At the northern end of the Strait of Georgia, beyond Lund to the east and Campbell River to the west, are B.C.’s Discovery Islands. On one of the small isles that make up this stunning archipelago sits Sonora Resort, a destination only accessible by air or water. A place to tune into nature and out of the rest of the world. With surroundings this magical, you don’t need a book, you won’t want your headphones, and be assured you will quickly forget about your phone.
You will need to eat, however, and luckily the resort’s Tyee restaurant that provides guests their breakfast, lunch, and dinner does not rely on the astonishing view to satiate. On the contrary, the food coming out of executive chef Justine Smith’s kitchen is some of the best you will find anywhere in the province, and likely beyond. It’s so good, you will look away from the hundreds of bald eagles perched on the small, wooded island to your left, put your eager scanning for whale sightings on pause, and feel no guilt turning your full attention to the glorious plates placed before you.
“I’m feeling more confident going into this season than last,” Smith tells me, as I wonder how she could possibly have ever doubted herself. Tender octopus, smoky with just the right degree of char; silky sablefish in a sultry sake jus; perfect toothsome parcels of tortellini—the dishes I was served on a visit during last year’s half-capacity season were spectacular. I craved their complex, deep flavours for weeks.
We are catching up by phone the morning of this year’s practice run—two days before the first guests of the season arrive. Tonight, the resort’s staff will enjoy the spring tasting menu, and tomorrow, they will order à la carte. It’s the kitchen’s chance to catch any issues and make tweaks.
Smith is more excited than nervous, and as she begins to list the new tasting menu dishes, I hear confidence in her ideas, her flavours, her combinations coming through. I stop her at dandelion spaghetti with dandelion consommé and candied walnuts for more details. “I tried to use all the parts of dandelion,” she explains. “They are a weed, but people like to eat them, and they have so many health benefits.”
She blanches the leaves and combines them with the dough to create a vibrant green pasta. The flowers and the roots are used in the consommé. “I would love to garnish with the flowers, but they close up as soon as you pick them,” she notes. The roots, she says, bring an earthiness to the stock that was also built carefully to offset the natural bitterness dandelion is known for. “The base begins with an onion soubise [gently sweated-down onions],” she adds. “Then we garnish with candied walnuts and confit shallot and garlic that are also pretty sweet and help to balance that whole dish.”
The menu may be meticulously planned and organized, but managing that across a season at Sonora is no easy task: everything is shipped in by boat or helicopter. Something isn’t available this week? You’d better be able to adapt.
“I’m super easy about substitutions,” she says with a laugh. “I can’t run out to the IGA if I need anything—whatever makes it up here is what I work with.” She is committed to seasonality (which helps) and also the produce of B.C. (For 2022, only the beef served at Sonora will be sourced out of province—from Alberta.)
The menu will transition to summer at the end of June, with a dish or two a day being replaced until it’s completely new, then the same process begins at the onset of September for the fall menu. (Sonora is open from May 1 through October 15.)
Smith grew up in the Lower Mainland and cut her culinary chops opening Hawksworth under then chef de cuisine Kristian Eligh (who she credits with sparking her love of Asian ingredients). A stint in London followed, including working at Michelin-starred The Square, before she returned to B.C. in 2017 as Sonora’s sous chef. She took over as executive chef in 2020 and, finally this year, will run a full service in that capacity.
She eats out in Vancouver (and the Okanagan where her parents have relocated) as often as possible: “Every chef needs to eat other chefs’ food,” she insists. “Sometimes we are midseason, and I use my off-island time eating—looking for inspiration and ways to bring my own twist.” For her, a dish must be tasty and technical, aesthetically pleasing, and also make sense. “I’m looking at the whole picture.”
The results are exceptional, and I wonder if she’s tempted to return to the city to make her mark. She’s not. “I enjoy the simplicity out here,” she explains. “I love Vancouver, but I prefer the remote lifestyle. I also love to fish.
“This is just my place to be. It’s home now.”
Read more from our Summer 2022 issue.