New to the Tofino Food Tour this year is SoBo. When you come to Tofino and ask a local, “where should I go to eat?” consistently you will be told, “SoBo.” That response is usually followed passionately by, “get the cornbread, polenta fries and key lime pie.”
Chef Lisa Ahier is the founder and creator of SoBo. In 1997, she went to the Culinary Institute of America where she graduated with honours. She has worked in New York, Texas and Florida. Lisa is the author of “The SoBo Cookbook, Recipies from the Canadian Restaurant at the End of the Road“. When we sat down to talk to Chef Lisa, we couldn’t help but notice every question we asked came back to her love of family, community, and food.
You started your career on a boat in Florida, worked in New York and Texas and then came back to be by the sea here in Tofino. What is the significance of the ocean and your career as a chef?
Lisa: I am a pescatarian and I have been my entire life. So meat, pork, beef, poultry, are not what I love. Plant-based and sea-based foods are where my heart and soul is and it was natural for me to follow this path. SoBo had been open for 5 years before I put my first meat dish outside of poultry on the menu.
My life revolves around the water. It’s an energetic connection. Every morning I’m out with my dogs, and every night I take my shoes off and I ground and then I go for a paddleboard. It’s how I de-stress and I feel better for it. I have 35 employees and something goes down every day and I get asked daily by my staff, “why aren’t you crazy?” I simply tell them it’s because I live by the water and can easily let it go.
You source a lot of food locally for the restaurant. Tell us about who you work with.
My salmon fisherman, Doug Kimoto, is approaching 70. He fishes alone and has been doing so for 30 years. He catches by line and I call him the fish whisperer. His fish is better than everyone else. It’s bigger, brighter, and tastes better. He is a mindful and thoughtful fisherman. He is expensive but worth it. I buy pretty much everything he catches. There are a lot of people that won’t pay the prices that I pay. But I pay for quality and I don’t waste.
All of my potatoes and greens come from a 15-acre garden run by Barbara and Lorne Ebell. The Ebell’s are in the garden 6 days a week. Barbara is 89 years old and Lorne is 90. They operate Nanoose Organic Edibles. If you get a chance go and see their farm.
My shellfish comes from a couple over from the Quadra & Cortes Island area that run Outlandish Shellfish Guild. I met them 15 years ago. They walked up to me and said, “Hey, we are oyster farmers and we are going to go under because the big companies undercut us. Do you want to deal direct?” It was a dream come true. They grow, harvest, and deliver the shellfish. Now they sell to almost every restaurant in this town. I was their first customer. We get live scallops from them every Thursday. I love it.
Locals eat at SoBo. Celebrities eat at SoBo. Tourists come from everywhere to eat at SoBo. Tell us how it all started.
The last place I worked before coming to Canada (Lisa is from Texas) was at a ranch in Texas but I wanted to raise a family. My husband and I went to a conference on hospitality on Vancouver Island. It was there that I met this guy name Sinclair Phillips. He was the grandfather of organic and fresh seafood in restaurants. I got connected with Sinclair over the phone and he hooked me up with Charles McDermott from the Wickaninnish Inn and for three days they took me all over to the best food places on Vancouver Island.
My husband Artie and I came to Tofino and we fell in love with it. I told Artie we need to make our home here. We ended up getting a job offer here. I also ended up getting pregnant at 42. Then one day while driving around Vancouver I saw a bunch of food trucks. It was then that I knew that is what I wanted to do.
Next thing you know, a couple of days later in 2003, Artie and I drove back to Tofino with a bright purple catering truck and pulled into where Tacofino is now. According to documentation, I’m sure that I was operating the first gourmet food truck in North America, although the Food Network will tell you it’s Kogi, the Korean BBQ joint in LA that opened in 2008.
As soon as I started my own business, I knew that it was going to work for me. I could put up a sign that says closed if my child is sick. There was no pressure. But then 7 months later we get the enRoute magazine award for the top 10 restaurants in Canada. We were number 9. We had no liquor license, no bathrooms, and we were in the middle of a clear-cut parking lot. People would stand in the rain for an hour waiting to order. It all happened because a bunch of food writers loved the fresh salads, fresh tacos, fresh soup and getting good tasting farm fresh food. Plus, our food was and remains affordable. I wanted the community to eat my food. I wanted my friends and family to be able to afford what I was serving. It all just turned into a storm after that award. The line was out to the street.
We had the food truck until 2005. Then I started up at the Tofino Botanical Gardens in 2005, but then I outgrew that. In 2008, this space became available at 311 Neill Street and we love it. If we outgrow this I will retire.
At this point of the interview, Chef Lisa left to take her daughter a freshly made pizza for lunch. Lisa told us that it’s important for her to make time for her children during the day and to be home at night. She has an excellent evening chef and she indicated this keeps her family happy and the staff happy. Once she returned from walking the pizza over to the school, we resumed our conversation about Lisa’s work in Tofino.
One thing a lot of people may not know about you is how much you help the community…
I want to spend the rest of my life here. I am walking billboard for Tofino. I love the safety of Tofino, the clean air, the clean water, and the people that I live around. I like knowing that on the night of a tsunami warning, like the one we experienced in January, that people are knocking on one another’s doors, making sure their neighbours are safe. Community is what you make it. You have to embrace the type of people that are in the community. When something goes down, everyone pitches in. I love giving back to our community.