Ken Hueston, Smoken Bones Cookshack

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The runaway popularity of Smoken Bones Cookshack should be enough to validate the recent honours bestowed upon its owner, Ken Hueston.

The two-and-a-half-year-old barbecue eatery, discreetly positioned in a nondescript (are there any other kind?) Langford strip mall, is arguably the capital region’s rising star.

Where else would you have to book a week or two in advance to get a table on the weekend? How many other restaurants merit their own signature beer from the hippest local micro-brewery (Smoken Bones Ale from Phillips Brewery)? And which other restaurateurs have twice been crowned Entrepreneur of the Year?

Hueston got the nod last year from the West Shore Chamber of Commerce and, just a few months ago, from the B.C. Chamber of Commerce.To punctuate those credentials, Smoken Bones was recently named the 12th Best Restaurant in Canada by Air Canada’s enRoute magazine.

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Hueston has lately stepped up onto a high-profile soapbox to promote the value of sustainable local food and agriculture, becoming president of the Island Chefs’ Collaborative (ICC).

Spending 70 hours a week “bringing the South to your mouth” at the Station Avenue restaurant, while routinely turning over the 100-seat capacity four or more times a day, it’s evident that the smoke and spice of the kitchen is like oxygen to Hueston. He’s wanted to run his own restaurant since he was a child. The Metchosin-born 35-year-old studied paleontology at university. He jokes that he wanted to work with bones — and got his wish with a wry twist! But it was always cooking that inspired him.

During a culinary tutelage that began in junior high school and included pit stops at “tons of restaurants,” Hueston spent time as executive chef at Spinnakers where owner Paul Hadfield instilled the values of using the kitchen to cultivate homegrown talent. Hueston is continuing the Hadfield tradition in his own kitchen, mentoring tomorrow’s superstar chefs, inspiring them to look in their own backyard for fresh ingredients and learn to support businesses, farms, growers, and producers on the Island first.

Reviewers describe the Smoken Bones experience as big on portions and big on taste. If you manage to catch Hueston for a little chat, you can add big on personality, too.

Why did you open Smoken Bones in Langford?

There’s no artisan-based food out here, nothing made by hand. And my target audience is 25 and above and I find the West Shore is that demographic. I don’t focus my marketing on very young people.

Did you ever consider opening a restaurant in downtown Victoria?

I’m always considering opening in downtown Victoria. Everyone drives it for me and they want me to do it, but one of the biggest mistakes is to compete with yourself and, out here, we’re only 20 minutes from downtown.

How do you feel about the way Langford has recently matured as a city on its own?

I think the West Shore’s cool. It’s definitely business structured but, in the back of my mind, I think over-development is a concern.

Do you think the civic administration has taken the right path by ushering in development?

It’s slowed down a little bit, which is nice to see. I’d really like to see more green buildings.

Will Langford ever challenge Victoria as a destination hot spot?

No. We’re becoming a destination for people to move out of the spotlight. But there’s nothing out here that isn’t downtown.

I’ve read that you “live, eat, and breathe local.” Is local food production critical?

Ninety-five per cent of the food in grocery stores is imported; only five per cent is local. And if we stop importing food, we only have enough on Vancouver Island to last us for three days.

You’re president of the Island Chefs Collaborative (ICC). How important is the organization?

It’s a solution, actually. It’s a group of people who promote utilizing local producers. Globally, how important is that? Extremely. If we left the food in the country it comes from, it would help solve the global food crisis. The average item of food travels 2,400 kilometres to a restaurant. We’ve got to stop that.

One of the ICC’s visions is to make our region sustainable to provide food for our present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their food needs. How far away is the capital region from accomplishing this?

We’re just starting to move in the right direction. It’s not about whether we can get to the finish line. It’s about maintaining support on the Island, where we live. The best example is someone who throws away a piece of recyclable garbage and says, “I dunno… it’s just one thing.” Multiply that by everybody. We just need to change one bad habit a day.

What’s the best way to promote locally produced foodstuffs so that Victorians know them and demand them?

Market. The ICC local food market. Meet the farmers, meet the chefs, meet the guys who are cooking. Go to the ICC website [www.iccbc.ca]. Turn a package around to see where the ingredients come from. Demand it. We have to demand to create a local buzz.

Is running a restaurant really the most difficult job in the world?

If people say it’s a lifestyle before a business, they’re wrong. They’re not going into the right business. It’s more of a relationship. When you own a restaurant, it’s part of your personality. I enjoy being here.

What’s the most important aspect to the “business” of being a restaurateur?

There are three points: food, service, beverage. And those three aspects need to have something within them. You need to create an atmosphere with a story and a reason behind everything. Everything needs to be defined to its critical point.

Will you ever franchise Smoken Bones?

Difficult. I am a destination at this point for people to come and see what the buzz is all about. I’m not ready yet to split myself in half. I am interested in it, but only with someone who could reflect my ideology. It doesn’t make sense to be in two places at once. I’d rather work in partnership with someone.

You feature a fine selection of bourbons. What association does a liquor favoured by Confederate generals have to do with what comes out of the Smoken Bones kitchen?

I have every bourbon you can get in Canada. Bourbon neutralizes the smoke intensity of food and helps with digestion. It’s definitely a pairing to barbecue and barbecue is the essence of the South and that’s where bourbon is being made. I also like bourbon quite a lot.