Derek, Head chef
Photography - HIRO
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The Similkameen Valley, also known as “organic capital of Canada”, is filled with orchards, wineries, ranches with a backdrop of the stunning rugged mountains and the river sweeping across the land. The Similkameen has always been a gem that makes people enjoy some of the best produce BC or Canada has to offer. Still, this region has been more of a quick drive-through or stop-over en route to the Okanagan Valley for most people.
Row Fourteen is a new landscape in the Similkameen that is going to change all that. The restaurant, recently opened in August 2019, harbours the ethos of what this valley is all about – nurturing the land and feeding people.
It is right on the working farm of the Klippers Organics in Cawston.
Not long ago when the founders, Kevin and Annamarie Klippenstein asked Chef Derek Gray if he would be interested in coming on as a partner on their new adventure as the head chef. With a simple handshake and commitment table on a farm, Row Fourteen was born.
VOICE(V): “Chef Derek, can you tell us a little bit about your culinary journey?”
Derek(D): “My first introduction to cooking was at my high school cafeteria class. I opted for easy credit to graduate, but then I soon realized that it was something I wanted to pursue. I went straight from the cafeteria class to working in a restaurant in Steveston with Chef Alex Tung. Through attending the Northwest Culinary Academy, I met Chef Neil Taylor and I worked for him for 5 years through Cibo Trattoria and his own restaurant, España. Then I was asked to open Savio Volpe as head chef under Executive Chef Mark Perrier.”
V: “How did you end up moving from Vancouver to the Smilikameen?”
D: “I came to Cawston back in 2018, as a part of a learning journey to see where my purveyors were and get a better understanding of what they did. I have known Kevin and Annamarie for almost 12 years, and on that very visit, Kevin gave me a farm tour and picked a peach right from the tree for me to taste. It tasted like a sunshine and I said, ‘This is where the food comes from. Why isn’t there any restaurant where the source is?’ That night I wrote down in my notebook, ’Vancouver is not my final destination. I want to have a restaurant in a farm’. I just threw it out there in the universe, closed my book and went back to my job but this is where I am at now!”
The journey to opening up a farm-to-table restaurant on the farmland was not an easy one. The Agricultural Land Commission turned them down. The only way to get any approval was to apply for a distillery licence, from there the restaurant could be. Untangled Craft Cider laid the foundation for Row Fourteen. The restaurant was then built in the 14th row of the apple orchard. Both businesses can’t stand alone: they are very hand in hand.
V: “ How is your approach to food?”
D: “My approach to food, in my early days, was ‘more is complicated. As I matured as a chef, my approach to food has grown to be subtle and ‘less is best’. If someone is taking their time growing nice produce, I respect that at all cost. If it is tomato at its peak, it should be tomato and only a few components. I like to make the main ingredient shine first and foremost.”
V: “How do you build the menu?”
D: “It is not just me that builds the menu, it is all of us. I have a sous chef who has worked at Wildebeest and my Jr sous chef who is from Tokyo, Japan, whom I worked with 5 years since Savio Volpe. Everybody in the team puts their ideas on the menu.
The menu changes from 10 to 30% everyday and we always ask ourselves, ‘what can we work on better today?’ It is different from many farm-driven restaurants in the city where you have to keep up with the volume and there are certain things that you just have to get from elsewhere. Here, if we don’t have certain things, we don’t have them. Everything goes by season and what’s grown locally here.”
Indeed, staying true to the season and celebrating the local ingredients is what Row Fourteen is all about. In the morning of VOICE interview, Chef Derek took his kids out with the sous chef’s family as well as the kitchen staff, and they visited the local farm that provides the valley with great black berries. They picked on a bounty of blackberries, which made a beautiful appearance on their beets dish on the same day. The softly cooked beets topped with caramelized sake kasu whey, blackberries and walnuts – the dish was pleasantly surprising. It was a new way of enjoying beets and a true farm-to-table experience!
When you head to Okanagan next time, make the Similkameen your destination too. You can easily spend a full couple of days exploring the beautiful surroundings. When it is time to dine, Row Fourteen will show you its true local beauty and abundance. You will have a whole new “table on a farm” experience by sipping sustainably crafted cider and local wines, and the best of all, tasting the land.
10 QUESTIONS with Row Fourteen
Q1: How was your summer 2021?
Chef Derek(D): “It started off with a bang. We had one of our busiest Julys. Then, with Covid resurgence and forest fires, we saw huge reduction in people coming through. There is definitely a drop off.”
Q2: Climate change is one of the most pressing issues today. How have the recent wild fires affected your business or your approach to food business?
D: “We have to be able to pivot. With all the provisions in the summer months, we do small little things like making sausages and selling online or baking bread through slower months when there is no tourism. We will probably have to bring that back sooner rather than later this year. Normally we won’t get started until the end of September, but we are looking to get started in the end of August. Climate change is going to have a huge impact on what we do.”
Q3: On top of the climate change, there is a pandemic. How do you see your restaurant evolving through the pandemic time and in a post pandemic world?
D: “It changes drastically from the way we set up each table to our everyday conversation. Never once, in my time as a chef, has it been so much stimulus regulations on the business, but I also see why they are there.
The takeout has taken off for many restaurants in Vancouver but it was not an option for us. Here, most of them are farmers who grow their own food and cook for themselves. Also, we want to stay true to what we do. We could do all those things that appease to a lot of people for take out like spaghetti with meatballs or a really great pizza but it wouldn’t be us. Sometimes we have to put value on what we do, not just for profit. Hopefully it is a draw for people to make a journey and come see us.”
Q4: What is the biggest joy working in a restaurant?
D: “It is the people that I work with. For instance, Mai, my Jr sous chef, has worked with me for 5 years, and now she is like a family member and an auntie to my 2 kids. They are the ones who create the service, the atmosphere and the food. That’s what I really enjoy the most – the people.”
Q5: ”If you were not a chef, what would you be?”
D: “That’s tough! But I recently got into photography and I really enjoy it. I also grew up drawing a lot, so I could have been a tattoo artist down the line. I would definitely still like working with my hands a lot.”
Q6: “What is your current favorite dish?”
D: “Right now we’ve just received our first season of corns. We grill corn on the cob with green onion and aioli and we make tasty sauce with tomatoes, onions and peppers, fried in oil with herbs, and let it marinate and cover with the corn. It is really good!
Tomatoes & Peaches is another one of my favorite. This dish has grown with different seasons of tomatoes. Now we have fresh heirloom tomatoes, peaches and cherry tomatoes. Tomato is my favorite of all the ingredients. They are savory but they can also be sweet as well.”
Q7: “Where is your go-to-spots when you are off work?”
D: “Elma and Pizzeria Tratto in Penticton. Another favorite place of mine is Mexican place in Osoyoos called La Marqueza. It is the market the sells Mexican ingredients on one side and does really good street tacos on the other. My kids really love beef tongue tacos there!”
Q8: How can people enjoy Okanagan in the fall?
D: “When the trees start to change into nice fall colors, they are so beautiful. Near the end of September to the beginning of October is when it gets really nice around here with a huge drastic change to the fall. Another good reason for coming in the fall is trout fishing! Wineries are still open by appointments, and the cidery and we are here as well.”
Q9: How is this year’s harvest looking like?
D: “Plentiful. They’ve been harvesting like there’s no tomorrow. Peaches, pears, plums, tomatoes, zucchinis, peppers, etc, and apples are ripening to get picked in a month. The recent heat waves cooked some cherries and apricots and left sunburn on apples, but the cidery is a great avenue for such crops. In so many ways, it is a big, fully evolving circle here. The restaurant buys products from the farm, and in turn, we compost so our organic materials get back into their field. In the beginning, when they cut down a lot of apple trees in the orchard, we were recycling and burning those apple woods in our wood-fired hearth as well.”
Q10: In a few words, how would you best describe Row Fourteen?
D: “We are a table on a farm. It is an escapism from what is farm-to-table. Here we are, surrounded by working farms and a realization of where your food comes from is right in front of you. You will be looking at it from your table and seeing the farmers picking all the fruits off the trees.”