Bearfoot Bistro's Culinary Masters
Executive Chef Melissa Craig and Executive Pastry Chef Dominic Fortin
The Bearfoot Bistro has earned an international reputation for doing things a little differently.
Sure, there is the obvious. Champagne is sabered here, not popped. Vodka is drunk in Canada Goose parkas in -32 C temperatures. And ice cream is made tableside in a magician’s flash of liquid nitrogen. The Bearfoot Bistro is an experience. The open kitchen is designed as a stage. The patrons, the audience. And the cellar is a place where more than 20,000 bottles of wine overlook an elegant private table for up to 26 guests.
But the Bearfoot is challenging more than just what it means to dine out in Whistler. What’s happening backstage in the kitchen is as unique as the extravagant and playful happenings in front of house. There are likely few executive chefs in the world who amend their five-course tasting menu because the executive pastry chef called first dibs on the foie gras.
“Who uses foie gras in their dessert?” says Executive Chef Melissa Craig, smiling at Dominic Fortin, executive pastry chef. “Dominic is sometimes more detail oriented than me. He often plans his menus before me, so if he’s using tomatoes in the dessert course, I’ll be sure not to use them, especially if it’s a smaller tasting menu. I think he’s used every savoury ingredient there is…”
“Except beef,” Fortin says, finishing Craig’s sentence.
She adds: “Almost every vegetable.”
“We are using wasabi (in a dessert) this winter,” he says.
Finishing each other’s sentences is what comes from working together for more than a decade at the Bearfoot Bistro. The creative free rein between both sides of the kitchen stems from mutual admiration. And vegetables in desserts result from the Bistro’s ambition to serve the unexpected in an accessible way.
“When I started here, it was all about the ‘Wow,’” says Fortin, who began as a savoury chef, then shifted to pastry at Sooke Harbour House, where the vegetable gardens took up more square footage than the dining room. “But it doesn’t matter if you choose a safe combination of flavours. It’s about the technique you are going to use.”
Just to be clear, his dessert may contain a savoury ingredient like a vegetable or protein, but the effect still fulfills the expectation of sweetness that makes a dessert a dessert. For example, an eggplant jam he experienced when he was eating his way around Sicily inspired an eggplant tart. He offset the herbaceousness of the vegetable with the floral note of a pear Earl Grey gelato.
Fortin and Craig travel frequently, near and abroad, keeping the bistro’s three- and five-course tasting menus on the cutting edge. Craig also switches up the chef’s menu daily. Just like the stylings of pianist Cameron Chu, who can be found on his grand piano at the Bistro on any given night, everything old is made new again. On their recent trip to San Francisco, a simple dish of sautéed pea shoots with chilies made quite the impression. The trend of deceptively simple-to-look-at sophistication also ties in neatly with the Bistro’s love affair with the unexpected.
“Dishes with three ingredients were the most mind blowing,” says Fortin.
“The scallop-and-prawn dish,” Craig remembers.
Fortin nods, agreeing, “It’s like fashion; it’s a cycle that comes back.”
Home is where Craig’s key inspiration lies. The B.C. native brings West Coast soul to her modern plates, shaped by delicate Asian flavours and molecular whimsy. She uses local ingredients such as Pacific Ocean fish and shellfish when she can. A recent trip to the U.S. also resulted in her inquiring into the sourcing of razor clams and sea cucumbers here.
“We try to respect local product, but appeal to an international palette,” Craig says. White alba truffles will be showcased in one dish this winter, for example.
Craig is the Mona Lisa of the Canadian culinary scene: quiet and reserved, but look out for what’s behind her smile. She was the first woman to win the prestigious Gold Medal Plates’ Canadian Culinary Championships. She was also one of 31 female chefs, from Boston to Bologna, who were showcased at the Montreal High Lights Festival. And she was also invited, as one of two chefs representing the Pacific region, alongside other top chefs, to stage an open-air, 1,000-person dinner in front of Parliament Hill as part of Canada’s 150th Anniversary celebration in Ottawa.
Fortin joined Craig in Ottawa, assisting her in the preparation of her course, and created his signature chocolate ganache bars for each dinner guest. His talents also reach out to a larger stage. Fortin was invited by one of France’s oldest chocolate manufacturers, Cacao Barry, to create his own chocolate recipe, one of only a dozen other Canadians selected to work with chocolatiers from around the world. Fortin has worked with 2.5 tonnes of chocolate over the past two years. In addition to his talents being showcased at the Bistro, Fortin’s signature chocolate bars can be found on Whistler mountaintops as well as at select Okanagan wineries.
So yes, the Bearfoot Bistro is as brash and brazen as the Can Can girls who inspired their baseless Champagne flutes, which can be delicately cradled in the ice rail on the pewter Champagne bar. It is here where Guinness World Records (for sabering the most Champagne bottles in less than a minute) are made. But the restaurant’s showmanship is only the ornate gold frame. A frame is nothing without its art, or in this case, kitchen. So, don’t forget to look past the joie de vivre revelry and take the time to truly take in a smile shrouded in mystery — the kind of smile that leaves an entire world talking and only guessing at the mastery behind what creates such great works of art.
604-932-3433 | bearfootbistro.com