When a restaurant partners with a vineyard to host a winemaker’s dinner, the menu-planning process usually follows a certain formula.
“Typically, the chefs design the menu and then we would approach the vineyards and be like, ‘Hey, here’s the menu, can you give us some wines that you think would pair well with this?’” explained Nicholas Humphreys, clubhouse manager and resort sommelier at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler.
Brainstorm sessions between Humphreys and the Chateau’s senior sous chef of restaurants, Sean Thornhill, have looked a little different ahead of the Fairmont’s Cornucopia offerings this month. The hotel is gearing up to host four winemaker’s dinners with four different wineries over two November weekends as part of Whistler’s annual food and drink festival.
“We’ve kind of gone the opposite way about it,” said Humphreys. “We’ve really taken it from its roots up—we’re digging into the wine, really figuring out the flavour profiles and then trying to match that or contrast it in the dishes, to really highlight Sean’s expertise.”
For Thornhill, a winemaker’s dinner—or four—can serve as a creative push to think outside the box, he said.
“The most fun part of [the process] for me as a chef is being able to talk to somebody who really knows wine, and I can approach things as someone who knows food, and then to have a back-and-forth conversation about what we’re tasting and what we think it pairs with,” he explained. “For me, a lot of times that has created some new ideas, and some of the best dishes I’ve ever come up with have originated from approaching food from a different angle because of the wine.”
The end result is four unique menus specifically designed to accompany each winery’s slate of offerings this year.
“There’s no aspect of the menus that’s repeated,” said Humphreys. “If Sean decides he likes one of these dishes, it may end up on our winter menu, but they are designed purely for Cornucopia.”
It all kicks off in the Fairmont’s eminent Grill Room on Friday, Nov. 11 with the Quails’ Gate Winemaker’s dinner, followed by Saturday’s Little Engine Wines event the following evening. The next weekend, the crew from Vanessa Vineyard will step into the spotlight on Friday night, Nov. 18, while Blasted Church will wrap up the Fairmont’s winemaker’s event series on Saturday, Nov. 19.
Attendance is capped at between 40 and 60 tickets per dinner, with price of admission including a welcome drink and five courses, each accompanied by wine pairings.
Attendees can also expect “to learn a lot about the vineyard,” noted Humphreys. “They’re getting all the information from the winemaker or the winery owners, and then they get a chance to taste five to six different wines from their portfolio. So they’re really taking a deep dive into that specific winery.”
This November marks Thornhill’s first Cornucopia season in the senior sous chef role. He started at the Fairmont Chateau a little over a year ago, initially taking charge of the Mallard Lounge before assuming more responsibility for The Grill Room and The Wildflower over the summer amid the departure of the hotel’s longstanding executive chef Isabel Chung.
The Chateau is preparing to welcome its new executive chef, Cliff Crawford, later this month. Crawford comes to the Fairmont’s Whistler property armed with more than two decades of professional culinary experience, beginning at Bermuda’s Fairmont Southampton in 2002. In addition to working as executive sous chef at Fairmont Vancouver Airport and, most recently, as executive chef of Sofitel Chicago Magnificent Mile, Crawford’s resume includes stints at Fairmont San Francisco and Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge.
Thornhill, meanwhile, started his career in his hometown of Calgary, working his way up the kitchen ranks in fine-dining establishments like Q Haute Cuisine, Teatro Ristorante and Rouge before transitioning to the Hawthorn Dining Room at Calgary’s Hotel Fairmont Palliser. As a chef, Thornhill described himself as French- and Italian-trained “with a lot of Eastern flavour profiles thrown in there.”
His typical style includes taking “humble ingredients and elevating them” using both traditional and modern techniques, Thornhill added, “and trying my best to highlight the best of locally-available ingredients, which we’re very lucky to use here in B.C.”
Speaking of keeping it provincial, the Chateau is once again treating Cornucopia as an occasion to highlight existing relationships with four vineyards that, while all rooted in B.C.’s interior wine region, offer their own distinct specialties.
Quails’ Gate, nestled on the shores of Okanagan Lake in West Kelowna, is “a huge staple in the Okanagan wine scene,” said Humphreys, while Naramata’s Little Engine Wines represents “a little bit of a newer partnership.”
Vanessa Vineyard, coming from Cawston, in the Similkameen Valley west of Oliver, will showcase how a hotter climate can affect the product in your glass, while Okanagan Falls’ Blasted Church is taking a different approach to presenting one of their wines in particular.
The Blasted Church team will pair one of Thornhill’s courses alongside four different vintages (or harvest years) of their Nectar of the Gods Cabarnet Sauvignon “to give us an idea of how the wine develops through the different seasons, and how a warmer or a wetter year can impact the way that a wine itself tastes, along with of course the aging process,” said Thornhill.
Because those different vintages had diverging notes from a culinary perspective, he added—“one was a little bit more earthy; one was a little bit more fruity; spicy,” he said—the chef was inspired to similarly diversify the flavour profiles on the plate.
“We're going to have one side of the plate that corresponds to the earthy, darker, more tannic notes, and then we're going to have another side of the plate that varies off towards the spicy, fruit-forward, slightly sweeter side of the line,” he said. “So in that case, we almost have like a two-flavour-profile plate, with half the plate going in one direction and half the plate going in the other.”
The pairings “are all going to be knockouts,” added Humphreys. “I'm just excited for people to experience ... the variety of wines that we can make in the Okanagan.”
For more information or to purchase tickets, head to whistlercornucopia.com.