My first restaurant review for this newspaper featured Finch & Barley, the stylish and fun late-night eatery down on East First Street near St. Andrews in Lower Lonsdale.
That was in June of 2013. Finch & Barley has become a popular North Shore bastion of innovative casual dining since then, and the neighbourhood it occupies has found a unique voice of its own on the culinary front, now boasting The Juicery Co., Well Fed, Coconama, Il Castello, and Maru, among others.
I returned to Finch & Barley for this column last week, more than three years later, this time not to review the restaurant itself but rather to learn more about the chef it was hosting as a guest on a snowy Monday evening, a night of the week the venue is usually closed.
The chef in question, Travis Petersen, will become intimately acquainted with the feeling of being a guest in restaurants over the next four months as he embarks on a cross-country tour during which he will host “pop-up dinners” to gain industry credibility for his burgeoning catering business.
Petersen’s is a story of finding one’s way through the world. Operating under the handle “The Nomad Cook,” I get the sense that Petersen’s Canadian trek is a process of self-actualization.
Here is a chef who about 16 months ago was working in the oil and gas industry in Alberta. After watching Masterchef Canada for years, he threw his own hat into the ring as a contestant and secured a spot on the show. Though he was ultimately eliminated in the Round of 18, he picked up some essential skills from the experience and was thoroughly bitten by the cooking bug.
After a short stint back in Alberta, Petersen shifted gears permanently, moving to B.C. to start The Nomadcook private chef and catering business. Nomad refers to his business model in which rather than operate out of a classic bricks and mortar space, the chef will work out of a client’s home directly to put on a meal. The philosophical goal of the Nomad Chef is to revitalize the dinner party, a social phenomenon that has waned in popularity over the last few decades as our culture has become more time-pressed and has access to myriad quick and easy, ready-made meal options.
Petersen’s business model has struck a chord, if his Finch & Barley pop-up meal was any indication. I was flanked on both sides of my table by Nomadcook catering clients, in attendance to show their support, which they did vociferously, issuing applause and caterwauls with each course that arrived at the table. Also in attendance were Petersen’s mother, grandmother and brother.
Additionally, Petersen grew up on the North Shore, attending Sentinel and Sutherland high schools, so at this event he was clearly able to tap into overt local pride. I’d be curious to see how the Big Industry defector is received as he heads east, into regions similarly noted for their pride of place and regional sensibilities. Peterson will have to rely solely on the strength of his cooking to illicit the automatic adulation he enjoys in his hometown.
The first course of our set menu, which sought to showcase the ingredients available in this dark, cold, nearly barren produce season, was a Smoked Eggplant Salad with Roasted Almonds, Goat Cheese Parsley and Lemon Zest. The eggplant achieved a good depth of flavour that was nicely counter-balanced by the heady chevre and tangy lemon. I paired the course with a glass of Alsatian Riesling, the bright acidity and mineral notes of the wine cutting through the richness of the cheese and toasty almonds.
Next up was a delicious and elegant Crudo of Yellowfin Tuna, to my taste the star course of the meal, featuring delicate cubes of raw, sashimi-grade maguro served with pickled mustard seeds, cucumber, hoshigaki (preserved persimmon) and salmon roe. The dish had a playful esthetic, as the mustard seeds and roe had the same shape and texture, but, naturally, radically different flavour profiles. The maguro was melt-in-your mouth succulent and subtly seasoned.
The next two entrée courses were polar opposites in both principle and construction, a strategic approach, no doubt, designed to show potential catering clients the breadth of offerings available through The Nomadcook.
The first half of the entrée duo was Braised Beef Shortrib with Port Reduction on Root Vegetable Puree, topped with crispy shallots, the second a Duck Ballontine on Lentil Ragout with Cherry Gastrique. The shortrib dish played it safe, employing very familiar flavours, textures and techniques to yield a conventional iteration of a classic comfort food; it paired nicely with a glass of rustic Chianti.
Ballontine is a traditional French preparation of boned poultry stuffed with forcemeat and then typically roasted, sometimes poached. Petersen’s version was light and spongy, with delicate flavours elevated by the gastrique; duck and cherry is a classic flavour pairing and here the two old friends worked together nicely atop the expertly prepared lentil ragout, in which the pulses retained their shape and had an enjoyable al dente texture.
A Dulche de Leche Napoleon cake was the proverbial nail in the coffin, a hefty serving of layered puff pastry interspersed with pastry cream and topped with a sticky golden pond of deeply caramelized, sweetened milk confection.
Perhaps the most remarkable feat of the meal was the revelation that the entire five-course dinner for 40 was prepped and plated by just Petersen and one additional person, a frequent Nomad collaborator and cool-headed workhorse of a chef named Evan Elman. The accomplishment bodes well for those looking to efficiently and cost-effectively cater an event of their own via The Nomadcook.
Petersen will be on the road for the next four months and will return to the North Shore for catering gigs in the summer. You can reach out to him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chris Dagenais served as a manager for several restaurants downtown and on the North Shore. A self-described wine fanatic, he earned his sommelier diploma in 2001. He can be reached via email at email@example.com. North Shore News dining reviews are conducted anonymously and all meals are paid for by the newspaper.