… Home is where the Hart is.
Curator & Writer | Hakan Burcuoğlu · Venue | Stowel Lake Farm, Salt Spring Island · Gear | Leica
Gazing through my viewfinder, inside a country kitchen I stand. And amidst a pantheon of burly chefs cascaded in chiaroscuro, I see only her—an oculus, through which shoots a blinding beam of light, seamlessly elucidating this chthonic cavern. And with an arresting sentience she luxuriates—professing admiration to piles of sun-kissed bounty—to each bulb of beet, and last petal picked. And though I’m a louche cynic, I’ll indulge you, and perhaps even promulgate, that it’s beyond beautiful. All of it. So much so, you feel remorse even picturing it. From where hails this wondrous woman—this epicurean pugilist—evincing in me maudlin sentiments of ambrosia, petrichor, and grace?
Haidee’s presence is indelible, and most evident in her idyllic domain, Salt Spring Island’s heaven-on-earth fixture, Stowel Lake Farm—brandishing a singular facet of utopia where bunnies hop, chickens talk, and gregarious farm folk welcome flocking souls with inviting eyes, uttering phrases like “How are you?” and really mean it. It’s sun-drenched. It’s lollipops and crisps. It’s a soul-rending Radiohead song, a palpable chimera where your heart skips.
Wife to an [equally] astonishing artisan, and mother to four delightful [and perfectly chiseled] children, Haidee has singlehandedly transformed her life’s passion of cooking—once just a humble avocation—into a full-fledged international career. Her endless quest for beauty—be it in the ground, or on a plate—has commanded indefatigable effort and tremendous sacrifice. Harbouring diehard allegiance to the land [and life], she’s the embodiment of grit & grace—a dreamweaver who weaves while she’s awake. And with an island community championing her every move, us converts watch in awe, utterly subsumed.
Welcome to The Curatorialist, Chef Haidee Hart.
HB: Tell me a little bit about your upbringing.
HH: My dad was a logger, so my childhood was spent moving around the coast—in some pretty remote fishing villages on the coast of Vancouver Island and in the Haida Gwaii, as well as the interior, albeit briefly. We moved a lot—I lived in 16 houses by the time I was 10. Huge trees… big wind… lots of rain, and of course, the ocean.
HB: Sounds like you were quite accustomed to the forces of nature.
HH: I was always out in the elements, and it’s become my reference point in the world. It’s who I am. My childhood memories are wrapped up in that wild element—living on a tiny house boat in the Haida Gwaii, being handed fish by fisherman we knew, and hiking on remote beaches in search of wild mushrooms, oysters and clams. I do feel a bit removed from that now, living on Salt Spring Island—it doesn’t feel that wild to me at all. [Chuckles]
HB: How wild are we talking? Was it a free-spirited upbringing, or more of a structured childhood?
HH: It was pretty free—definitely a lack of structure, but never a lack of love. Though my dad was away a lot, his presence at home was always about cooking fantastic food. We’d gather with friends and family around the table for his incredible seafood feasts. I remember him bringing in a marrow squash from my grandparents’ garden in Bamfield, where it was quite difficult to grow things. He just sauteed it with butter and garlic—so simple, yet so delicious. He had tremendous reverence and appreciation for all of it. And that was imprinted on me from a young age—an appreciation of simple flavours.
HB: Your first mentor, in a way.
HH: So many memories are wrapped up with my dad. And the way I’ve come to treat food is quite similar. We certainly didn’t have a farm upbringing, but we were always in touch with our food. Thanks to him and my mom, I was quite involved with growing, harvesting and cooking from a young age. He passed away when I was pregnant with India. He was only in his mid-50s. So perhaps part of what I do is an act of reverence as well—the way I express myself with food. I think he would’ve really appreciated that.
HB: Do you remember that moment you decided you wanted to cook for a living?
HH: I really don’t. I’d moved out quite young , spent some time working in Victoria, ending up in Bamfield—a tiny fishing village I’d spent my childhood years in. It was home to my grandmother’s beachside cabin—sacred property—beautiful and rustic. One day I saw this guy sweeping the porch, like “Who’s that?!”. He walked onto the beach and introduced himself as “Josh”—he was spending the year living there. I remember the first time I ever saw him, and thinking “this is it”. [Smiles] I was just 17.
HB: Sounds like husband material [chuckles], not to mention an ideal place to fall in love.
HH: [Chuckles] It was beautiful. We lived there for 2 years, before travelling and relocating permanently to Salt Spring. There was no electricity and zero running water. Driftwood would hit our fence and waves would wash out the sand from beneath our cabin during big storms. It was rustic, to say the least, so I had to learn how to cook properly. We had a small garden, and the whole ocean to harvest from, but no access to a grocery store so we had to be pretty self-reliant. And, I was so young. Having that experience in those formative years went really deep, you know?
HB: Especially because your cooking stemmed mostly from sustenance, as opposed to enjoyment.
HH: Totally, but not sustenance in terms of poverty. We were surrounded by beauty—this abundant environment that was rugged, and difficult. I had to learn to push my edge. There was no other way.
HB: But you found your way—and dare I say, it’s pretty singular. I could easily identify your food from a line-up of usual suspects.
HH: I’m most passionate about the complete experience—one where my hands are deep in the soil planting the seeds, harvesting the crop, giving it a scrub and putting it into a hot pan over the fire. Feeding those people that you love. It’s analogous to this concept of slow food, meaning so much work has gone into planting, harvesting and preparing it, but in a way, it’s so quick… so easy. I’m just taking the very best and treating it the simplest way imaginable.
HB: What’s the impetus behind your process?
HH: Extreme beauty and pure expression of flavour—how it looks in the soil, on the table, on the fire, on the plate, or in the harvest basket. Even before I’ve cooked it, I want it to look gorgeous, and I want it to look gorgeous all the way through. If I’m cooking in front of a fire, and I’ve got fresh fish waiting to be cooked, that has to be beautiful too. To me it’s every single step. It’s way deeper than “farm to table”—it’s grittier, rougher. I love all of it.
HB: Love seems to be a caveat in everything you do, not just cooking.
HH: I’ve arrived at this place of wanting to share my experiences—this concept that you can dig up a humble potato, toss it with a bit of olive oil, season it with salt, and transform it into the most incredible thing. There’s a deeper, underlying, aspect to “food of place”. It’s going to nourish my family and the people I love far beyond anything I can bring in, simply because it’s of this place—just like an amazing wine that speaks of its terroir. And the food here is so phenomenal, there’s no need to overcomplicate it. I can get out of the way a little and allow each vegetable I’m working with to really shine.
HB: What makes this place special for you?
HH: It’s a small island that’s pristine and beautiful, surrounded by very healthy and diverse ecosystems—the ocean, as well as surrounding islands. But it’s also about the people—the people living here care deeply for the land. They’re so committed… so dedicated. And on this farm, we’re sort of in a pocket where we can take that even further—our livelihood depends on it.
HB: People here seem to have this unspoken onus of giving back to the land. It’s almost palpable.
HH: Absolutely, and it transcends all socio-economic borders. There are people here with talents that are unreal. I know philosophers and artists that have led the most incredible, worldly lives in Paris and London who now live on the island, and work the land. It’s unbelievable, almost paradoxical. A lot of that is grounded in that concept of giving back in some way.
HB: Do you think it’s because Salt Spring, in particular, has this reputation of being a safe haven for draft dodgers and hippies—a place that, ostensibly, gifted them this chance of a new beginning?
HH: A lot of people came here in the 60s and 70s, looking to do things differently—different from how their parents did, and to abandon the systems they were locked into, be it financial or otherwise. My husband for instance, grew up in a liberal and artistic community here, where there was always a desire to forge a new way of living and raising families.
HB: How has the make-up changed over the years?
HH: We’re witnessing a modern equivalent of that influx that took place in the 60s and 70s. People who’ve made their money in California, New York or Europe, are leaving their lives behind to buy into this dream—whether it’s younger couples moving in to start families, or older folks who come to retire. They’re all creating their own dreams and many of them are dear to our hearts because they are really good people.
HB: Do you sense an air of resentment towards these newcomers by seasoned islanders?
HH: Not at all. The people coming to the island bring with them a wealth of fresh energy and inspiration, as well as different skill sets, to add to our already diverse community. It’s also valuable and stimulating for my work as a chef. Though sustaining a living here can be tough, especially for younger families, to the point where some have unfortunately had to leave.
HB: It must’ve been tough on you as well, raising a family of four and juggling a myriad of responsibilities.
HH: I’ve dedicated my life, and all of our resources, towards raising some pretty phenomenal kids. I spent 15 years trying to prove to the world I could raise kids successfully—to live simply, and happily. It was hard at times, as we’ve chosen to live fairly unconventional lives. But in our own small way, I feel we’ve made an impact by trying to raise good people who value the best of what life has to offer. There’s such a phenomenal amount of giving and receiving that’s been beyond anything I could’ve ever imagined. The amount that I get to give, and I do it freely, because I’m receiving so much in return—is the foundation of my life and work.
HB: So you put your career on standby in those years?
HH: I didn’t have that desire for a career—I hadn’t developed that part of myself yet. I feel very lucky that the first 10 years of child-raising took place in that context because I was deeply satisfied by what I was doing. It was difficult, rich and intense, and I gave it everything without compromise. Our lives are diverse—we’ve traveled a lot, and have done our best to expose our children to many different ways of life around the world. These days I’m very committed to my work but we still try to take time to travel as a family. And I’ve finally managed to take some pressure off of myself because our sons are well on their way to becoming awesome adults. I know I’ve done it, and I’ve done it well.
HB: Your kids are so courteous. I don’t remember being that way when I was a kid. Neither do I remember being that free, especially after seeing your daughter sunbathing on the roof of your house.
HH: [Laughs hysterically] It’s taken a lot of work!
HB: What a paradigm shift this has all been for you.
HH: I’m very busy. But I find it very difficult that our daughter, India, hasn’t had the same upbringing as our boys. She’s in the kitchen with me a lot; it’s a beautiful, productive environment, where she can pop in anytime, to help me cook or harvest. But I’m not always as present as I’d like to be at home now. My hope is that my daughter and our three teenage sons recognize my dedication and work ethic, and that it inspires them to follow their passions.
HB: They’ve got pretty voracious appetites, which I’ve witnessed over dinner last night.
HH: [Chuckles] They all love food. India’s amazing—she can make soft scrambled eggs better than most people I know. The other day she diced 45 pounds of new potatoes, perfectly. When she chooses to be there [chuckles] she’s right on! But I never force her in. All of our kids are very good with people because we come into contact with so many wonderful people from all over the world who come to visit the farm.
HB: Do you ever feel insular, isolated?
HH: It’s a bit of a unique situation because a lot of people do come to the farm. On an average day, I can’t get through a conversation without someone coming to the door, whether it’s out on the farm, in my kitchen, or in my home.
HB: [Chuckles] This is where I’ll plug your delivery man, who, just moments ago, delivered some exquisite olive oil, and left with a handful of tayberries. Courtesy of Haidee Hart.
HH: You need to send people away happy! It’s very much a revolving door here. Yes, there are gates and it can be perceived as insular, but it’s wide open because we have so much crossover and a tremendous amount of community. As the chef of this farm, I feel like I’m in the public eye 18 hours a day, so I feel no lack of energy spilling out into the community.
HB: What’s your trajectory, food-wise? Are you primarily self taught?
HH: I’m pretty self-driven, and I’ve never had a real mentor. I’ve read a lot—I have hundreds of cookbooks. When I used to have more time, I’d take them all to bed at night for inspiration. That didn’t leave much room for my husband, [laughs] between bottles of wine and studying stacks of cookbooks. But lately I’ve been inviting people here—chefs, farmers, makers—in search of more professional connection. I hope I’m affecting our community in a positive way by being active—consciously choosing to support, and collaborate, with those around me. But at the same time, l’ll never stop buying fabulous olive oil from a little farther away. I like supporting great growers from all over the world.
HB: You’ve definitely curated an astonishing selection of larder.
HH: I’m not so fixed on it being a 100 mile diet. I’ll use things from here, because I am here. And I’m lucky. But I believe in supporting phenomenal creators and makers from all over, like these handmade plates I got from a potter in Mexico City. I can feel his energy in them, in every plate. I’m not stuck on the fact that it has to be from my neighbour.
HB: How about those knives you received as a gift this morning? And that’s straight from your neighbour. I wasn’t expecting something that exquisite, the man’s an artist.
HH: He really is. When I started cooking professionally, my husband had ordered a knife for me, and it was one of Seth’s very first chef knives. I remember it changing everything for me. And since ‘97 I’ve watched him grow into a knife maker just as he’s watched me grow into a chef. It’s been quite symbolic—honouring his craft as part of my own. The fact that I’m at a place where he’s made me those two knives, when I know he has a line-up of hundreds of orders, is the highest compliment I could receive.
HB: You almost burst into tears for a moment there.
HH: It’s not just me! [Chuckles] I’ve had a few people cry in my kitchen. And I feel it’s not necessarily what I’ve done to the food, but rather that they’re partaking in this experience. There are moments of praise and gratitude, which I really do feel is coming from an awakening of the senses. One of our guests at a dinner last fall, who has eaten all over the world in the most incredible restaurants, told me afterwards that it was the best meal she’d ever had. She didn’t say that because it was perfect. I’m not running a Michelin starred restaurant, and it’s not perfection in that way, yet. But there’s something she was able to appreciate it in a way that was so different and meaningful. That’s what I’m striving for.
HB: Do you always cook as if you’re at home, or do you feel the need to overcompensate for your guests when you’re cooking your [shall I say, lavish] dinners?
HH: It’s definitely me that you’re getting—whether I’m home, cooking in L.A. or in my farm kitchen. I feel a little freer at home to experiment—to push my edge in demonstrating how lush and voluptuous I believe food can be. And if that’s indeed the case, sometimes I’ll even be the one who goes “Oh my God, this is amazing! What happened here with this dish!”. [Chuckles] Regardless, what I want now is to be pushed, and for my food to be critiqued.
HB: You’ve got so much allegiance to the land. But what if I took the farm factor out of your arsenal? How much of an impact would that have on you as a cook?
HH: The land is part of my identity and that’s the choice that I’ve made—to live this way. I have some dinners planned for the fall season down in California and in my head I’m thinking, “How am I going to be me so far away?”. How do I release that aspect of my identity—of this place—and manifest my fullness as a chef? I feel like that’s my journey right now, coming into that. But at this point, I’m strong enough to know who I am, and understand my relationship with food. I hope to be able to recreate that wherever I go.
HB: I’ve witnessed the recreation firsthand when you were cooking at Bodega Ridge, in a kitchen full of classically trained, veteran chefs.
HH: I’ve spent the last few years having this ongoing conversation with myself, that I’m envious, of those who possess that classical culinary education. But lately there’s this other voice coming into the conversation, where I’m realizing that I have this tremendous gift—creative freedom. So my path has become to find the perfect balance of seeking out that wisdom—that classical training I yearn for—whilst staying true to my roots of creative expression.
HB: Your dining experience at Kissa Tanto seems to embody that perfect balance you speak of—going to Italy in search of a recipe, not to mention a brief stint at Chef Watanabe’s paramour.
HH: I was lucky enough to dine at Kissa Tanto last spring and really connected with James Langford Smith who is the phenomenal front of house manager there. Joël had flown to Japan for work research, so I didn’t get the chance to meet him that night, but I ended up having an amazing meal, not to mention a fruitful conversation with James. Mid-conversation, he asked “Joël would love to get out of the city for a weekend. Why don’t we do a dinner?”. So Joël came in the fall and together we created an absolutely phenomenal meal.
HB: You must’ve been a tad nervous.
HH: I have an immense amount of respect for Joël. He has so much of what I don’t have, years of experience working in restaurants and a lifetime of honing his skill in the industry. I really admired spending time with him and his family. We had dinner and lots of wine, and our kids hung out until midnight. I knew right away he’d be a very good friend.
HB: Did he give you any advice?
HH: The morning after our event he was all business, like “We need to sit down and talk about food costing”, basically saying “You need to get your shit together”. [Chuckles] He’s able to see how fortunate I am out here, working with the farmers, literally watching everything grow. He sees the beauty in that, but he can also see that I’m on my own, trying to learn. It’s not easy. He saw right through the romantic side of our life here and shared some incredibly valuable advice. I’m very grateful for our friendship today.
HB: And what about the quest to make that Tajarin?
HH: I just knew I was going have to go to Italy after having their buttery, truffle-laden pasta—a very specific, very dense, egg yolk-based pasta dish that changed my life for a moment there. It was that moment I told myself I had to follow my passion—to get on a plane and go to learn to make that pasta. I stayed up 20 hours a day for 10 entire days, soaking up every single thing in that region of Italy. Every time I follow my passion with food or wine it seems to lead to something incredible.
HB: I’m curious to ask you how we look from here? You’re looking great from where we stand, and the proof’s in the pudding, judging by the mass exodus of chefs we’ve witnessed just this year.
HH: I can spend 5 or 6 days in the city and soak up every sound, and light, and every amazing meal [and glass of wine], but after that I’m ready to come home. I don’t think it’s a case of “better than”, I think it’s just different. My body is calibrated to this environment and I’m coming from a bit of a different place. The city has so much, but there’s something real here for me. When you step out of the city, it’s just more real. My life isn’t slow, because I’m moving at such a fast pace with my work, but for most people who come here, time slows down to a more manageable pace.
HB: I’m interested in hearing your take on these “Farm to Table” events being held in the city. When does local stop becoming local?
HH: I’ve been feeling a little disillusioned by it these days. I have appreciation for all of the restaurants listing the provenance of their ingredients on their menus such as where there eggs come from, but I still wish there could be more personal connection between chefs and producers. I think it’s happening, just slowly.
HB: In what way exactly?
HH: I understand that not everyone can operate the way I do, within the intimate reality that we have here between the gardens and the kitchen, but I believe we could do more as chefs. When your tomato grower walks in, you make time, and you make them sit down and offer them a drink, or a bowl of pasta. “Why is that tomato looking the way it is this week? And what about that one?! Oh, this one looks unbelievably beautiful!” Like what happened there? There’s poignancy there, and it’s so sad we’re missing the story.
HB: From a diner’s perspective, I feel the attention is mostly on how the chef’s transformed the food, a chef-centric perception. Here, it is, and has to be, about the terroir, which perhaps undermines your position as the creator. Would you agree?
HH: I have so much passion about what I’m working with; gorgeous tomatoes, baby courgettes or pea shoots. Whatever it may be, my passion and excitement seem to take centre stage. So, by default, I actually end up in a very prominent role, which I’m not necessarily looking for, but executing regardless, because I have this well of passion, and appreciation of beauty that is unstoppable. I do end up being perceived as the one who’s creating this phenomenal experience.
HB: Has it been difficult for you to find a counterpart to that energy you speak of?
HH: I feel a little isolated on the island as far as colleagues go. That’s part of my journey at the moment—reaching out, getting involved and bringing chefs and winemakers here. Competition isn’t the right word, but that push that happens when you’re surrounded by other people at a very high level—that’s what I’m missing right now. And I know I’d be surrounded by it in the city. To be out at 3 in the morning—decompressing—talking about service, and the things that happened that night and everything we had to deal with! I really miss that. I’ve had some little tastes of that culture, doing big events here. And we stay up all night, and rant about our favourite moments, or how much we love incredible olive oil! There aren’t a lot of people in my life that are really interested in olive oil, or salt or great wine… So I feel a bit like I’m on my own, you know?
HB: What about your colleagues on Salt Spring?
HH: The restaurant culture isn’t very strong here, but I believe change will come with precedents such as Pilgrimme [Galiano Island], and with Tofino being such a huge food destination. It’s just been a very slow process. I’d be the first one to welcome other chefs and restaurateurs with open arms. It’s very needed, and part of why I’ve wanted to go so far with food. I’m always having to bring my own stimulation in.
HB: There’s definitely a strong culture you’ve created here. I wish we could instill some of it into our establishments back home.
HH: There’s so much about the connection point—between people and creators. If I was running a high-volume, high-level restaurant in the city, I understand that there might be an inclination to lose some of that connection, just because of sheer time. But here I am—albeit in a different context—literally running 16 hours a day and still making the time. When my saltmaker brings in a fresh batch through that kitchen door, and we make eye contact and have a moment to appreciate what he’s brought me, there’s an implicit understanding of the level to which I’m going to take his beautiful product with my food. There’s a lot of magic and beauty there, and that’s the foundation of my cuisine. That’s what I’d like to see more of—those intimate moments between creators and a little bit more gratitude for the craft and creations of other people. It’s sweat and toil, and remembrance of what the land and animals have gone through. Without that bigger vision, it feels empty to me.
HB: That’s beautiful, but these ideas do run the risk of being painted in abstractions. Do you have faith in people to make those discernments?
HH: I think it comes through entirely. It changes people. And it’s not me, it’s the food—this concept of knowing something about what we’re putting in our bodies. People keep coming back here, year after year, with their lives changed, tearing up in the doorway, and that’s just from a few words I’ve shared about where the food comes from. You feel the knowledge is sinking in with every bite they’re taking.
HB: I’m so compelled to ask you your guilty pleasure. Somehow I can’t picture you even eating a bag of chips.
HH: [Laughs] A couple of years back our eldest son had gone to the grocery store with his own money to buy a case of KRAFT dinner; he was adamant we didn’t have to eat in such a pure way, wanting to prove something out of a box could still be amazing. Of course, it wasn’t [chuckles] and we can all laugh about it now. But it was very difficult for me. My guilty pleasure would be going into a cheese shop and buying burrata, ideally just flown in from Italy. That’d make me feel a little guilty, since I’m not out there milking that buffalo. But it would bring me a lot of pleasure!
HB: Where’s this ship headed? What’s the dream?
HH: I’ve had this inner conflict as to where I’m going, what I should be doing—what is the fullest expression of myself as a chef, or as a career? I’ve just turned 40, so I’m coming into a pretty powerful time, recognizing that I can have both worlds—this incredible work on the farm as my platform, as well as being out in the greater world doing whatever I’m driven to do. I just need to fully step up—I’ve given everything I have to this kitchen and now feel it’s OK to have others help run it with me. I’ve been accepting some incredible invitations recently to spend time in other kitchens like Chez Panisse in San Francisco, in the fall. I know that whatever I do out in the world, I’ll bring it back to the farm.
HB: What humbling advice would you have for those who are interested in cooking, but refrain from doing so? Since the way you’re cooking should be the way we’re all eating.
HH: If you can go to a market, and pick up a tomato—smell it—and possibly have a conversation with the person who grew it, and learn a little bit about it, then slice it open and sprinkle it with some salt, and eat it with a good piece of bread, preferably with lots of olive oil and garlic, you’re there. Just start there. Start with one ingredient—a perfectly ripe apricot, or a potato that’s still a little bit dirty that you have to wash the soil off of. Start simple, and then delve deeper when you are ready. Beautiful food can be so moving in its simplicity—it’s one of the greatest pleasures of life.