Soul nourishing, anyone?
Together at SoBo: More Recipes and Stories from Tofino’s Beloved Restaurant
by Lisa Ahier, with Susan Musgrave
Toronto: Appetite by Random House, 2023
$37.50 / 9780525610632
Reviewed by Mary Ann Moore
There’s such an abundance of joy and gratitude throughout Together at SoBo with the recipes shared, stories told, and the passionate people celebrated for their various contributions to SoBo, the beloved and popular restaurant in Tofino on the west coast of Vancouver Island.
Lynn Crawford, who was a chef in New York City when she first read about the purple food truck called SoBo (short for “Sophisticated Bohemian”) in Saveur magazine, says in her foreword that she considers Lisa Ahier a rock star of the culinary world.
Lisa’s daughter, Ella Ahier, who also wrote a foreword, had the delight, as a seven-month old, of being strapped to her mum’s chest, as she worked in the narrow kitchen of the food truck. Later, when SoBo had moved to a brick-and-mortar space in downtown Tofino, Lisa would deliver fresh food to Ella and her brother Barkley at Wickaninnish Community School. Among the lunch time treats were fish tacos and warm polenta fries. I’m remembering my own taste of the wonder of polenta fries on visits to SoBo.
Susan Musgrave who lives on Haida Gwaii and wrote A Taste of Haida Gwaii, says the regular phone calls with Lisa Ahier, to write the cookbook, became the high point of her week. Some of their fun was due to Ahier’s spelling as she was “working with one eye that spring (awaiting a lockdown-postponed cataract surgery) on a computer that didn’t have spell-check.”
Ahier, as she says in her introduction, met Susan Musgrave, her “wondrous coauthor,” though a circle of friends one night at SoBo. Their sprigs of humour are delightful garnishes throughout the book.
Together at SoBo was intended to be a bit of a step up from Ahier’s first, The SoBo Cookbook. She has a bigger kitchen than in those early days in the truck and can prepare complex dishes such as “Warm Asparagus, Farro and King Oyster Mushroom Salad with Poached Eggs.”
Many of the recipes are from her childhood growing in and around the South like “Grilled Peach and Raspberry Melba.”
The glorious photography throughout the book is by Jeremy Koreski who was born and raised in Tofino and began taking photographs at the age of thirteen when his father gifted him a camera.
Two-page spreads of the tranquility and wildness of the Pacific Ocean, and its shores, along with photographs of the people to whom Ahier pays tribute are a wonderful addition to the food photography. It looks as if you could pick up that Mystic Clam Pizza right off the page.
The section of “Light Starters” includes “Charcuterie with Grilled Peaches” which is “a wee bit more exciting than your average cheese and meat platter.” As with many of the recipes, there’s a “Cook’s Note” that gives some tips or lets readers know where Ahier sources her ingredients. The fresh cheese is Qualicum Cheeseworks’ Fromage Frais; Oyama Sausage Co. in Vancouver supplies the salami; and Picnic Charcuterie in Tofino is for extra-special goodies like porcini salami (named for wild harvested Pacific Northwest porcini mushrooms).
Speaking of polenta and those signature SoBo polenta fries, following one lunch service when there was a lot of polenta left over, Ahier turned it into a light vegetarian meal, “heavy on the herbs.” Among the ingredients for “Grilled Pattypan Squash, Green Polenta and Garlic Aioli,” are cornmeal, a cup of mixed fresh herbs such as parsley and basil, and Asiago cheese.
In one of her “Cook’s Notes,” Ahier says: “Polenta starts with the yellow corn typically called flint corn, from Italy. I use coarse-ground cornmeal from North America, with great results.”
Among the “Soups and Sandwiches” featured is “Chanterelle Mushroom and Corn Chowder” as one of Ahier’s “all-time favorite soups [as it’s] the love child of summer and fall coming together.”
As Ahier has loved salads from an early age, she has included “Green Goddess Salad” in the “Salads’ section as well as “Seaweed, Sea Asparagus and Brassica Shoots Salad.” Brassica shoots are shoots of the cabbage family and Ahier says “their natural bitterness pairs well with the saltiness and sweetness of sea vegetables.” She notes Naas Foods in Tofino as an excellent source of fresh and dehydrated seaweeds – and they ship!
A pizza dough recipe in the “Pizza” section pays tribute to “our own Marco Procopio who takes an almost spiritual approach to pizza, using an overnight fermentation process.” You can learn to make pizza dough, “Tofino style,” and choose from a variety of sauces including “Pumpkin Seed Pesto,” and “White Garlicky Sauce.”
For her “Lentil Vegiballs” recipe Ahier is open to suggestions for names for this vegetarian option made with quinoa, rice, chimichurri, and fresh cheese.
There are recipes for “Braised Chicken,” “Braised Lamb,” clam, shrimp and fish dishes including “Halibut Cheeks” with morels, fiddleheads, and celeriac cream, a late spring dish.
In her “Seared Wild Salmon Recipe,” with new potatoes, broccolini, and parsley, Ahier lets readers know that packages labelled “Atlantic Salmon” mean that the salmon was farmed.
SoBo’s first menu item was a fish taco with fresh fruit salsa, not on Canadian menus when Ahier arrived here twenty years ago. She includes a recipe for a new rendition: “Braised Beef Cheek Tacos” with black bean salsa.
The cookies in the “Desserts” section appear large which could be due to the photography or the fact that Ahier uses a 4-oz ice cream scoop to portion her cookies so they really are giant.
Recipes for “Salted Caramel Cashew Cookies,” “Triple Chocolate Chip Cookies,” and “Fresh Rhubarb Tarts” look and sound delectable. Add beet juice for an “assertive red” in those rhubarb tarts, Ahier suggests.
The “Drinks” section features recipes for the “SoBo Caesar” with pickled bull kelp with directions for pickling in the “Staples” section of the book. (The scientific name for bull kelp is Nereocystis which is Greek for “mermaid’s bladder” but, as Ahier says, “don’t think about that too hard.”
“Lavender Lemonade Spritzer” includes vodka and lavender as “Vancouver Island grows spectacular lavender, as does Salt Spring Island and the Okanagan.” The “SoBo Sunset” is made with dark rum, triple sec, and a teaspoon of absinthe from Tofino Distillery.
A two-page recipe for “Sourdough Bread” is included in the “Staples” section as Susan Musgrave insisted. There’s also an additional page of “Sourdough Tips.” You’ll particularly want to know when your starter develops the “hooch.”
Sandy Barber, Lisa Ahier’s mother, is “the circle, the life that keeps things going.” It was Sandy who introduced Ahier to restaurant work and when SoBo was just beginning, was entrusted with making their signature tofu pockets.
Among the other people praised for their gifts and friendship is Dan Law whose artistic creation of salvaged wood planks in a “sinuous installation on the ceiling” softens the din in the restaurant.
Sharon Whalen and Chris Taylor who live on Clayoquot Island, supply SoBo with seaweed, spring nettles, and herbs.
Katrina Peters set up SoBo’s recycling system and has been with Ahier at SoBo for almost seventeen years, nowadays filling in on the baker’s day off.
Brenda Schwab looks after the gardens with flowering plants that include SoBo’s signature colour: purple.
Laurence Fisette, one of the chefs at SoBo, was inspired by her grandmother, Gigi, who owned a restaurant in a small town in Quebec.
Cosy Lawson’s love of wild salmon has influenced SoBo’s sourcing of sustainable salmon for the restaurant’s dishes.
Sarah Davies-Long, wife of photographer Jeremy Koreski, helped with Ahier’s first cookbook and with an eye for detail, has created a beautiful and welcoming space at SoBo.
Jennifer Scott has been the baker and pastry chef at SoBo since the downtown Tofino location was opened and artist Susanne House grows kale, mint and rhubarb supplied to the restaurant.
The Tofino Distillery was founded by three local firefighters and two of them are pictured: John Gilmour and Neil Campbell.
“SoBo was built on a platform of down to earth, natural food meant to nourish the soul and warm the heart.” Readers will get that sense when they read Together At SoBo and follow recipes along with family and friends to create a soul-nourishing community of their own.
I’m going to start with a nourishing “Fall Harvest Vegetable Soup” for these colder days with Mediterranean oregano or perhaps for a stronger flavour, as Lisa Ahier suggests, fresh oregano from Mexico.
Mary Ann Moore is a poet, writer and writing mentor who lives on the unceded lands of the Snuneymuxw First Nation in Nanaimo. Her full-length book of poetry is Fishing for Mermaids (Leaf Press, 2014) and she has a new chapbook of poems called Mending (house of appleton). Moore leads writing circles and has two writing resources: Writing to Map Your Spiritual Journey (International Association for Journal Writing) and Writing Home: A Whole Life Practice (Flying Mermaids Studio). She writes a blog here. [Editor’s note: Mary Ann Moore has also reviewed books by Stephen Collis (ed.), Maria Coffey, Lorna Crozier, Katherine Palmer Gordon, and Donna McCart Sharkey & Arleen Paré for BCR.]
The British Columbia Review
Interim Editors, 2023-24: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie
Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.
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