The flavours of B.C.
The international experience of Whistler chefs is just as important as indigenous foods in trying to define West Coast cuisine
By Oona Woods
A whole lot of air miles have gone in to bringing fine dining to life in Whistler. From Bangladesh to Paris, the individual flavours and cultures of the globe have an influence on what is available at local restaurants. B.C.-grown produce, herbs, game and seafood are part of our West Coast cuisine, but a number of internationally trained chefs also help define Whistler dining.
With this weekend’s celebration of West Coast food and wines — Cornucopia — the focus is drawn to the local talent that lies in the valley, as well as the visiting gourmet guests. A number of local chefs and culinary experts will be leading seminars Saturday, introducing people to various aspects of creating high end cuisine.
One of the most striking aspects of a culture’s identity is the way it prepares and presents sustenance. These factors grow out of a combination of local produce, circumstance and belief. Travelling and working in other countries provides individual chefs with new tools as well as introducing them to the ingredients and methods of other cultures.
The Chateau Whistler’s executive chef Glenn Monk sums it up when he says, "Food is life and life is food."
As Bernard Casavant, one of the first 12 official chefs de cuisine in B.C., points out, it would be impossible to come up with a specific B.C. flavour. "That would be like trying to generalize about Canadian cuisine," says Casavant. "Each restaurant has their signature dish but they are all catering to their niche market."
Tim Muehlbauer, head chef at La Rúa, will be hosting a seminar on local produce on Saturday. He says you could define local flavour as utilizing ingredients from B.C.
"It’s a tough one," says Muehlbauer. "Some people say that it’s an Asian influence, a fusion, but the B.C. or North West flavour also comes from the ingredients we have in our own backyard, mushrooms, salmon, there’s farm deer, oysters, scallops, those sorts of ingredients. They have ostrich farms here now and there’s partridge and quails. (Ingredients) are produced here if not indigenous to B.C.
"A lot of people’s concept of using fusion cuisine is too strong," Muehlbauer continues. "Some people don’t understand and they go too far, just like people did with nouveau cuisine blends. There’s people that have Thai ketchup on their menu but that would be just like me using Heinz ketchup. I don’t know what you could call it but (B.C. taste) is rustic, the flavours from here are smoked, preserved."
To illustrate his point Muehlbauer points to seasoning.
"More and more produce is being brought into B.C. and grown here. As long as it is produced here we can call it B.C. food. There is an Asian flair, like with lemongrass. You can use it subtly like in a lemon butter sauce or in a fish sauce instead of salt because it is so full of body. Or pickled ginger picks out things. Cardamom and pickled ginger with crab and scallops is amazing."
Muehlbauer came by his cooking experience from an early age. As his mother is fond of relating, he was mad for his Easy-Bake oven as a child.
"Yeah, I always loved food," he recalls.
It also seems that he was used to experimenting with flavours from a young age.
"When I ran out of cake mix for the Easy-Bake oven and my parents were too lazy to get me any more I used plastercine."
Muehlbauer credits his grandmother with setting him on the road to chef-dom.
"I made 12 inch crepes with my grandma’s cast iron pan. I did a lot of learning with my grandma."
After studying at Vancouver College and working at a few places in the Lower Mainland, including the Pan Pacific, Muehlbauer ended up in Britain.
"My grandma’s father was a sea captain and my grandma was born in Cardiff so I got residency in London, England. I worked in Claridges and also spent a couple of years in France, south of Paris."
So what was the main difference?
"The difference is cultural. Everyone over there learns so much about food itself and which seasons it’s harvested. Here growing up you can have strawberries any time of year. It’s the same with asparagus but there are certain times of year when it is best.
"I also learned a lot about art and that was connected. Before I went away I didn’t know who Monet was, or Toulouse Lautrec. I had never eaten Fois Gras, I had never eaten brains if you want an extreme example. The technical style you develop cooking is like the technique you develop to look at art. It opens your eyes."
Glenn Monk was born in Vancouver yet also spent a long time abroad before returning to take the helm at the Chateau Whistler.
"I travelled to gain more knowledge, to see more," says Monk.
From 1987 to 1997 Monk lived in Bangladesh, Micronesia, and Malaysia, working for Pan Pacific.
"I’m lucky, a lot of guys want to travel but it’s about being in the right place and timing. I got a phone call saying ‘Do you want to go to Bangladesh?’ and I said ‘Yes, I’ll go... Where’s Bangladesh?"
Monk says that psychologically travelling is enlightening.
"It’s about what you see and learning the customs and language. It’s cuisine and culture. What the marketplace looks like, what’s in their basket, what do these people take home at the end of the day. I’ve been invited to weddings and you get to experience their wedding feasts. No one day is the same as the next, you learn the culture."
After 11 years of working for Pan Pacific Monk felt it was time to return home.
"B.C. is where it’s at in North America. It’s very forward thinking. Change is normal. All the chefs in Whistler are the same breed, they like to try different things. There is much more local produce now. We used to ship things in from France. The big change here is that focus on local growers. I personally have been involved with North Arm Farm (in Pemberton), with the cooking demonstrations and getting fresh food. That’s a great part of what is cuisine in Whistler."
In terms of a local identity and flavour Monk says he may stand slightly outside of that because he works in a hotel.
"My thing may be different. My background is definitely international, but the demands of the clientele are also international. The people coming here may have had their last holiday in London, or a resort in the South Pacific. Their expectations are very high and they know what is good cuisine. So my experience is as much focused on international standards and styles as regional. I do like to spice it up a little bit, spread wings and extend outside."
The Wildflower sous chef Jason McLeod also put in his time in European kitchens. From Vancouver Island he went to Toronto and then England where he worked with the famous French chef Raymond Blanc.
"I found out what work was all about," recalls McLeod. "Six days a week, from 6 a.m. to 1 a.m. You meet a lot of professionals who are always on the ball."
McLeod worked on the opening of a restaurant just outside of Oxford that was partnered by the billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson. He had the chance to work with the enfant terrible of the European scene.
"I got a chance to work with Marco Pierre White. He is the bad boy of the scene. He would throw famous people out of his restaurants, get violent and throw things. That opened my eyes to kitchen violence for sure. He owned nine restaurants at the age of 33 and wouldn’t let Charlie Trotter (a renowned chef) from Chicago in his restaurants because he didn’t like American chefs. There were deliveries three times a day and everyone was on the same wavelength. It was all French food. Very simple but you learned to do them properly. It was an experience."
Bernard Casavant, or Chef Bernard as he is known, started his cheffing career in Grade 9.
"I went for career counselling at school in Port Alberni, on the Island. It came down to three choices, physical education instructor, pro-soccer player or chef. I wanted to travel and I could afford it so I chose chef."
Casavant says the scene in B.C. has changed perceptively over the years.
"It has become very dynamic. It used to be that Toronto was the centre of the food scene but now we definitely rival them.
"The local farmers have been the biggest advance in the last 10 years. People are getting to know the producers and are supporting them."
To find out more about the local chef’s and their experiences join in the Cornucopia seminars held on Saturday, Nov. 14 between 10 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Tickets are on sale at the Whistler Conference Centre 932-2394.