As part of the Stratford Chefs School’s celebration of Canada’s sesquicentennial, we will publish a monthly feature that focuses on alumni who have established roots in cities and communities from sea to sea, and who each uniquely contribute to our distinctive Canadian cuisine.
Canada150 Alumni Spotlight
Chef James Walt
Feet in the Ground
Chef James Walt and the Evolution of Fine Dining at Whistler
Article provided by Judy Ahola, Toptable Group
To begin, James Walt came to his unique style of modern mountain cookery naturally, even organically. It was an evolution that has taken place over decades, and that has many component parts – his love of the farms and ranches in the nearby Pemberton Valley, where he lives, his close connectivity to the coastal fishery first earned while a chef at the iconic Sooke Harbour House, and his restless culinary roaming that has embraced the essence of Peru, Italy, Mexico, Vancouver and Manhattan, amongst many other gastronomic touch points.
Along the way there have been many accolades: countless “Best Whistler Restaurant” Gold Medals awarded annually in Vancouver Magazine, a lengthy recognition of Araxi Restaurant + Oyster Bar’s 11,000 bottle wine cellar by Wine Spectator, and even a featured role on Gordon Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen just prior to the 2010 Winter Olympics.
Quebec Foie Gras Parfait
Red Wine Poached Pears and Candied Orange Zest
Red Wine Gel and Toasted Brioche
Photo: Terry Manzo
But for this cheerful yet self-effacing chef – who recently published his second cookbook Araxi: Roots to Shoots, Farm Fresh Recipes – his greatest joy lies in connecting field, farm, and fishery to his seasonal kitchen. And it is a natural connection, for this son of the soil grew up in the small farming community of Stittsdale, Ontario in the Ottawa Valley. Surrounded by hay fields and potato farms, James worked in the farm labour pool while still a boy, picking fruit, milking goats and haying. At home, his family ran a large fruit and vegetable garden, and raised two cows that would be slaughtered and frozen to sustain them through the winter. For the Walt family and their neighbours, the term ‘Eat Local’, was made a virtue of necessity a full generation before it became fashionable.
James first visited British Columbia in the summer of 1990, while still attending Stratford Chefs School. What was to be a short visit turned into summertime idylls at the stoves of Rebecca Dawson’s seasonally inspired Raintree Restaurant, as well as at Sinclair and Frederique Philip’s Sooke Harbour House. Both restaurants were early progenitors of a determinedly, even stubborn grasp of local ingredients prepared fresh in the season.
The young chef returned to Stratford seven months later to complete his culinary studies, but with the ink barely dry on his diploma, made a beeline back to the coast. Stints at Sooke Harbour House, Araxi’s sister restaurant Blue Water Cafe in Vancouver’s historic Yaletown district, and in Rome cooking for the Canadian Consulate General, followed. “It was my goal to join Toptable Group,” he says today. “The quality, the attention to wines, service, and absolutely top grade ingredients really spoke to me. So did the creative license that I was allowed.”
Nineteen years ago, when James moved to Whistler to head up the kitchen brigade at Araxi, cuisine on the mountain was only just beginning to shed its ubiquitous cloak of ‘international cuisine’, pizzas and pastas. Working with other early adopter chefs such as Bernard Casavant of the Fairmont Chateau Whistler, James reached out to the famers of the Pemberton Valley to grow menu-specific fruits and vegetables that could be used fresh in the growing season and canned for the winter. Local beef and pork soon followed, and close liaisons with coastal oystermen, prawners and fisherfolk of all stripes assured pristine ingredients throughout the year – and, unusually, delivered daily up Highway 99 to the mountainside restaurant.
Local sourcing was challenging at first: many of the farms in Pemberton were still fledgling operations, and Jordan Sturdy’s North Arm Farm was just starting out. Now the site of Araxi’s annual Longtable Dinner (which this year numbered 400 guests dining at one very lengthy table), the farm is now a vast purveyor of first-class fruits and vegetables. “I don’t have to think about it as much now,” James says. “We know the growing rhythms, and what’s ready to harvest every week – it’s very helpful to have the consistency of supply in volume now during the busy summer season.” And beginning each spring, Chef Walt extends his reach to the Fraser and Okanagan valleys as well, for stone fruits, berries, and vegetables.
For the past several years, James has worked towards the launch in November, 2015, of Bar Oso and The Cellar by Araxi. Bar Oso (‘Bear’) features the Spanish-inflected pinxtos, tapas and charcuterie of Chef Jorge Muñoz Santos cast in a beautifully decorated room that exudes Iberian warmth. And at The Cellar, dining for special events, also overseen by James, are prepared in a demonstration kitchen that infuses a special sense of occasion into the sophisticated and contemporary room.
It’s a Sunday in late August, and the Longtable – stretching over 400 feet – has been gorgeously set with white linen at North Arm Farm. Wine glasses and silver cutlery sparkle in the sun under the peak of Mt. Currie. In the chefs’ tents, sauces bubble and the grills are laden with local beef while fresh oysters are shucked for the hungry crowd to accompany a sluice of sparkling wines. Charcuterie and pates – served family style – begin the dance, then simply dressed chunky cut heirloom tomatoes under a strew of basil and baby lettuce, thick-sliced Pemberton beef au jus nestled on carrots and long beans, local cheeses, fruits, and sweets to finish. Much of it has been grown within a mile or two, and as Chef James Walt and his brigade of more than 30 cooks take their bow, it is clear that his feet remain firmly in this ground, and that everything he cooked tasted of right here, right now.
Photo: Terry Manzo
Click HERE to watch Chef James Walt discuss the Pemberton terroir and his food philosophy