20 YEARS OF BEING BOLD AND BEARFOOT
When the Bearfoot Bistro celebrates its 20th anniversary this winter, the milestone will undoubtedly be toasted with Dom Pérignon poured from bottles sliced open with a saber. The kitchen will likely serve an extravagant, multicourse dinner bejeweled with Japanese Kobe, Quebec foie gras and white Alba truffles. The entertainment will be dramatic and the festivities will be great fun. But that is all we are willing to speculate. If there is one sure thing we have learned from this award-winning restaurant it is that guests should always expect the unexpected and be ready to be wowed. The modest beginnings of the luxurious establishment will certainly come as a surprise to some. Twenty years ago, the Listel Hospitality Group decided it was time to redesign the Irish pub on its hotel’s main floor. Former hotel director Brian Ennis fondly recalls his first interview with André Saint-Jacques, a high-energy restaurant manager from Quebec, who was moving to Whistler from Toronto. “From the moment I met him, he didn’t stop talking,” says Ennis, chuckling. “I knew he had the ability to talk to anyone – the president of the United States or the average guy – and make them feel welcome.” The idea was to go upscale, but they didn’t have a large budget. So they started with a simple French bistro, paved the floor with edgy concrete and hired artists to paint and sculpt in the dining room. The Bearfoot also boasted British Columbia’s first cigar room, which was filled with tropical plants. In its opening year, the restaurant had higher sales in cigars than food. Realizing that his international clientele wanted a more posh experience, on par with the world-class ski resort guests had come to visit, Saint-Jacques soon replaced the steak frites and working artists with caviar and champagne sabering. (SaintJacques has held the Guinness World Record for the latter, having lobbed the corks off 21 bottles in less than a minute.) Over the next few years, he knocked out a wall to create Whistler’s first openconcept kitchen and cut a hole in the restaurant’s floor to build a wine cellar, which is now one of Canada’s largest, containing 20,000 bottles and 2,100 unique labels. He custom-designed the central oyster bar, which is made from pewter and has a self-replenishing rail of ice. Later, when smoking went out of style, he turned the cigar room into Canada’s first permanent sub-zero vodka tasting room.
The Bearfoot experience has always been about more than just food. For several years, the restaurant was perhaps best known for its bawdy Masquerave parties. Then in 2003, its culinary reputation began a meteoric ascent. Saint-Jacques hired Melissa Craig, just 24, as chef-decuisine. Within a year, she was promoted to executive chef. They’ve been engaged since 2008. “André was pretty amazing,” she remembers.
“She blew my socks off,” he recalls. Much like Saint-Jacques, the chef was, and still is, an innovator who experiments with modern trends (bloodorange “caviar,” for instance, or shaved foie-gras “snow”) and bold gestures (an entire tasting menu paired with vintage Dom Pérignon and 20-course-plus gastronomy meals.) In 2008, Craig was crowned Canada’s best chef at the Canadian Culinary Championships (a.k.a. Gold Medal Plates). Her winning dish, king crab three ways, included coconut-chili soup, a golden-crusted croquette on mango-basil purée and succulent claw flesh garnished with tobiko and soy sauce “pop rocks” in a bamboo-leaf cone. On the eve of the Olympic Winter Games, the restaurant launched a catering division that has allowed it to take the Bearfoot experience outside its walls. The events, many magnificent in nature, massive in scope and, quite often, charitable fundraisers, have included a trackside VIP lounge at the Bobsleigh and Skeleton World Cup, feeding thousands of ravenous cyclists during the RBC GranFondo Whistler, and the epic Skyhigh, a six-course fine-dining dinner that took place on the Peak 2 Peak Gondola as the cabins glided 426 metres above the Fitzsimmons Creek valley between Whistler and Blackcomb mountains. “It’s really boring if you don’t keep pushing yourself,” says Saint-Jacques, who sees many more spectacular events in the Bearfoot’s future. “There is a great satisfaction in making people feel super happy and watching them be blown away.” So cheers to 20 mind-blowing years. As Saint-Jacques often says to his guests when making a toast, “It’s good to be us.”
André Saint-Jacques at Masquerave Event Bearfoot Bistro Wine Cellar André Saint-Jacques & Cameron Chu