James Walt

Ex­ec­u­tive Chef Araxi Restau­rant + Oys­ter Bar

Whistler Traveller Magazine - - TASTE OF WHISTLER - STORY BY ALEXANDRA GILL IM­AGES BY JOERN ROHDE

It takes a vil­lage to grow a restau­rant. Such is the sub­text of Araxi: Roots to Shoots Farm

Fresh Recipes, a sump­tu­ous new farm-to-ta­ble cook­book by Ex­ec­u­tive Chef James Walt. Fol­low­ing on the suc­cess of his award-win­ning first book, this one isn’t so much about Walt and his cook­ing. Rather, it is a trib­ute to all the hard-work­ing peo­ple — the bar­tenders, the som­me­liers, the man­agers, the cooks and, most of all, the farm­ers and food sup­pli­ers — who make the ac­claimed Whistler restau­rant go round. “I re­al­ized some­where along the line that you can’t do ev­ery­thing your­self,” Walt says, a hum­ble col­lab­o­ra­tor, who cel­e­brates his 20th an­niver­sary with the restau­rant this year. “I’ve worked with a lot of ego­ma­ni­acs in the past. As a cook, it’s not a great place to be. It may be great for learn­ing tech­nique, but not for your own per­sonal growth.” To keep his brigade en­gaged, Walt or­ga­nizes a cookoff ev­ery two weeks. The sup­pli­ers do­nate the meat, fish and pro­duce, and come as guests for din­ner. The younger cooks cre­ate new dishes. “It helps them do what they want to do, it helps the pro­duc­ers see the po­ten­tial of their prod­ucts, and it helps me with new ideas,” he ex­plains. “The more you can in­clude other peo­ple and give them own­er­ship, the greater the pay­off.” Born and raised in On­tario, Walt moved to Bri­tish Columbia shortly af­ter grad­u­at­ing from Strat­ford Chef ’s School, pri­mar­ily be­cause he was se­duced by the West Coast’s lo­cal-food phi­los­o­phy, which in the early 1990s had yet to hit the main­stream. He picked fruit in the Okana­gan and worked in a num­ber of Van­cou­ver kitchens be­fore land­ing a job with Sin­clair Phillip at Van­cou­ver Is­land’s Sooke Har­bour House, the Cana­dian equiv­a­lent of Alice Wa­ters’ ground­break­ing Chez Panisse in Berke­ley, Calif.

When he ac­cepted the job at Araxi, he was charged with the man­date of chang­ing the con­cept from Ital­ian to lo­cal and sea­sonal. But he didn’t re­al­ize just how much lo­cal abun­dance he would have to play with. “Pemberton was a pleas­ant sur­prise,” he re­calls, re­fer­ring to the lush farm­ing val­ley just north of Whistler. “I hon­estly had no idea there was so much be­ing grown here. Over the years, it’s be­come even eas­ier. There are four times as many farms, for­agers and ranch­ers now.” Work­ing with the lo­cal farm­ers to learn what works best in the re­gion was an­other col­lab­o­ra­tive ex­pe­ri­ence that helped shape the restau­rant. “I had used things like bur­dock, sal­sify and sun­chokes be­fore, but it took some ed­u­ca­tion from them [the farm­ers]. I re­mem­ber dis­cov­er­ing all the car­rots. There were four, five, six types of car­rots. And the pota­toes — we have at least 13 va­ri­eties here. “Pemberton is re­ally a hot­bed for root vegeta­bles and pota­toes,” he adds, not­ing that the sandy soil, prox­im­ity to rivers and his­toric lack of blight helps them grow strong and ex­cep­tion­ally sweet. “It re­ally doesn’t get much bet­ter for th­ese crops any­where in Canada.” Araxi: Roots to Shoots Farm Fresh Recipes

is di­vided into sea­sons. For a farm-to-ta­ble restau­rant, win­ter can of­ten be a tough sea­son. Luck­ily for Walt and Araxi, those ex­cep­tional lo­cal root vegeta­bles can be eas­ily cel­lared and work won­der­fully in hearty moun­tain win­ter fare. The book, which in­cludes restau­rant recipes adapted for home cooks, fea­tures su­perb bal­samic-roasted Brussels sprouts, tan­ta­liz­ing car­rot-and-co­rian­der soup and tempt­ing beet salsa. But those who re­ally want to see what a supremely cre­ative kitchen can do with the chal­lenge of a lo­cal win­ter pantry should go to the restau­rant to ex­pe­ri­ence one of its po­tato or rootveg­etable tast­ings, which show­case dif­fer­ent va­ri­eties or present the same veg­etable in four dif­fer­ent ways. For Whistler, the en­tire con­cept of sea­son­al­ity has changed a lot in 20 years. There is no off-sea­son any­more. The sum­mer and shoul­der sea­sons, filled with moun­tain bik­ing, hik­ing, marathons, fes­ti­vals and food events, are just as busy as the win­ter. “Peo­ple for­get just how dead it was in the off-sea­son,” Walt re­mem­bers. “When it’s slower, you get itchy feet if you don’t feel like you’re pro­gress­ing.” For­tu­nately for him and the whole team, that makes the restau­rant a fer­tile bed of cre­ativ­ity; Araxi has al­ways been owned by com­pa­nies that are in­ter­ested in grow­ing. “That’s what has kept me here for 20 years. We are al­ways try­ing to raise the level of what we do — the food cul­ture, the seafood, the wine list. We’re al­ways push­ing, and that hasn’t changed.” araxi.com | 604-932-4540

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