A tale of two exceptions: A chef and a Dolly Varden 

Stories from the vault of Araxi's James Walt

click to enlarge PHOTO BY BRANDON HART, COURTESY OF ARAXI - AT HOME IN THE KITCHEN Araxi executive chef, James Walt, who started way back in 1997 and has gone on to all kinds of achievements.
  • Photo By Brandon Hart, Courtesy of Araxi
  • AT HOME IN THE KITCHEN Araxi executive chef, James Walt, who started way back in 1997 and has gone on to all kinds of achievements.

I wouldn't blame you for imagining Araxi invading the space next door soon to build a showroom for all the awards the restaurant's won over the years. That includes the latest nod from this year's Vancouver Magazine Restaurant Awards, the 14th time in 15 years experts have judged Araxi as Whistler's top resto. He'll deny this and say it's a team effort, of course, but the person behind it all, or at least the foundation — the food — is Executive Chef James Walt.

What many people don't realize is that James — a Stratford Chefs School grad, who lives with his wife, Tina, son, Henry, and daughter, Ruby, in Pemberton — is as down to Earth and unassuming as he is wise and talented.

Besides Araxi, he's also led the kitchen at Sooke Harbour House (where they were focused on ingredients from a 40-mile radius long before anyone suggested a 100-mile diet), and the kitchen at the Canadian Embassy in Rome. James is also Whistler's only chef to have cooked at New York's James Beard House — three times — plus he's an inductee in the BC Restaurant Association Hall of Fame. All this while juggling the mental and physical demands of running a high-end kitchen where logistics are like a war room's. Seafood towers for 300 people, anyone?

The other X factor about James is he's a great storyteller. So in honour of his latest honour, I'm sharing some of his tales this week and next. I'll let James do the talking, this time about life before Whistler.

But for starters here's a one-liner regarding Araxi he told me years ago that resonates far beyond: "We always want to be true to who we are."

If life gives you tinned bacon...

"I'd left Sooke Harbour House and moved to Vancouver to try it out, and ended up meeting a German fellow, Manfred. He had these high-end resorts in the coastal mountains. One was called Yohetta Lodge on this beautiful lake.

Williams Lake was fairly close, as the crow flies, but we had to drive out with this big crew logging truck and it took four hours on the rough roads. It was a neat experience but it was tough on my wife, Tina, and I — we talked once in three-and-a-half months.

Hunters were flown in from Germany, spending $14,000 to come in for a week whether they killed something or not. It was all taken care of, their hunting licence and everything. First Nation guides would take them on horseback for, like, six days, so we would cook all the meals for them while they were in the lodge and help them pack it up so it was high-end food they could have on the trails.

We did a lot of the German breads, bread that could last for months with molasses and pumpernickel, and a lot of cured meats and fruit would go out with them. Some of the staff who went with them would get something out there like rabbits.

I enjoyed the experience but I'm not sure I'd ever go back again for that kind of life — getting up every day at 5 a.m. and working all day baking and cooking everything on a wood stove.

The hardest thing was getting your orders right. It was all flown in and I was ordering on my satellite phone, so I was talking in a broken conversation to someone who had very little or next to no food knowledge trying to get things I wanted. I'd say, 'OK, get this', and something thing else 100-per-cent different would arrive.

A lot of it was to do with the protein stuff. I'd order a fresh belly of pork or something like that, so I could do a house-cured bacon, and I would get something from a butcher shop that was a rolled, brined, pickled bacon that was actually in a tin.

Some bacons I can do something with, but tinned bacon... no."

But if it gives you a Dolly Varden from paradise...

"One of the nicest fish I cooked in my life — and I am a seafood junkie that's why I live where I live — was this huge nine-pound Dolly Varden that came out of that lake. It was fantastic — the nicest fish I'd ever seen!

It's a kind of trout that's got an incredible colour to it. Like back home, we'd have brook trout and rainbows — beautiful fish. A brook trout is a gorgeous fish, brown with red dots. But this Dolly Varden was just incredible — blue-sky colours with white and red through it. It was just such a beautiful creature to look at, and so fresh, then coming out of glacier water as well.

I grew up in rural Ontario, in Stittsville in the Ottawa Valley, and when I was young, I hunted. My father's an engineer and when I got a single-shot .22 rifle from my uncle and I wanted to learn how to use this thing, he made me take hunter-safety training. We hunted rabbits, grouse, pheasants sometimes, ducks, and from Day 1 I had full respect for the animals. My mother especially asked me once if we went out and got a rabbit or whatever, that I use everything, the pelt and everything.

My friend Chum's dad — he was kind of a gruff old guy — had a tack shop and worked a lot with Torchy Millar, who was a big rider (and former coach of Canada's equestrian team). So he had an equestrian background and was in World War II, so he showed us a lot of stuff.

I think with any animal — lobsters and things like that — you just have to take a moment. I think what separates cooks from chefs, or technicians from artists, is you have to respect what you're doing the whole time.

You shouldn't just waste things, and you shouldn't forget what you're doing or forget that there's life in everything that you do, and that includes plants. The life that's in the plant is from the life of the farmer who grew them, and the chicken was alive at some point, too.

So I think you have to focus on what you're doing and know that when you do something, like when I killed the Dolly Varden, I just treated it lovingly. I handled it lightly and cared for it for what it was. And cook it in the simplest form, too.

Living in Italy the time that we did, you see a lot of stuff where everything is just kind of simple. You'll have a whole household in rural Italy or wherever, and they'll all be there when the pigs, or the boars, or the ducks or the chickens are slaughtered. You'll have a two-year-old kid plucking a chicken! So I think that they just understand it, and when you go from that starting point, you appreciate what you're eating, too.

That's why I say that fish was so spectacular. It was gorgeous to look at, beautiful to eat, and fantastic to cook when the flesh is so firm. It's not soft, and you just cook it really lightly in butter and salt, and that's pretty much it.

Everyone loved it — it was just really special."

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who applauds the simple things.


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