Some people are really good at hunting and catching food, gardening, foraging — you know, the skills that are useful if you were to find yourself somewhere without modern conveniences or, like many people, want a stronger connection to your food. My skills fall more in line with “market shopper and ambitious eater,” so when presented with the chance to head out on the waters off Vancouver Island to catch seafood and prepare it at a local cooking school, my first thought was that my entire group would starve. My second: Could pizza be delivered to a boat?
But chef Dan Hayes is confident there’s plenty of delicious food to be caught in the Pacific Ocean, and that you don’t have a to be a pro to know how to cook it. Along with his wife Micayla, Dan runs The London Chef, a Victoria-based cooking school. Beyond culinary classes offered in a sun-filled cooking studio that’s spread out over 1,600 square feet, he offers food-based excursions in the field — or in my case, ocean.
His studio is where we would cook our catch, sip crisp local wine and sample chunks of stellar island cheese and salty cured local meats. (The following day, I walked from my temporary home at the boutique Magnolia Hotel & Spa to a nearby market to buy more of the cheese I had tasted at The London Chef. Hayes’ picks are that good that they keep people coming back for more.)
Hayes moved to Victoria in 2008 from London, England to follow his wife back to the city where she grew up; the couple met when she took one of his cooking classes in London. Having worked with some of the U.K.’s best seafood chefs, Hayes decided that Vancouver Island, with its access to premium fresh seafood, sounded like a great place to start up the cooking school he had long dreamed of. His goal was never to produce the next Master Chef, but to create a social and fun environment for people to learn (or remember) that cooking can be enjoyable.
The London Chef’s newest class is the excursion West Coast Best Coast, which Hayes describes as “one part boat trip, one part cooking class, one part long summer lunch.” The day starts with brunch — complete with mimosas — on a chartered boat. As guests soak in the sun and postcard-perfect view of the Olympic Mountains, the crew drops crab traps in the water to catch what they can during the 4.5-hour aqua adventure.
Hayes is happy to have guests get as hands-on and fishy as they desire: If they want to reel in salmon and help prepare it, he encourages the help. And as the travels around the shoreline of Victoria’s Inner Harbour, around the Ogden Point lighthouse and towards the straight of Juan de Fuca, Hayes shares his excitement and knowledge about local and sustainable seafood with guests as he prepares and serves a snack of fresh salmon sashimi. (For those who don’t have the luxury of spending half a day on the water, Hayes offers a 2.5-hour trip without the salmon fishing but still includes the demo with a freshly caught fish brought on board.)
As the boat returns to the dock, the crab traps are pulled back on board full of feisty Dungeness crabs snipping their claws. The captain swiftly removes them from the traps and tosses them at our feet before scooping them into a bucket to be taken back to the cooking school.
Back at the studio, we cook the crabs with leftover pieces of salmon from the boat (Hayes insists every bit of the fish gets used) and a few heavy fresh clams. Chopped tomatoes, fresh herbs, onions, garlic and cream are added to the hot pan and soon after, everyone is taking an Instagram photo of their finished seafood dish, proudly bragging about their chef skills. The Hayes’ hope the West Coast Best Coast adventure turns people onto cooking seafood by showing how uncomplicated it can be. For my anyway, it’s mission accomplished.