofino’s got a strong tourist business, but the mix here is everything from the young surfer dudes who want to come in and have a hamburger and a beer for less than 20 bucks, to people that are staying at a hotel down the road and want to come and have foie gras and drink a bottle of Bordeaux. We offer all that in a way that’s without the pretension.

How do you find that balance between keeping the tourists happy, but also honouring the locals who live there and are going to be patronizing the restaurant year-round?
I think with value. I’ve lived here long enough that you end up knowing most of the people in town and they know you… being good to them. We want to keep the off-season full of fun events—doing some theme dinners throughout the fall and just trying to keep it fun, make people want to keep coming back. And keep the price point reasonable—that’s something that will automatically put you in a dark place for the locals, if you’re charging too much.