Memories of Playing with Food in a West Coast Kitchen

Memories of Playing with Food in a West Coast Kitchen

by Jennifer Shutek

Every religion has its origin myths and sacred texts; so, too, does my faith in the goodness of the kitchen. While I grew up in a family in which communal eating around a dining table was a daily event, my own involvement in food preparation began in earnest with restaurant owner Audrey Alsterburg and former head chef Wanda Urbanowicz’s Rebar: Modern Food Cookbook. While it was not my first encounter with cookbookery and cooking, Rebar created a temporal division: “Before Rebar” and “After Rebar.”

The cookbook is named after Rebar, a funky, kitschy restaurant in Bastion Square, in downtown Victoria, British Columbia. Rebar’s purple-and-green-walled interior is decorated with novelty cake moulds and its shelves are alternately lined with bottles of wine and trays of wheatgrass, mirroring Rebar’s approach to food: eat well and with balance, but let’s enjoy ourselves. Alsterberg, who moved from Portland, Oregon to Victoria in the mid-1980s, and Urbanowicz, who left Rebar in 2002 and moved first to Redwood Meadows, Alberta, then to Nanaimo, British Columbia, wrote the cookbook to inform restaurant-goers of the abundance and exciting culinary possibilities of modern cooking beyond the almond burger.

The restaurant and cookbook encapsulate one iteration of “West Coast culture,” with their dedication to plant-forward and seasonal cooking, a relaxed approach to dining, and a commitment to environmentally friendly practices. The Rebar website informs visitors that the cookbook was printed by Hemlock Printers, based out of Burnaby, British Columbia; Hemlock Printers is “Western Canada’s leader for carbon neutral, sustainable, green printing practices – a perfect fit for Rebar!” Rebar is very much of West Coast British Columbia in geographical specificity as well as culture, featuring local ingredients and an easy familiarity with culture and geography that comes from the authors’ many years of living, studying, and working on the West Coast.

In my family home, this cookbook occupies a comfortable, familiar space. My parents and I are on a first-name basis with the cookbook. A beguilingly simple phrase such as, “I think I’ll make those sweet potato things, you know, from Rebar,” conjures up not only a detailed knowledge of the dish about to be prepared, but an anticipation of collaborative cooking and a shared experience of biting into a mouthful of roasted sweet potatoes with caramelized edges, oozing melted cheddar cheese, and pleasantly crunchy pepitas. The cover and interior of the cookbook show signs of heavy use. Corners of pages are bent; many have been smattered with flecks of batters, sauces, and coffee stains; hand-written modifications or entirely new versions of recipes crowd the margins; and scraps of paper have been inserted between the pages as bookmarks and records of yet further recipe modifications.

Of course, I had owned recipe books before Rebar, but they were simple, designed for children, the cooking-challenged, and those who take no pleasure in preparing food. Their mantra was efficiency: the smallest list of ingredients, the least amount of time, the simplest preparation methods, and often the fewest calories possible: in essence, “how to cook without really cooking.” Rebar, then, contrasted these cookbooks wondrously. Here was a restaurant and a cookbook that celebrated dining, promoted a holistic connection to the foods through seasonal and local ingredients, and not only invited but encouraged creativity and playfulness in the kitchen.

The introductions to the recipes are friendly, conversational, and personal, often referring to individual Rebar employees’ favourite takes on a given dish, the west-coast seasonality of a particular ingredient, or examples of customers’ reactions to a menu item. Nearly every recipe is accompanied by a “helpful hint,” and many of these instruct cookbook users on how to lean into the seasonality of a dish. For instance, the recipe for “tomato sweet basil sauce” (a vegan recipe, indicated by a small yin-yang sign next to the title) contains the following “helpful hint”: “In late summer/early fall, be sure to visit a local farm market to purchase a box of vine-ripe local tomatoes. Make a big batch of this sauce (substitute 12-15 fresh tomatoes per recipe) and freeze it. Come the dead of winter, the fragrance of summer’s bounty will make you swoon!”

From my first visit to Rebar, it has been a mecca of enticing desserts in my mind. The refrigerated display case faces the entry, and patrons are afforded a lingering stare at the profusion of lavish cakes, pies, brownies, slices, and cookies as they walk down the small staircase into the restaurant. Perhaps the most legendary of these desserts is simply called “Rebar chocolate cake,” and while I have never eaten it at the Rebar restaurant, I have made it, repeatedly, almost ritualistically, around mid-June and late-December each year since I first baked it nearly a decade ago. I vividly recall the earliest read-through of the recipe. It was my first foray into baking multi-layered cakes, creating a chocolate and cream cheese icing, and making ganache, and it seemed daunting. However, since the first time I triumphantly presented the monstrous cake in all its opulence to friends and family, I realized that baking was in fact much less demanding than my high school home economics teachers had led me to believe. I have tinkered with the recipe, using mint chocolate and peppermint oil, bejewelling it with crimson pomegranate seeds and, most recently, indulging in my love of chocolate and orange.

Revisiting Rebar this June, and the chocolate cake recipe in particular, felt like a proper return home; I had just arrived on the West Coast after months away, and this cookbook, laden as it is with memories and rootedness in west-coast foodways, proves a powerful anchor. Although I’ve read the recipe dozens of times, I always re-read the preamble to the recipe, hovering over: “Incurable chocoholics savouring this cake share counter space with wheatgrass-gulping health nuts at rebar. You’ve gotta wonder who is having a better time…” knowing with certainty that it’s the former. I proceeded to gather the ingredients, noting the hand-written modifications that I have made over the years (such as a substitution of espresso for coffee and the replacement of a third of the flour with whole wheat flour).

The cake batter itself is a straightforward, drawing on the bitterness and tartness of cocoa powder, buttermilk, and coffee to create three layers of rich chocolate cake. Feeling the need for citrus and spice, I added ground ginger, cinnamon, and generous amounts of orange zest to the batter. After removing the cakes from the oven and leaving them to cool, I prepared the cake filling, a mixture of melted dark chocolate, cream cheese, butter, and vanilla that whips up into a version of cream cheese icing that my family adores (free from icing sugar and made with a generous amount of dark chocolate). Once the cakes cooled fully, I placed one after the other on a large platter, smothering each layer with generous amounts of the cream cheese filling. Next, I tempered more chocolate; although Rebar directs bakers to do this over a double boiler, I had been convinced by Alice Medrich (another West Coaster!) in her introduction to Bittersweet: Recipes and Tales from a Life in Chocolate that a bain-marie is the best way to prevent chocolate from seizing. The final step, dousing the six layers of chocolate cake and chocolate cream cheese filling with glossy melted chocolate, always feels like an indulgence in and of itself. I then dotted the surface with more orange zest, before turning to the hardest part of the recipe: leaving it undisturbed in the fridge long enough to properly cool.

 Sitting at the table in the wake of the cake preparation with the distraction of an untouched tower of chocolate in the fridge, I asked my mum what she thought about this cake: “The Rebar chocolate cake is…celebration to me. It’s indulgence.” I replied by reflecting on my Rebar chocolate cake diet: no meals, just cake, until every crumb has been devoured. I noted, too, that, while Rebar indicates the number of servings provided by nearly all of its dessert recipes, it tactfully omits this information in the case of the Rebar chocolate cake so that three people can convince themselves the cake was likely meant to make six servings (certainly not twelve to fifteen). When my parents and I finally sliced into this cake after what felt like hours of waiting, it provided the satisfying flavours and textures that the recipe, as well as memory of past cakes, had promised. We devoured our slices, dusted with cinnamon, while talking animatedly about the future variations we will undoubtedly try (fresh raspberries in the cream cheese filling! Add freshly grated ginger to the batter! Drizzle it with liqueur!).

One of the Rebar recipes that I first made with great care, and then, increasingly, with disregard for directions, is a squash and smoked cheddar tart with sage and roasted garlic custard. This recipe had seemed to me the perfect answer to my vegetarianism when Thanksgiving rolled around: sage and butternut squash struck me as ideal ingredients for an October feast, and it was such a hit with my extended family that the basic recipe has been incorporated into our repertoire of favourites. On a breezy sunny day in early June, I decided to make this recipe for my family, but with a few minor modifications. After consulting with the contents of the refrigerator and wandering through the herb garden, I ended up assembling ingredients for an asparagus, chive, parmesan, and saffron quiche.

I did not bother consulting the original pie crust recipe, relying instead on the post-it note taped into the book, on which is written, in my mum’s tidy printing, a different version made with whole wheat flour. Rolling out the pie crust between large pieces of plastic wrap, I reflected again on the sense of autonomy and adventurousness that I learned through years of cooking with Rebar, an attitude that no recipe is too difficult and no recipe prohibits experimentation.

While the crust was blind baking, I made the egg custard, using the three eggs in the cookbook but replacing the cream with Greek yogurt (what was I going to do – actually leave home and purchase cream?) and sprinkling in a few grains of saffron-infused salt. I then shaved a bunch of asparagus and, after cooling the pie crust (which had, of course, browned slightly too much while I was engrossed in gathering chives), created a dense network of asparagus spears over the crust’s surface, just as Rebar instructs you to do with butternut squash. Cutting up the handfuls of fresh chives, I sprinkled them liberally over the asparagus, then flooded the bright green filling with the creamy egg custard before topping it with finely shredded cheese.

Deciding that it was a perfect day to address my inexplicable reticence to prepare aïoli (and fueled by a knowledge that my father and grandfather, potato enthusiasts both, would be joining us for lunch), I tried a new Rebar recipe, sautéed new potatoes with lime aïoli. There is a comfort to cooking from Rebar: even when I harbour secret doubts that a recipe will work out, it always does. Just as I began to curse myself for adding the lime zest and juice at the wrong time (before the recipe had specifically stated to incorporate it), my liquidy mixture took on a soft, almost foamy quality, setting into a tangy unctuous sauce with a sharp limey tang (and perfect with crispy fried new potatoes). Everything was ready just as my family came home from their errands, and the resulting meal was delicious, satisfying, seasonal, and shared with family, just as Rebar would have wanted it. As Alsterberg and Urbanowicz write in their introduction, Rebar, “something of a West Coast institution,” is “all about a certain energy, good food and a community of people.”


Jennifer Shutek, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at New York University, Steinhardt, spends most of her time researching and writing about the culture, history, aesthetics, and politics of food and agriculture in Palestine/Israel. She returns to her home in British Columbia, Canada, every summer to reconnect with her crunchy granola West Coast roots.

One Reply to “Memories of Playing with Food in a West Coast Kitchen”

  1. “One of the Rebar recipes that I first made with great care, and then, increasingly, with disregard for directions, is a squash and smoked cheddar tart with sage and roasted garlic custard. ”

    As I read this sentence, I am reminded both of my mother’s response to questions about her recipes, “a little of this, a little of that” and Roy Wagner’s Invention of Culture, a book I have just begun to read. That food is central to identity, culture and community is undeniable. It is also a reminder that culture is experimentation as well as following recipes.