Remembering James Barber

Chefs don’t eat out much. But on an afternoon in January, with the sky threatening snow, some came together for a meal. Rob Feenie and John Bishop, Vikram Vij and Umberto Menghi. Tojo sat next to La Bodega’s Jose Rivas. Rick Takhar from the Ashiana was a few tables over. Lloyd Arntzen played the clarinet, and Holly Burke sang “Oh James.” Everyone else, more than 200 in all, ate exquisite abalone mushrooms, drank wine from See Ya Later Ranch, and wondered at the mystery kazoos that sat, like dessert forks, at the top of each place setting.

They had come to Sun Sui Wah to remember James Barber, who died at 84 at the end of November, while reading a cookbook at his Cowichan Valley kitchen table. The obituaries in all the official places were kind and thoughtful. Some noted that his cooking show, The Urban Peasant, had been broadcast in more than 100 countries. They told us that James made cooking simple, stripped it of pretension, invited people to take chances, connected eating with other pleasures of the flesh, and showed us how food can bring us together. But they were perhaps a tad too polite.

Decorum wasn’t a problem at Sun Sui Wah. Vij remembered an inquisitive customer at his original restaurant on Broadway: “I wanted to deck him.” Menghi recalled a talkative stranger at his own first restaurant, Casanova. Barber suggested prosciutto and lychees as an alternative to prosciutto and melon. “What is it,” Menghi wondered to himself, “with these bloodsucking leeches?” Duncan Holmes said James once proposed a picnic involving a campfire, baked beans, and a wheelbarrow. Barber’s youngest daughter, Alexis, wondered if genetics were responsible for their shared obsession with “women and sex and food and ankles and food and women.”

After all, James Barber was a profane, trenchant, reckless, stubborn, impish, and deeply curious man who never acted his age. He once test-drove a Jaguar to San Francisco and back. He refused to cash his government pension cheques, described nouvelle cuisine as “children’s portions by an interior decorator,” and raised donkeys on his Cowichan Valley farm so he could use the word “obdurate” and tell visitors about the enormous size of the erect male donkey penis.

As a teenager, he fought behind enemy lines in France, where he fathered the first of six children, with a farmer’s daughter. He came to British Columbia from England in 1952 because of a story he read about a man visiting his friends as he rowed down Shawnigan Lake. He came to writing in his late 40s, from a career as a civil engineer. The flippant cartoon recipes in his seminal 1971 cookbook Ginger Tea Makes Friends broke all the rules. He never stopped re-imagining the future, and he never got old.

At 75, when he was still young, James had a birthday party at an unfashionable old-school Italian joint off East Hastings. There were clay bocce courts in the basement, where guests knocked off a few games before dinner. He understood that Al Ritrovo would transport people, that it was like a child’s secret fort, a place hidden from us in plain view, and that when the guests walked through the door they entered another world.

To most, James was a celebrity chef, but in his heart he was a writer. He did it with humour and ease, and he made those unlikely connections that leave the rest of us wondering “Why didn’t I see that before?”

In his third act, James showed us how lucky we have been in Vancouver these last 30 years. He showed us fresh ingredients long before they became a fashion accessory. He introduced this city’s cultures to one another through their food. He made the exotic familiar, and the familiar exotic. And on a wonderful January afternoon, his friends showed their gratitude. At the end, Lloyd Arntzen marched out into the street playing “When the Saints Go Marching In,” trailing a small orchestra of kazoo players. In lieu of all the things that still remain unsaid, James, thanks for lunch


Charles Campbell worked with James Barber at the Georgia Straight, the Vancouver Sun, and, the week before he died, at Thetyee website.