These days, chefs are exalted as celebrities, or they're taken for granted. Most of us love a good restaurant meal but don't know, really, what chef is doing back there in the blazing hot kitchen to get it to us. Surely not cursing and banging pots around all day, like some would have us believe.
Araxi executive chef James Walt is something of an outlier. He wanted to be a wildlife manager but turned into a chef. Now he's been part of Araxi and Whistler for so long he's a local institution, one with international notice. Fresh off yet another award — Araxi was Whistler's top resto in Vancouver Magazine Restaurant Awards again this year — he's also as far as you can get from celebrity without living in a cave.
A natural storyteller, we've let him do the talking, last week about things like keeping it simple, authentic — and respectful — when it comes to food. This week, James shares the scoop on why the business is so tough and what the Walt gang eats at home. So here's James (and, yes, "chef" can be a verb):
Cheffing is a young people's game...
"You can have a great career in cooking 'til you're in your 50s or 60s provided you make some stops along the way to look at something like figure-heading a company or brand, or working yourself out of the grind — out of the service — then consulting or opening up restaurants. Or you can still have a good career if you stay in the kitchen and hire good people under you.
"I'm a working chef and always have been for 28 years, but it's a tough business. I get paid well and a lot of chefs do get paid well — around Vancouver it's $80,000 to $130,000 for a good chef — but it's tough on you physically and mentally. Like the mental concentration. On a busy night you can get runs of 12 to 14 entree plates at once — salmon, halibut, risotto and so on — and you have to cook them all perfectly.
"You have to manage the stress. Unfortunately, there's a pretty high divorce rate, very high alcoholism rate, and the physical things people deal with — carpal tunneling, gout, diabetes.
"Sometimes it's a lot to get your head around. To start, a typical day is 12 to 14 hours. At Araxi we do everything in-house, which takes time. I work five days a week for sure and I don't usually get to bed before 2:30–3 a.m. on a work night.
"You're working with heat. If you think it's hot outside on a summer day, you should go stand behind your average cooking line. I guess we have about 200,000 BTUs pumping out with ovens, burners, grills, fryers. It's like standing at your barbecue when it's, like, 35 degrees out, times about 10.
"You're working with knives, so you always have to stay concentrated and focused. And it's not just knives, it's everything — there's hot fat, there's boiling pots, there's flames everywhere — like, you've got to be sharp and always have your wits about you."
What does an executive chef do?
"As executive chef here I'm lucky. I have a great chef de cuisine, Jeff Park, and my pastry chef, Aaron Heath. We've worked together for 17 years.
"My main day-to-day is conceptualizing the menu, the recipes, and ordering all the product, although I do delegate a good bit to the sous chefs. That filters down to training the staff to do the ordering and recipes, and hiring the staff.
"Then there's overseeing the day's reservations, and what we have going. We do a lot of media functions and group functions here, so just overseeing all the menus for that. We have a function board outside, so we're kind of like a mini-hotel in that aspect, especially being in a resort town.
"In our busiest times we'll do upwards of 450 people in a night service. The biggest sit-down function I've done here is probably 180. So cheffing can be a tough life but at the same time it can also be a fantastic life. You aren't just making a meal; you're creating an experience for people. The restaurant industry is like theatre, it really is — you're giving a performance, and every performance is different. Plus there's all the travel."
Everybody is anybody
"We generally don't tailor menus, like, we don't do a special menu if it's a group of athletes or a group of media or politicians. We always want to be true to who we are.
"The biggest key — why we're successful as a restaurant, I think, and why Jack (Evrensel, former owner) and now the Aquilini Restaurant Group (current owners) are successful is that they treat everybody the same. No one person stands out. Like, I've fed chefs Heston Blumenthal and Gordon Ramsay, and I've fed presidents and movie stars along the way. You do get a little bit of a different mind set, but we never really treat anyone like they are better than anyone else."
On the home front
"When you're a chef, people always like to come over to your house. But then they don't want to have you over for the same reason — you're a chef! But some of the best meals I've ever had are at people's homes.
"My buddy Julian's mom made the best Italian food when I was young. I couldn't get enough at their house. That's one of the reasons I became a chef. My mom, my aunt and grandmother were all fantastic cooks. The family that cooks together stays together.
"My wife, Tina, was a chef as well. She went to Stratford Chefs School, too, and worked at Sooke Harbour House. But she got out of the industry, thank God, because we couldn't have the life we have. She cooks for the kids five days a week — our kids eat very well. I always cook on my days off, and we pretty much cook from scratch or what's available locally. We love salmon and halibut, for sure, and roast chicken — Tina makes me make one at least once every two weeks. The kids like typical snacks, like cheese popcorn or Pirate Booty.
"And we talk about food together as a family. A lot of it started in Italy because Henry was eight months old when we went. He ate all his first whole food there and we had a lot of those "should he eat that?" moments. But we dealt with Italian moms and kids all over the place so Henry ate clams and mussels and asparagus and prosciutto when he was really young, and we kept it going with Ruby.
"So we pretty much eat just like a lot of healthy Canadians. Except me. And these are all big confessions for you — sometimes I can eat horribly because of the job! I eat mostly standing up, and sometimes I eat a lot of bread at work. But what I really like is Que Pasa tortilla chips and salsa when I get home at night.
"If I'm in bed by 2 a.m. that's pretty good, and because of the mental aspect I'm a huge reader. My latest favourites are Best Laid Plans and Racing in the Rain.
"If it's my day off, Tina likes to let me sleep to 10 a.m., but if it's a workday I'm usually up by 8:30 a.m, and then it starts all over again."
Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who's worked in many restaurants.
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