By Steve Hubrecht

Eagle Ranch Resort’s Rustica restaurant and Traders Lounge and Patio, like many other culinary businesses in the Columbia Valley, were hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. But with the pandemic winding down, COVID-19 protocols are gradually easing as the summer progresses, and visitors are beginning to flock back to the valley, Eagle Ranch’s eateries have taken wing anew.

“We’re actually in the position of having to turn people away, so reservations are definitely recommended,” Eagle Ranch’s new culinary director Ian Smith told the Pioneer. “That, I suppose, is a good problem to have.”

Those who are returning to the popular restaurants for the first time since COVID-19 began roiling the Columbia Valley (along with the rest of B.C.) a year a half ago are finding something flavourful awaiting them, with Smith taking the eateries in new and decidedly delicious directions since starting at Eagle Ranch.

In some respects, it seems odd to be even calling Smith the ‘new’ culinary director since he’s been at the gastronomic helm of the resort for almost 18 months. But considering that he began in February 2020, just a month before the pandemic hit full force, for many patrons Smith’s savoury endeavours indeed seem brand new and mouthwateringly unique.

Smith’s singular approach to food is founded in his deep passion for cookery and several distinct and abiding influences.

“It really is a passion ignited by my grandmother. I have very vivid memories of standing in her Manchester doorstep, peeling potatoes and helping prepare Sunday dinner,” Smith, who is originally from England, told the Pioneer. “It really flicked a switch in my head.”

Smith went on to study English literature and history, but something about the field never clicked with him, so he began a chef’s apprenticeship. There he found the same spark he’d felt on his grandmother’s doorstep.

“For me, it’s all about a connection to the produce,” he said. “I just loved how that apprenticeship really highlighted the seasonal nature of food. It was all about what’s in season right now. Some of the fruits and vegetables and herbs we had coming through the kitchen door during my apprenticeship were still wet with the morning dew. Talk about connection to the land.”

Asian cuisine was another defining influence on Smith’s cooking, and diners with discerning palates will find subtle hints and outright winks of hallmark Asian flavours in some of his trademark dishes. That’s because Smith grew up, partly, in Hong Kong back when it was still a British overseas territory.

“That really opened the door for me to the ingredients of the world,” he said. “Chinese cooking, Filipino cooking, Malaysian cooking, Thai cooking, Hong Kong has it all. And that played a role in the kind of flavours I like to have at my fingertips in my pantry.”

Smith’s strong appreciation for local food, whether he’s marvelling at in-season veggies in an English kitchen or investigating a continent’s worth of cuisine in multi-ethnic Hong Kong, is finding fertile new ground in the Columbia Valley, where the gastronomic terroir of B.C. is inspiring inventive new dishes, some of which have swiftly proved smash hits at Eagle Ranch.

Take, for instance, the half chicken dish, which features a B.C. chicken brined for four days, smoked for eight hours, and then super slow-cooked.

“That’s been super successful,” said Smith.

Then there’s the fresh catch of the day, which sees Smith exercising his considerable comestible creativity with whatever seafood comes in from the coast. King salmon and wild halibut have been featured heavily lately.

“It’s super light, super fresh, and it’s been insanely popular,” Smith told the Pioneer.

When he’s not busy whipping up an appetizing storm in the Eagle Ranch kitchen, Smith can be found out with his wife making the most of the outdoor life the Columbia Valley offers, occasionally (when pandemic protocols allow) joined by the couple’s Calgary-based grandkids.

“We love it here. We’ve bought a house in Wilmer. We’ve finally found a place we can put down roots. Beautiful surroundings, friendly people. We’re not going anywhere anytime soon,” said Smith. “Sometimes it feels like we’re living on permanent vacation.”