Opening a restaurant is no small feat.
But for Executive Chef Jeff Park, launching Squamish's newest upscale dining experience, The Salted Vine, paled in comparison to his decade in the kitchen at Whistler's Araxi Restaurant.
"Araxi as an institution, it's almost like boot camp. Everything after Araxi, it actually gets easier," laughed Park, who landed his first kitchen job at the famed village eatery before working his way up to chef de cuisine.
The Salted Vine, which opened earlier this month, is a collaboration between Park and Araxi's former restaurant manager and sommelier Pat Allan, and the restaurant's influence on Park's own spin on Pacific Northwestern cuisine is evident throughout.
"Cuisine-wise, (the regional approach) is what I used to do up at Araxi. I think it's widely known for its Pacific Northwestern cuisine," Park explained.
But where a lot of restaurants tout their farm-to-table approach as a way to build buzz, Park is more concerned with highlighting the local farmers and ranchers that supply his top-quality ingredients, like Brackendale's Nutrient Dense Farms and Squamish's Stony Mountain Farm. "A lot of times chefs use (the farm-to-table movement) as a way to market themselves. Right now, I think farm-to-table is something I'm proud of, but it's not something that you should hugely market because it comes as standard these days," he said. "It's not just about marketing myself, people should know about these farmers as well."
Park's menu capitalizes on the bounty of fresh, seasonal produce available throughout the Sea to Sky, and features Ocean Wise-approved seafood as well as naturally raised beef and lamb sourced from Cache Creek, Pemberton and Peace Country, Alta. for its succulent "marbled, buttery" cuts of Wagyu beef.
Diners should also get a kick out of The Salted Vine's unique, heritage setting. The 70-seat dining room is housed in one of the town's oldest buildings, the 106-year-old Squamish Hotel, awash in natural light and accented with reclaimed fir wood panels, tables and bar top.
"Our concept began with the idea of a modern farmhouse," Park noted. "There are white subway tiles everywhere from the kitchen to the bar back. This building was built in 1910, so a lot of the (materials) holding up the structure, like the wooden beam and a black-iron rod, we wanted to preserve that."
For Park, who left the high-powered world of L.A. advertising at the age of 28 to pursue a career in cooking, The Salted Vine adds an upscale yet affordable element (everything on the menu comes in under $20) to Squamish's dining scene that he felt was missing in the fast-growing community.
"I think my motivation was to bring people out again. On weekends or date nights, you don't always have to be at the pub or have a lineup at the door at Pepe & Gringo or some of the Japanese restaurants. The more options you have, (the better it is) for the growing population of Squamish," he said. "I don't describe us as better or above (other restaurants), it's just a different option that Squamish has never had."
The Salted Vine is just the latest branch on Araxi's extensive family tree. Between Park, Bar Oso's Jorge Muñoz Santos, CinCin's Andrew Richardson, and a slew of other alumni, the kitchen has produced some of the country's top young chefs. And although he's a year removed from his time at Araxi, Park said he would take the restaurant with him wherever his career takes him.
"I think as long as I cook, I hope (Araxi) does well and I hope the best for them, but at the same time I have to do well so I don't give them a bad name," he said. "If it wasn't for the high intensity and high quality and high demand for good work at Araxi, I don't think I'd have become what I am today."
The Salted Vine is open from 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, with lunch and weekend brunch service slated to launch this fall. For more information, visit www.saltedvine.ca.
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