Celebrating a Passion
For Farm-To-Table Distinction
Executive Chef Araxi Restaurant + Oyster Bar
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 cook- off 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 root-vegetable 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