Haute speaks to Shira Blustein, the restaurateur and force of nature behind The Acorn and The Arbor — and discovers the karma of locally peeled garlic
he had her roots in the meaty metropolis of Cowtown but Blustein had to leave Calgary to flourish. Since 1995 she’s been on a vegetarian journey from animal rights teen to sustainable haute cuisine, by way of a punk rock interlude. Looking back on her early food rebellion, she feels she owes a debt of gratitude to other restaurateurs:
“IN CALGARY, WE USED TO GO TO BUDDHA’S VEGGIE OR MARATHON OR MOTI MAHAL — THOSE WERE SOME OF THE GREAT PLACES THAT CATERED TO VEGETARIANS.”
With chefs who treat celeriac with the reverence others devote to filet mignon, she’s manifested a veggie paradise her younger self couldn’t have imagined – one where the protein on the plate wasn’t an imitation but was reconsidered from scratch.
“I had been dreaming of opening a restaurant for about five years before Acorn. And, honestly, I wanted to create the restaurant that I wanted to eat at. I felt incredibly frustrated as a plant-based diner in Vancouver at the time, always having to compromise, and I set out to change that. Which seems kind of crazy but thank goodness it was a gamble that worked at the time … and still does.”
During Dine Out Vancouver, Haute’s peckish pen-pushers were treated to a meat-free manifesto for taste and texture that asks big questions — Remind me why we ever eat meat? Who would think to shave peach kernels into slivers of deliciousness? Birch Syrup, where have you been all my life? Or, Can I drink this House Vinegar by the glass?
Though Blustein and her team are still on a mission to tantalize taste buds, they’ve begun to address the elephant in every dining room — sustainability. Meat-free has always been a path towards a more conscious way of eating; The Acorn is simply taking it to the next level. The menu is now 100% organic, producing very little waste.
“It was definitely animal rights that drove me towards being vegetarian early on. And I still feel very strongly about that but I also feel that there should be a choice for people to just eat less meat as a way towards a more sustainable future,” says Blustein.
“At the start, it was just about trying to get people in the door and be excited about eating vegetables. But, now ten years later, and as the restaurant continues to evolve, it has developed more of a zero-waste and sustainable framework. We use vegetable scraps in soups and stocks, in vinegars and in oil infusions. We are using every bit of the produce which at home you might have just thrown away. The cookbook [Vegetables Re-imagined] which we have just released hopefully shows some easy examples of how we do that.”
As the former member of a punk band, Blustein clearly relishes the jamming and improvisation that makes The Acorn so much more than a restaurant that just happens to be veggie.
“What it becomes is this beautiful hybrid of all the energy that you put into it, with all the energy that everyone else brings. Our chefs over time have become more and more committed to working with farmers to the point now where nearly 100% of our menu is locally grown and organic. And even wild foraged.”
Blustein sees her business in a mutually beneficial ecosystem with flavour-conscious growers. Sustainability from farm to table — and into our tummies.
“It’s the farms that create our menus for us. They send us their fresh produce and we design our menus based on what’s coming from them. What’s cool with the relationships we have now is that they can reach out to us before they start growing. And we’ll work with them, so that they know what we are looking for in the coming season. Which is so special. We get to feature the passion that our farmers have, and hopefully our guests walk away feeling a little more connected to the food that they’re eating.”
Recently, The Acorn was able to show that sustainability is a win-win-win for everyone in the food chain. The star of the show — the humble garlic.
“Restaurants buy peeled garlic because the labour on peeling garlic is really high. Most of that comes imported — in fact all of it. But we were always driven to try to find a local peeled garlic, and then we met Abdul at BC Garlic. He left our meeting to try to figure it out and came back to us with a price that was three times more expensive than the imported garlic that we had been getting,” remembers Blustein.
“But when we brought it in, it was so fresh and so much more potent that we only needed to use a third of the garlic. We had to rewrite all our recipes which took some work. But it was so worth it, and it is one of those small details that makes you feel so proud of the work we are doing.”
Next time you are at The Acorn, thank Shira Blustein for turning her back on punk rock stardom. Thank her chefs for their skilful, daring taste experiments. And thank the farmers and foragers. Take a bow: BC Garlic, Copthorne Farm, Klippers Organics, North Arm Farm, Hannah Brook Farm, Local Harvest, Lance Wildcraft, Hazelmere Organics, Crescent Island Organics, Vancouver Island Sea Salt, Cherry Lane Farm, Oyster & King Mushrooms, Rehoboth Farm, Scott Moran, Your Wildest Foods, Koji Fine Foods, Mt Lehman Cheese Co, Kispiox Birch Syrup, Barnside Brewing Co, Artisan Sake, Gathered Farm, North Pacific Kelp, Livia Sweets, and Fraserland Organics.
Photo credit: Acorn Restaurant