Chris van Hooydonk of Backyard Farm, Oliver
Backyard Farm provides unique, intimate culinary experience
Chris Van Hooydonk and his wife Mikkel Day-Ponce defied conventional restaurant wisdom when they started the Backyard Farm Chef’s Table in a heritage farmhouse on June 1, 2014.
The farm of just under two acres sits at the south end of Oliver just west of Highway 97, and just north of the boundary with Osoyoos. Filled with heritage fruit trees – some more than 80 years old – and raised plant beds growing heritage ground crops, the farm provides the ingredients for a unique and intimate culinary experience.
Conventional wisdom suggests as many sittings as possible with a standardized menu in order to maximize profits in a challenging industry. Backyard Farm, however, limits its sittings to one pre-booked group a night, each with a customized menu.
It’s a business built to sustain a lifestyle for their family and staff. It’s a model that might not work for someone motivated by money.
“Being located somewhere else for a year-round salary and medical and dental, and the high-profile nature of a lot of chefs, with fame and fortune, is not something I’m interested in,” says Van Hooydonk, 43. “It’s more about just being connected to my family, to my staff and to my farm.”
In a culture dominated by fast food, busy lives and convenience, Van Hooydonk is promoting the opposite – a return to the old-world dining culture of slowing down, enjoying yourself and your company and having time to share stories.
“I want to create an atmosphere that encourages people to sit down, lose track of time for a change, and be immersed in dining rather than just sustenance,” he says.
“Farm to table” has become a buzz phrase in foodie culture, signifying cuisine fresh from the farm. But Backyard Farm aims to bring the “table to the farm” – allowing guests to dine surrounded by the growing vegetables, fruit, bees, and egg-laying chickens that provide dinner.
When they started the Backyard Farm Chef’s Table nine years ago, Van Hooydonk considered a back-up plan where he would work somewhere else a few days a week in order to keep the business afloat until it got off the ground. That turned out to be unnecessary.
He’d previously worked as a restaurant chef and executive chef for five years at Burrowing Owl Estate Winery, establishing his reputation.
“There were quite a few clients that wanted to follow what I was doing in my career, and it ended up being way busier than I expected off the hop,” he says.
Today there’s a one-year wait list for peak season dates and about 85 percent of guests are return visitors. This means it’s geared more to corporate retreats, local groups, and other events rather than casual tourists.
“It’s not that we don’t want to be accessible, but we keep things very small and intimate, and it’s a lifestyle choice,” he says. It also avoids the staffing shortages that plague larger restaurants.
Van Hooydonk has 27 years’ experience in the culinary industry, but he’s been cooking most of his life.
“I’ve always known that I was to cook for a living, and it was something I had a keen interest in from being very young,” he says. “The catalyst of it all was growing up with my single mother and sister. We had to come home after school and start dinner as my mom was working three jobs to keep us in a house.”
He started looking at cooking professionally in grades 8 and 9, inspired by school home economics class. In his two high schools, both with commercial kitchens, he took food and cafeteria classes. He finished high school in Vernon, where he was introduced to the Okanagan.
His career took him to Fort McMurray at age 19 after his first year of culinary school. He bit off more than he could chew in Alberta’s north, leading him back to Kelowna and a four-year apprenticeship, followed by work on a cruise ship and three years at the Four Seasons Hotel in Boston.
Ironically, neither Chris nor Mikkel had any background in farming until they moved to their Oliver property. Chris was born and raised in Edmonton, Mikkel is from Vancouver, and neither had even lived in a rural area.
He purchased the land in 2006 from Peter and Alice Vanjoff, who farmed it for more than half a century and planted many of the heritage fruit trees. Peter became his mentor, teaching him the proper way to do thinning and pruning.
“I learned kind of trial by fire how to be a farmer, how to prune trees, how to fertilize, how to manage irrigation and discovered that I really loved it,” says Van Hooydonk. “It was like a missing link.”
Mikkel especially has taken on the farming and gardening work, assisted by their two daughters.
“My wife will come down in the morning and ask us what we need from the garden, and she’ll go out in her golf cart and pick everything we need and then we’re using it that afternoon or evening on the menus, which is pretty incredible,” says Van Hooydonk. “Not a lot of chefs get to say that.”
The food is grown using organic methods, though they don’t have organic certification.
The old fruit trees, some of them massive, grow rare varieties of cherries, peaches, and other fruits. Normally farmers replace older trees with ones that give a higher yield, but for Van Hooydonk, the taste and tradition of the heritage varieties is more important than the volume.
“We concluded that we’d like to keep the old trees here as long as they’re producing because we’re only using it in the business and not selling the fruit anywhere,” he said.
Last year they planted about 25 varieties of true heirloom tomatoes, along with many kinds of beans, heirloom carrots, onions, shallots, squash, beets, asparagus, berries, and 750 heads of garlic.
They have one rooster and 12 hens, all heritage breeds, for eggs. In the winter the chickens are kept in a coop, but in spring they have a “roaming coop” pulled by a “chicken tractor” that moves them to different spots every four or five days. They eat kitchen waste and fertilize the land.
Backyard Farm doesn’t raise any animals for meat because the property is too small, but they buy ethically raised meat from farms in the Fraser Valley and the BC Interior.
Van Hooydonk says his cooking style is French inspired, ingredient driven, and planned around wine pairings. But he doesn’t sell wine – the cash cow of many restaurants. Instead, he provides customers with suggested pairings for their menu and lets them find appropriate wines at local wineries. It becomes like a treasure hunt and part of the experience.
He rejects “molecular gastronomy,” a chemistry approach to combining foods, instead emphasizing the best ingredients, and letting customers know what they’re eating.
“We’re still very much about presentation, texture, colour contrast,” he says. “It has to be appealing. At the same time, I want to make sure that I’m really paying tribute to the natural ingredient itself rather than over manipulation.”
For Van Hooydonk, it’s exciting to be able to use the land “as a template for my culinary artistry.”
“Farming is a lifestyle choice, so you have to really love what you’re doing,” he says. “This is probably the hardest I’ve ever worked in 27 years, but also the most rewarding because we’re doing it for the benefit of everybody who’s involved – my family, my staff, and the community. We get to represent all the beauty and magic of the region, not to mention our beautiful little two-acre piece of paradise here.”
Story and photos by Richard McGuire
Backyard Farm Chef’s Table
3692 Fruitvale Way
Oliver, BC V0H 1T1