James Walt is, in ways beyond counting, in ways completely authentic and natural, the antithesis of a screaming, knife-throwing, plate-shattering, ire-laden celebrity chef. And as he sits at a corner table at his restaurant, Araxi, a few minutes before kitchen service begins to really ramp up for a busy evening, he is a model of aplomb and control, even though Araxi is, at this stage in its evolution, pretty much at the pinnacle of Canadian cuisine. No pressure.
Regional and local well before they became the culinary mots du jour, Araxi is what the Michelin folks like to call a “destination restaurant”, and not just because it’s in Whistler. The accolades come in a steady stream, and the restaurant was recently in the eye of the hurricane known as Gordon Ramsay and his TV series Hell’s Kitchen. With the 2010 Olympics around the corner, it is hard to imagine a time more heady and demanding. But Walt maintains his decorous demeanour, and the kitchen hums along, providing some of this (or any) country’s most imaginative and delicious food.
Walt recounts how über-chef Gordon Ramsay had to convince him that taking on the winner of this season’s Hell’s Kitchen would be a good thing. “I believe we have a great system operating here,” he says. “So I was not sure it would be the best thing for us to simply drop a new chef into the mix, and only temporarily at that. But Gordon made the effort to come back to us and explain the winner will be a worthy talent, and on balance, I thought it could be a good learning experience at the end of the day.”
James Walt is, in some ways, a perfect storm of a fine dining executive chef, having trained classically, then opened a large, busy restaurant in an urban setting, and spent a lengthy amount of time in Italy, where he learned about cooking with the seasons and with local ingredients. He then came to Whistler and Araxi, where the community members can, and passionately do, support each other in terms of purveyors and consumers, including chefs. He is always intellectually curious and you could almost say studious when it comes to his approach and his understanding of food. He is as voracious a reader as he is a dedicated forager. Add to that the fact that Araxi owner Jack Evrensel’s Top Table Restaurant Group (which includes Vancouver’s West, Blue Water Cafe, and CinCin) has a mandate, nurtured in the early days of Araxi, of striving for the best quality, and you have a phenomenon that is drawing attention from around the world, from people inside the industry, certainly, but from guests as well.
James Walt is a perfect storm of a fine dining chef, having trained classically, opened a busy restaurant in an urban setting, and spent time in Italy, where he learned about cooking with the seasons and with local ingredients.
The time spent in Italy was a revelation for Walt: “I was based in Rome but spent time in various regions and in the port city of Livorno, where the seafood is unbelievable. I learned so much about local products, about food preparation that is very specific to the region, and seasonality. You simply don’t eat things out of season in Italy, for the most part. I really believed we had lost touch with that in the New World but that there was a way to regain it, to re-establish the whole notion of local, regional, and seasonal. And Araxi is the perfect restaurant for that.” Walt is assuredly not talking about the scenic beauty of the place, but the remarkable surrounding farms and ranches and the products they can supply.
Pemberton, a 30-minute drive north of Whistler, is home to several tiny farms, and two or three, such as Miller’s, that have grown into sizable entities. Pemberton is known worldwide for its potato crops, and Across the Creek Organics is one of North America’s largest suppliers of organic seed potatoes. The entire Pemberton Valley is disease and virus free, in terms of its potatoes and other root crops, with the surrounding mountains providing a natural barrier that protects them, making them extremely desirable products for seed crops. (In 1967, Pemberton was the first commercial seed potato area in the world to grow virus-free seed potatoes.) North Arm Farm proprietor (and also mayor of Pemberton) Jordan Sturdy is a few kilometres away. At North Arm, they raise virtually every kind of root crop a fine-dining chef could dream up. “Oh, I have asked Jordan to try a few things,” says Walt. “The sunchokes worked out very well, but some things simply refuse to grow here—likely to do with daily heat units more than the soil.”
Whistler draws a large percentage of international clientele, and Evrensel is very clear about what that means. “It is quite a privilege, and a challenge we accept with pleasure, to serve an international, informed guest,” he says. “We know these people understand good food and wine, and the whole fine-dining experience. We can provide that for them in this special setting, and our approach is, ‘Let’s surprise these people.’ That is, with an experience that is unique, very regional, and with service and an environment that are not out of place in any major urban centre, as good as anything, anywhere. But all of it, in fact, is here, in this sublime setting.” Guests include business and industry titans, celebrities, heads of state, royalty, and, of course, culinary luminaries from around the world.
Scallops from Qualicum Beach, octopus from the deep waters off the east coast of Vancouver Island, pork and beef from Pemberton—these can be found the year through, but with different approaches, reflecting the seasons in which they are served. It has its own natural cycle at Araxi, with nothing forced. Walt can spend many hours handpicking items from North Arm Farm storage cellars, and says, with a bit of marvel in his voice, “What we have here is enough root crop produce stored to last us the entire winter. It is a tremendous thing, to have sustainable vegetables like this, available to us even in late December.” It is not at all far removed from the way early settlers to this continent grew and either stored or preserved the crops they planted and harvested.
The resort setting, the international visitors, pop culture fame, the pending Olympics—all of this is taken in stride by Walt and his crew, many of whom have more than 10 years’ experience. The wine list is superb, the service peerless, and the most interesting thing is that for Walt, there is always something new to discover. “I am never content to let us simply rest on what we have achieved,” he says. “We push our limits every night. That is the only way to keep the passion and the only way to provide our guests with the experience they expect and deserve.”