25 Years of ‘Magic and Madness’ at the Bearfoot
By Nikki Bayley / Images by Joern Rohde
I have a much-cherished photograph from my first experience at the Bearfoot Bistro in 2012. It’s a glass topped with a napkin adorned with coloured tape, speared through with a cinnamon stick. It’s what then-bar manager Kerren Bottay hastily whipped up for me when I jokingly asked for “a drink with an umbrella.” They say you forget what people say or what they did, but you never forget how they made you feel, and although I can’t tell you what was in the glass, that feeling of being somewhere where even the silliest request was joyfully granted has never left me. To dine at the Bearfoot Bistro is to enter a world where almost anything could be on the table… if you just ask.
“It’s the ‘yes’ game,” Executive Chef Melissa Craig says with a laugh. “Catering to everyone’s needs and wants; it can be difficult for the staff at first, [they’ll say] ‘Chef — we can’t do this!’ But, of course, we can.”
Craig joined the team at the Bearfoot in 2003, self-deprecatingly describing herself as “a young punk with big shoes to fill.” After only a year, she was promoted to executive chef and then in 2008, at age 28, she won gold at the Canadian Culinary Championships. The winning dish was her innovative trio of crab presentation (which makes a cameo appearance on this winter’s menu.) “As a chef, she’s very artistic,” says colleague Marc Des Rosiers, the Bearfoot Bistro’s marketing director. “She has incredible attention to detail with beautiful presentation. She likes to play — not just with the flavours, but the textures too.”
For Craig, her favourite thing is when guests just want to indulge — “when they add foie gras, or truffles or request Japanese A5 wagyu, that’s the most fun!” Creating multi-course menus from a seasonal bounty of ingredients, Craig credits working with her team as a source of endless inspiration, “I’m most proud of them being involved in the process,” she says. “I’m super-last minute with menus. It’s all in my head, so I’ll say ‘truffle’ or ‘egg,’ and we’ll all jot down interesting thoughts. The younger staff have crazy ideas from Instagram; I love them being inspired — and not necessarily by me.”
Alongside those decadent gastronomic menus using the best ingredients from B.C. and beyond are innovations such as ice cream made tableside with billowing clouds of liquid nitrogen. And a cellar famously groaning with fine wines from every country and one of the most extensive sparkling wine lists in Canada, is the glittering razzle-dazzle of the Bearfoot’s many special events. Those have included wild Masquerave parties and six-course Sky High Dining extravaganzas on the Peak 2 Peak Gondola to a replica of the dinner served to the Fathers of Confederation on the practice range of the Whistler Golf Course for Canada’s 150th anniversary.
However, along with the big-ticket, one-off events, which are often fundraisers for local charities, the most incredible experience is simply dining at the Bearfoot itself. Maybe you’ll start the night in the cellar hearing the story of how the tradition of sabering came about and learning to saber Champagne. Then head to your table to enjoy a liquid nitrogen martini made tableside from a custom-designed cart. Then, of course, a meal of multiple delicious courses paired perfectly with fine wines from the well-stocked cellar — for many visitors, one of the only chances to taste through multiple B.C. wines, many of them exclusive to the Bearfoot. Take a break to visit the coldest vodka tasting room in the world before ending with that famous nitro ice cream, made with pure cream and Tahitian vanilla bean, presented with a selection of playful sundae toppings.
That judicious blending of extraordinary experience and superlative cuisine is all part of what bar alumnus JS Dupuis calls the “magic and the madness” of the Bearfoot. “There was a great synergy between the bar and the kitchen as we wanted to have both programs equally elevated,” he says. “I remember the Bearfoot teaching me to be innovative and to push the envelope constantly, but never forgetting the most important factor: the guest.”
Des Rosiers agrees. “When you go to the Bearfoot, although you have five-star service with one of the highest staff-to-guest ratios, we are not pretentious, and we like to celebrate by engaging with our guests.” This brings us finally to the chief guest-engager and beating heart of the Bearfoot experience, its irrepressible founder, André Saint-Jacques, who tells me of his pride that despite the brutal shutdowns this year, the Bearfoot enjoyed its most successful summer and fall ever — despite operating at only 70 per cent capacity.
“I was reflecting over the weekend — 25 years, it’s almost half my life — and it’s pretty unbelievable all that we’ve achieved together. About the Bearfoot, you hear rumours and stories, and it’s usually true! We’ve done some pretty crazy things in the past,” he says with a laugh. Along with that craziness, the Bearfoot has also raised more than $1 million for causes, including the One Drop Foundation, which helps provide access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene across 13 different countries. Closer to home, the Whistler Blackcomb Foundation supports registered non-profits, benefitting communities throughout the Sea to Sky Corridor.
“We started as a simple bistro but with live artists working in the restaurant entertaining the diners, and now we’re a kind of circus with incredible entertainment for our guests along with excellent service and fantastic food,” Saint-Jacques enthuses. “Even in Covid times, we’re still going to saber Champagne, and we’re going to be here for another 25 years.”