Guide to Dining Out – GTDO – June 29, 2022
Chef Alessa Valdez came dangerously close to losing her passion for cooking.
It was during the Covid 19 pandemic when just about every hospitality venue in Toronto, where she lived and worked, was ordered to shut down. After having cooked in some of the city’s top restaurants, she suddenly found herself out of a job.
“I was laid off for a couple of months, then went back to work doing only take out service,” she says. “I was falling out of love with cooking.”
But then an Instagram post changed her life. It was about a position as the senior sous chef at Phantom Creek Estates in Oliver, B.C. She applied and got it.
Less than a year later, she’s the executive chef of the winery’s restaurant, which was named in May as one of Canada’s best new eateries. As the only Okanagan establishment to make the list, published annually by Canada’s 100 Best Magazine, it’s an astonishing achievement, especially considering the restaurant is still only offering lunch service and private dinners.
But what a service it is. Patrons are greeted with a creative and eclectic choice of starters, entrees and desserts, including what Valdez says are the menu’s current signature dishes: 63 Acres Beef Tartare with pickled shimeji, caperberry and xo yolk caramel; Duck Confit with puffed red quinoa, beets, fava bean, red and green sorel and hoisin; and Basque Cheesecake with brandied cherry.
“Our menu is unique from any other restaurant in the Valley. We are constantly changing the menu as the season changes. We change two items on the menu twice a month so that guests can always expect something different, rather than having the same menu for the whole season,” she says.
The cuisine may seem sophisticated, but Valdez describes her food philosophy as simple.
“Simple but very elevated and flavourful at the same time,” she explains. “I have a French fine dining background, I put a lot of French techniques into the dishes on the menu. I like to let the ingredients speak for themselves instead of hiding them. I have so much appreciation for our farmers who took the time to grow us beautiful produce, so why not let them shine.”
Valdez’s foray into the kitchen is homegrown. She was raised in Toronto, but has Filipino roots, and as a child, she enjoyed helping her mother – whom she describes as her inspiration – prepare her native cuisine. She took a co-op program in high school and decided to pursue a career in the culinary arts, with her mother’s encouragement.
Though she describes her mom as the better cook, Valdez has an impressive pedigree. She has worked in top tier Toronto eateries such as Alobar and Canoe, both of which made Canada’s Best 100 Restaurants list in 2022.
The winery in the place she now calls home is as grand as any big city establishment. Set on the lower terrace of the Black Sage Bench, it’s a stunning piece of architecture with sweeping vineyard and mountain views. The winemaking team is led by a man who also has a pretty profound pedigree – Mark Beringer, great-great-grandson of one of the founders of Beringer Vineyards in the Napa Valley. Moving and settling into a tiny, predominately agri-focused community is, no doubt, a big adjustment for her. But she embraces the weather and the abundance of fresh ingredients.
“We have so many local farmers producing beautiful produce, we are also lucky to have a kitchen garden just a minute away from the winery, so we also try to incorporate our own produce on the menu.”
But there are notable disadvantages as well.
“Staffing is probably one of the biggest issues with having a restaurant in the Okanagan. We do offer housing but I’m noticing that a lot of cooks prefer to work in bigger cities rather than moving out to the Okanagan,” she says.
Having Valdez as their culinary leader just might tip the scales in favour of the Valley and Restaurant at Phantom Creek, in particular.
It’s certainly nabbing the attention of patrons and critics alike.
“I want our guests to have an elevated experience when they visit Phantom Creek, not only on the food side, but the service as well. It’s very rewarding knowing that guests come and eat at Phantom Creek and have a memorable experience. Our goal is to be the best restaurant in the Valley.”
And it’s well on its way to achieving just that.
To read the full article with images: Guide to Dining Out