Cook like a local pro 

Make a dash for your own Chefs' Choice: A Whistler Cookbook

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Pique's new cookbook is worth buying for Dave Buzzard's gorgeous food portraits inside and the cover artwork alone — one of Kristian Adam's eternally appealing vignettes with his cartoon characters. This one features a happy, plump chef who channels into a single being about five different real-life chefs I can think of who have plied their art at Whistler over the years.

Chef, who, incidentally, is decked out in a traditional uniform of white toque, neckerchief and double-breasted jacket with a wee towel draped over his right arm, is happily camped on a smooth snow-covered hill in the mountains, a cozy bonfire at his feet on which he's pan-frying — what else? — a fresh rainbow trout. No doubt Mr. Fish is locally caught but the sweeter touch is the subtle X over the eye turned toward us because Fish is, after all, fried.

Meanwhile, a charming little marmot-ish/beaver-ish creature on snowshoes stands by the fire with empty plate in hand and a pleading look on its face, while an equally winsome furball toasts a marshmallow at the edge of the fire.

Welcome to cooking at Whistler. And here's the book to do it.

In case you missed last week's announcement, I am here to remind you that Pique's Chefs' Choice: A Whistler Cookbook will be officially launched at the Whistler Conference Centre Thursday, Nov. 12, 6–9 p.m., at a brand new Cornucopia event called The Picnic. It's a community-centred celebration of all things cooking and local sponsored by Cornucopia itself and Pique. And with a bunch of local restaurants pitching in, The Picnic is quintessential Whistler and destined to become a legend unto itself.

This year, 11 chefs whose provenances run the gamut from Hy's Steakhouse to the Sugar Mommas will be on hand cooking up a storm. Many of them are chefs who've been featured over the years in Pique's popular weekly column, Chef's Choice, on which the cookbook is based.

For one, you can check out Caramba's executive chef, James Pare, who turned his back on a dream job as executive at London's posh Savoy Hotel — an "absolute beast" of a place where he had 94 chefs in six different kitchens working for him — to run a restaurant with his uncle. Uncle Jay worked in the kitchen at Umberto's Il Caminetto, which opened in 1981, making it one of the first restos in the village. It was there James hung out as a curious kid, launching him into the world of professional cooking.

It was there, too, that Mario Enero hired Jay. Mario, who grew up in Franco's Spain and trained to become a bullfighter but had to quit before either his father killed him or one of the bulls killed him. Mario, who, after applying years of trans-European training as a maître d' to restaurants across North America, went on to open Caramba to offer a slice of Spanish casual dining to Whistler. Mario, who eventually sold Caramba to James and his Uncle Jay.

Besides meeting the kind of chefs whose stories loop through local life like the Valley Trail, your Picnic ticket includes wine and multitudinous snacks in typical Cornucopia style.

Now I'm channeling Dana Samu, the former WRA head of special events who founded and launched the whole Cornucopia extravaganza way back in 1997. Dana, who grew up in Palo Alto and makes a very mean pad Thai. Dana, who used to manage bands, got scouted by one of the top agencies in Milan and ended up modelling in Europe for two years. Dana, who is now a buyer for Whole Foods Market.

Even the inaugural Cornucopia still attracted some 2,000 people before good marketing, especially the best kind — word-of-mouth — had anything to do with it. After that first year, fully 100 per cent of people responding to a survey (which is a rarity unto itself) said they would come back for more.

"...I think that when you do something right once, a lot of the marketing is done for you," she said at the launch of the second event. So look around tonight and see for yourself what a righteous job Dana did on her pet project.

But back to the cookbook...

OK, full disclosure: Yes, Chefs' Choice: A Whistler Cookbook, is drawn from a sister column, Chef's Choice, but I did a little piece for it, too, on the history of food at Whistler.

Not that I'm going to steal my own thunder and share here what I wrote, but I will say it was definitely interesting to consider the many roles food has played at Whistler over the years.

I'll also say this: What struck me like a box full of cookbooks is that there's something quintessentially wild and wonderful about Whistler's relationship with all things food. For one, "muni hall," as the locals lovingly call Whistler's seat of local governance, is located in an old restaurant.

Many a local will join me in laughing at the memory of a mild May day in 1981, the year after Blackcomb Mountain opened, when a giant flatbed truck hauled the great wooden hulks of the old Keg Restaurant building up the hill from its original location near Alta Lake to the current site of Whistler's municipal hall. Everyone was stunned at the unlikeliness of it all.

I think the mayor and council now sit about where the salad bar used to be.

As for that first Cornucopia, so brilliantly conceived and executed by Ms. Samu, her vision had a cozy fire at the heart of it, too. A fire — and chocolate.

When Pique asked her why the first Cornucopia was so successful, she explained, "The time frame is really perfect. In the spring people are thinking of their waistlines and fitting into that bikini.

"In the fall people are looking towards the ski season and you can afford a little bit of winter insulation... It's that cold, crisp autumn afternoon with a dusting of snow on the mountains... conducive to cuddling up by the fire with a glass of voluptuous red wine and something sinfully laden with chocolate."

So have fun at The Picnic and all the other Cornucopia events with your red wine, your cozy fire, your delicious fish, and the best souvenir of all — your brand new, bred-in-the bone, Whistler cookbook.

And don't forget to wear a toque. It's cool out there.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who loves the stories behind cookbooks even more than the recipes.


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