Four and a half hours east by car from Vancouver in the southern part of the Okanagan Valley, south of Kelowna, past Penticton and Oliver, sits Osoyoos. A small town surrounded by mountains, vineyards, organic farms and orchards, it is Canada’s only true desert. It is also a sun-drenched oasis for those seeking escape from British Columbia’s cloudy skies. You don’t need to go further than the town’s main drag to see evidence that folks have made pilgrimages here since the 1950s — a line of motels so authentically kitschy, they’re downright hip.
The common thread that seems to run through Osoyoos is that it is made up of people who have come to reinvent themselves — switching careers, pursuing lifelong dreams and opening new businesses. You’ll find these enterprising souls at hotels and restaurants, and often, the region’s wineries — more than 235 are scattered throughout the Okanagan Valley. The town is the type that takes care of its own. It wants everyone to succeed and become a vibrant part of the community. To achieve that goal, the vibe is cooperation rather than competition. People are proud to live and work here.
Take Bruce Fuller, a former marketing executive from West Vancouver, who opened a winery in 2009. Rustico Farm & Cellars taps into the spirit of the Old West, complete with a rustic log bunkhouse from the 1800s. As an oenophile, Fuller had always wanted to own his own label and he got that chance when the property in Osoyoos with its well-established vineyards came up for sale. “It was a unique property because of its history,” he says. “I had envisioned an Italian-themed winery, but I changed gears when I saw this place and opted for a Western focus.”
That’s why Fuller pours his customers wine not in a tasting room but a saloon decorated with Western-themed antiques, from old gas lanterns to wagon wheels. And instead of traditional wine glasses, he uses tumblers reflective of the pomp-free, rustic charm of the place.
His long furry moustache, weathered cowboy hat, boots and denim overalls give him the appearance of a man who grew up on the back of a horse. He’s a charismatic character who deputizes his customers as wine marshalls, complete with badges. Some 4,000 visitors have become part of his Rustico Wine Posse, his version of a wine club, entitling members to discounts and special perks.
Rustico’s Mother Lode, a bold smoky merlot with cherry overtones, or Last Chance, a zinfandel-centric red blend with earthy, leather and tobacco notes, are perfect pairings for a lunch of charcuterie and cheese. While there’s no restaurant on-site, guests are welcome to bring their own and dine at the picnic tables provided.
Another transplant making his mark in Osoyoos is chef Chris Van Hooydonk, an Albertan who moved to the Okanagan and enrolled in culinary school when he was just 16. Afterward, he snagged positions at Harvest Dining Room in Kelowna and the Four Seasons hotel in Boston, before returning west and landing in Oliver at Burrowing Owl Estate Winery as executive chef. While he learned a lot working in the corporate culinary arena, it wasn’t entirely satisfying, so he exited that world and was faced with the “Now what?” dilemma.
He catered for three years before opening up Artisan Culinary Concepts in Oliver. His base is a renovated farmhouse that’s kitted out with an open professional kitchen and a spacious dining room with a single table that seats 20. Outside, the property has more than 80 60-year-old fruit trees on what he calls, “Backyard Farms.”
It’s the perfect setting for Van Hooydonk to stage his bespoke culinary experiences. “I love cooking for people,” he says. “And I wanted to enhance the experience by showing them what it truly is to enjoy good food. That’s always been my vision.” His new endeavour, which has been open just over a year, is a culmination of all of his previous culinary work experience, his intimate knowledge of the best local wines and producers and his passion for eating and learning.
This enterprise falls somewhere between a restaurant and a cooking school. Van Hooydonk prepares dinner for small groups, whether they simply want to be fed or are looking to take an active role in the preparation, guided each step of the way by a man who adores food. As dishes arrive at the table, they look like art — carefully arranged on the plate to make the most of colour, shape and texture, then garnished with pretty touches like pansies.
The tender oven-roasted lamb sirloin, drizzled deftly with a cherry-infused jus, is paired with a fruit-forward petit verdot from Moon Cursor Vineyards. Van Hooydonk radiates excitement as he talks about this meat he’s sourced from a local farmer who’s adopted humane and ethical methods of production. Delicate pillows of ricotta gnocchi sit to the side. “With my food, every ingredient has a story and I’m happy to tell it,” he says.
Van Hooydonk manages what many chefs try and fail to do. His cuisine finds a happy place balance between simplicity and innovation. The flavours of each thoughtfully sourced ingredient shine through, while still being interesting enough to please palates that have been there and tasted that. And he makes it seem effortless. In the environs of Osoyoos, where his backyard is his grocery store, it’s clear that his talents are free to soar unencumbered by the limitations of being in the corporate arena.
While reinvention is a way of life in Osoyoos, it’s done carefully when it comes to the town itself, according to Ingrid Jarrett, general manager of the Watermark Beach Resort, chairman of the B.C. Hotel Association and an Osoyoos resident for the past 11 years. “We’ve been very careful with development here,” she explains. “It’s important to protect it and put the needs of the community and the families who live here first while we provide all the amenities that tourism requires.”
There’s no wall of condo buildings on the lakefront, nor big box businesses. The Watermark Beach Resort anchors the lakeside block it sits on — for rooms with a view, this is the place to be. From a patio or balcony, you can watch the sunset (glass of wine in hand, naturally) or walk a few metres to the water’s edge and slip into the warm water for a summer swim. Families tend to stick close to the swimming pool, while twosomes find romance on a blanket on the grass by the lake. It’s an ideal hub from which to explore all that Osoyoos offers.
“We realize that we have something really special,” says Jarrett. And indeed, Osoyoos, though small, is full of creativity — the kind that gets under your skin and calls you back — all the better for reinventing yourself.