Bika: Honouring Turkish roots with sustainable farming & local values

Chef Fisun Ercan explains why running Quebec’s Bika Farm and Cuisine is more than just a dream fulfilled

By Tom Nightingale

Nestled in the southern Quebec countryside just outside Saint-Blaise-sur-Richelieu, about 45 minutes from downtown Montreal, Chef Fisun Ercan runs Bika Farm and Cuisine, a truly local and sustainable food experience that pays homage to her roots in Turkey.

At the farm, which she founded with her husband in 2018 after 14 years in the restaurant business in Montreal, she provides high-quality Turkish cuisine with a strong emphasis on sustainability and local sourcing.

That reflects the core learnings of her upbringing on the Aegean coast. There, as a child with foodie parents, she grew up with a keen sense of family, what it takes to prepare a meal and entertain guests, and the importance of sustainability and respecting the environment and the earth.

Being a chef is her third life, she explains, having previously studied in both economics and finance and computer programming in Turkey.

“But cooking wasn’t something I learned later in life – it was always with me,” Ercan says. “I grew up in a family who almost literally lived in the kitchen and in an environment where everything was local, eating what was available seasonally with nothing was really produced for big markets. The scene of the table changed every time. It was a joyful life.”

Ercan’s move from Turkey to Montreal changed her life in many ways, of course, not least by opening her eyes to the fact that the local, sustainable model she had always known wasn’t necessarily replicated around the world.

“It was the first time I really saw the ‘global’ way of eating, where every season’s produce from every geographic region of the planet could be found in one place in the supermarket,” she explains. “That was a big shock for me.”

That love of cooking and exploring food only intensified, though – “I was even going to other people’s houses to cook for them!” she laughs – and in her early 30s, Ercan found herself going to culinary school.

She admits she felt old to be entering the industry, but within months of completing her studies, she was running a restaurant with her husband. “I just wanted to share the joys of Turkish cuisine with people.”

Fulfilling a dream

Over the years since, Ercan has garnered quite the reputation within Quebec’s culinary scene. But it was her move from Montreal restaurants to countryside farm-to-table operation that has truly fulfilled her.

Ercan doesn’t like to call Bika Farm and Cuisine a restaurant, instead emphasizing its dual role as farm and kitchen. She strongly believes in the benefits of eating according to nature’s cycle, and as such, her establishment provides a holistic culinary experience that all revolves around the garden, where a wide assortment of vegetables and herbs are grown without herbicides or pesticides and are renewed according to the season’s harvest.

Respect for the earth is a fundamental part of the Bika journey. “For me, environmental responsibility and sustainability are not new and are not a trend,” Ercan continues. “I lived with that for 28 years until I came to Canada, and it’s continued into my professional life. My acute areas are eco-responsibility and small production.”

Bika also retains a strong focus on local sourcing and sustainability. Everything is ethically grown, responsible, and sustainably farmed. Ercan sources mainly locally in Quebec but also turns to New Brunswick and some other regions to help with fish. The local approach goes beyond just what is served to guests from the kitchen – on the table are accoutrements like cutlery and napkins from local artisans and producers. The sustainability aspect also runs deep – Bika boasts a filtering system that goes towards watering the vegetables, as well as a container collecting run-off rainwater.

For guests, the dining experience begins with them being led through the garden and introduced to naturally growing ingredients that will shortly become the components of their meal. They then proceed to the sleek and chic greenhouse with a cathedral ceiling, designed by Montreal designer Alexandre Lafleur, that serves as a transparent dining room, seating 16 to 18 people with some additional seats outside and offering stunning views of the natural landscapes of Saint-Blaise-sur-Richelieu.

There is no pre-determined and pre-displayed menu, just a handcrafted day’s selection based on the ingredients available to harvest in the garden, as well as what the farm has previously been able to preserve and what is provided to it by other local organic or eco-responsible farms. Ercan calls it “ingredient-based” food rather than one that hinges on recipes or techniques. “The ingredients do most of the hard work, really.”

Ercan likes to ensure guests are fully versed in the local and sustainable ethos, too. As every dish in the day’s single six-course tasting menu is served, her team explains to diners the Turkish inspiration in the menu for the evening, where the ingredients were sourced from, and how it reaches their table. “We are not like a regular restaurant,” says Ercan. “Every service is an event.”

“Everything had that second, third, fourth life. You never, ever wasted it.”

Chef Fisun ERCAN

Nothing is wasted

Key to the operation is the tenet that everything is used and nothing is wasted; an approach that has stuck with her throughout her life since her upbringing.

“When I was young, we would prepare a chicken not just for that day’s dinner – you could use the breast for dinner, the wings or legs for tomorrow’s dinner or lunch, eggs for breakfast and lunch, the organs for other things. The bones were boiled and either used for broth or boiled down to almost nothing and composted. Even the feathers, you could make stuffing for small cushions. Everything had that second, third, fourth life. You never, ever wasted it.”

At Bika, she perpetuates that ethos, using or composting almost everything that is grown on the farm or sourced by the business. If a particular ingredient is in surplus and cannot be served in the dining room before the harvest is out, Bika’s team either transforms the ingredient for other dishes or preserves them for when supplies are low.

“It’s either that you use or transform them or they go in the garbage or the compost,” she says. “That’s an easy choice. We compost everything and we use almost everything – serving immediately, transforming for different dishes, using in preserves – apart from certain things that literally cannot be used.”

Deserved recognition

Ercan, of course, will say she does not do what she does for the recognition, but the recognition has come anyway. Guests tend to leave not only full but fulfilled – “they love the approach we take,” reflects Ercan proudly and gratefully.

Prestigious reward recently came in the form of Bika being named not only to Canada’s Top 100 Restaurants list but also as the winner of Best Farm-to-Table on enRoute magazine’s Canada’s Best New Restaurants list for 2021.

“That was fantastic,” beams Ercan. “Canada is so big and there are so many people doing different and great things, so I’m really honoured. I’m working like crazy – I passed through a few burnouts! – but I cannot just do something that is purely business, I need to have this meaning and ethos behind it. So, when recognition comes like that, I feel just thrilled that someone sees what we are doing.”

As for what’s next, Ercan would like to expand Bika’s offerings as and when is viable, to include affordable ready-to-eat lunches from the garden so that people can have them for their picnics or their lunch. Bika will also keep running classes and workshops on sustainable farming and cooking, and the end of the current season will see a new round of ingredient transformation that creates new jams, sauces, fermentations, and pickles.

Somehow, Ercan has also found time to author and publish a book Racines, which means roots in French, which details her roots in Turkey, her Quebec journey, and her sustainable farm-to-table operation.

“Then, suddenly, you’re in the fall and the harvest and it’s time to start over again!” she concludes with a grin. It’s a breathless and intense cyclical operation, but it’s the perfect testament to her childhood and her core values. “It’s so, so worth it.”

Photos: Sylvie Li