A Cowichan Bay classic gets a great new look
Words Sean McIntyre
Photography Lia Crowe
The arrival of rainy weather on the West Coast is always a shock to my system. We need the rain, of course, but I’d be lying if I said the winter’s damp days hadn’t landed me in a funk. Thankfully, there’s always food to save the day, and a visit to Cowichan Bay’s The Cook & Butcher was apt for the task.
And so there I was, driving through a steady downpour along Cowichan Bay Road, past the Cowichan River Estuary’s expansive salt flats and onward through the seaside village of Cowichan Bay, misty clouds clinging to the treetops while the puddles grew into lakes seemingly by the minute.
Shoulder season in “Cow Bay” means the crowds are back home and many of the shops close early. My rainy midweek visit proved no exception, although a few rainwear-clad visitors had come to take in the quintessential “wet coast” vibe. Some were headed to The Cook & Butcher, where owner and executive chef Matt Heyne greeted me for a personal and much-anticipated sample of some of the kitchen’s signature items.
Anyone familiar with the Cow Cafe West Coast Grill, Matt’s previous restaurant on the same site, will do a double take upon entering the completely reimagined and masterfully redesigned space, which sits on the fifth floor of the Oceanfront Suites at Cowichan Bay. Matt, alongside Jenn, his wife and business partner, and their family and team, gutted the entire space, redid the flooring, repainted everything and added custom furnishings throughout. The focus is maximizing space for dinners and staff, while ensuring that every seat in the house offers a view of the bay and mountains beyond.
“My real passion is the design and the flow and the functionality of the restaurant,” Matt tells me as we take a seat in a corner booth by the ocean-facing window. “Flow is so important in the restaurant industry. I’d rather offer the guest a great experience than go after more seats. In the restaurant business there’s something called ‘burn and turn’ and that’s not at all what we are about.”
So expansive is the restaurant’s main eating area, it’s hard to believe that immediately adjacent to the space are two equally spacious rooms—each with its own stunning views of the bay—used for events such as anniversaries, wedding receptions, corporate functions or holiday parties.
As we sit down, we see some California sea lions out hunting for salmon in the waters beyond the community’s vibrant working marina. Just when I think the coastal vibe can’t get any stronger, our server offers up the restaurant’s famed Coast to Coast Caesar, served sans-vodka in this case. This really is a meal in a glass; delivered with prawns, East Coast scallops, a full lobster tail and smoked salmon. The Instagram-worthy behemoth may be more like lunch and dinner in a glass.
The combination of an awe-inspiring presentation and seafood sumptuousness helped the Coast to Coast place second in a nationwide competition to find the country’s best Caesars sponsored in 2022 by Mott’s Clamato. At this point, I could have happily ventured back into the rain with renewed vigour and a feeling that all was right in the world. But there was more deliciousness to come.
Later in our meal, partway through a butcher’s board platter with sample entrees that included a 10-ounce dry-aged New York strip steak, dry-aged tomahawk pork chop with grilled Symphony tomatoes and oyster mushrooms covered in a demi-glace sauce, and braised pork belly with sea scallops, Matt confides that he’s a risk-taker.
It’s hardly a surprise given that he’s been a leader and visionary in the Cowichan Valley’s restaurant scene for nearly two decades. Once he or any of the team members get inspired to create something like the Coast to Coast, they run with it, working as a team to make each meal a memorable eating experience. Experience, careful research and further input from Jenn, however, mean every decision is actually a carefully calculated risk.
There’s also much input from the restaurant’s head chef, Jacob Post, who Matt credits with playing a huge role in the new restaurant’s menu design.
Many of the dishes offered up at The Cook & Butcher are essentially modelled on old classics, many of which Matt fondly recalls eating as a child. There are comfort classics like mom’s meatloaf and pork chops and fried mushrooms—but elevated to an entirely new and unpredictable level. It’s something Matt likes to call elevated simplicity, and it’s a consistent theme throughout The Cook & Butcher.
“It’s those same familiar dishes but taken to new heights. To me, that’s what cooking is about,” he says. “In life we evolve, and I feel our food evolves as well.”
Here, we see a weeknight staple elevated into millionaire’s meatloaf, a marvel consisting of wagyu beef wrapped in double-smoked bacon and topped with Cajun-seared prawns and a crab-infused hollandaise, with some potato frites added on top for good measure.
“Sometimes you hear about the aha moment, and this was that aha moment,” Matt says. “It’s from here that the whole concept of elevated simplicity just started to come together and roll out.”
The vision has resulted in a place for folks to gather with friends, family and colleagues. A place where they can celebrate, remember and share, all while taking in the phenomenal views and attentive service.
Matt’s passion for the restaurant business and his latest project are uplifting and reassuring in a sector that’s had its fair share of hard times in between pandemic restrictions and runaway inflation.
But it’s people like this, after all, who are driving the evolution of Vancouver Island’s culinary destination, and, in Matt’s case, making Cowichan Bay a must-visit for islanders, off-island visitors or folks just passing through on their way to points further afield—no matter what the weather may be doing outside the restaurant’s picture-postcard windows.