Olo is Chinook jargon, a pidgin language of the Pacific Northwest that spread throughout the coast during the 19th century. Its rough translation is “hungry”, as in what you’ll be when you enter in the doors of lower Chinatown’s 112-year-old brick heritage building in Victoria and catch the alluring scent of chef Brad Holmes’s “smart simple” food.
Olo opened in late February 2015, a fundamental shift from its former upscale and precise incarnation, Ulla, which had operated since 2010, when Holmes and his wife Sahara Tamarin moved to the island from Vancouver. A desire to simplify life and escape the big city drove the couple’s decision to skip across the Straight to Victoria. Industry pros both, Holmes had cooked at Feenie’s, West, Chow, and Cibo, while Tamarin worked the front of house at Parkside, Chow, and Cibo. When they arrived in Victoria, there were no restaurants that fit their expertise and culinary aims, so they opened their own. Ulla quickly garnered great acclaim; the artistic, modern European tasting menus were a first for Victoria and drew attention from points far beyond the island’s shores. Fast forward a couple of years, now with a young family, and Holmes had grown “tired of 16-hour days of forging the chef-driven restaurant path in Victoria.” And, importantly, once the family had settled and put down roots, they quickly became connected to the community, and wanted to do something to enhance it. The shift to Olo grew organically from that seed.
Now in the bright, brick-and-beam room, family sharing plates have replaced tasting menus. “Sharing food engages, opens conversations,” muses Holmes. “There is still less of a food conversation here than in Vancouver because the community isn’t as big, but the people who are interested are fully invested.” Holmes works directly with many growers, farmers, and breeders, with 80 per cent of ingredients grown organically (and aims to make that 100 per cent in the future). He buys ethically-raised whole animals from local farmers, utilizing the opportunity to teach junior and apprentice staff in the kitchen. “That’s the future: more work,” he says. “All the good stuff in life is hard work. Growing a garden, raising a family, running a business.” Describing Olo’s menu, Holmes proudly affirms that “there’s a farm and a piece of land involved with everything.” That ethos is readily apparent in fall menu dishes such as chorizo and octopus with Fraser Valley rice, romesco, and sorrel, or warming plates including Manilla clams topped with garlic, lemon, parsley, and white wine-grilled bread.
Naturally, the bar program follows closely. Holmes tapped local legend Shawn Soole to revamp the beverage menu for Olo, and Soole has focused on “simple, fresh, local” in the creation of the tight cocktail and wine lists. Mirroring the kitchen, he aims to “work with the season, using local spirits in conjunction with local ingredients to create something fresh and unique.” His Foraged and Found aperitif is an alluring example: Stump gin, Okanagan Spirits maraschino, Odd Society bitter sweet vermouth, hop drop tincture, and pickled fir tips, presented up in dainty vintage glassware.
Holmes is one of 10 chefs participating in the B.C. chapter of the prestigious Gold Medal Plates competition, taking place in Victoria on Nov. 19. Chefs from across the province contend for best dish, as judged by B.C. and Canadian food experts, to raise funds for Canada’s high-performance athletes. Hosted in a total of 11 cities across the country, the crowned winners from each provincial competition will go on to defend their title in the Canadian Culinary Championships. And while the winners have yet to be determined, one thing is for sure: nobody will be leaving hungry.