When Neil Henderson opens the doors to the highly anticipated Wild Blue Restaurant + Bar this month, it won’t be the first time the local industry veteran has served guests in the space adjacent to the Aava Hotel.
A seasoned veteran of Araxi and Bar Oso, Henderson actually began his career in 1992 at what was then the casual family eatery and sports bar, Jimmy D’s.
“There’s a good symmetry here. I worked here in this space as a busser and a server at 20 years old, so this is full circle for me,” he said.
Needless to say, Wild Blue represents a sea change from the days of burgers and milkshakes at Jimmy D’s. In what has been called Whistler’s most anticipated restaurant opening in more than a decade, Wild Blue is the culmination of a partnership between three local heavy-hitters who have decades of experience in Whistler’s culinary scene: Henderson, former Fairmont Chateau Executive Chef Derek Bendig, and BC Restaurant Hall of Famer and Araxi founder, Jack Evrensel. Adding to the all-star team is chef-partner Alex Chen, Vancouver Magazine’s 2018 Chef of the Year, an Iron Chef challenger, and current head chef of the vaunted Boulevard Kitchen.
“Any new space in Whistler gets some attention, but I think Wild Blue represents the kind of partnership that hasn’t been seen before,” said Henderson, restaurant director. “We do know the rhythms of Whistler. We know the opportunities, the challenges, so it does give us a great advantage in running an operation in town.”
Serving up “elevated Pacific Northwest cuisine,” the menu will capitalize on Bendig’s penchant for local ingredients, something he was renowned for at the Fairmont. The award-winning chef said seafood will be the “No. 1” focus, drawing inspiration from Italian, Japanese and French cuisine.
“I think those three elements and tying them to our local ingredients and utilizing them and putting them into that concept will result in something a bit different,” Bendig explained. “It’s going to be a nice, refined yet approachable, seafood-focused place.”
The interior will also skew to the oceanic theme, with Bendig calling it “a showstopper of a room.” Seating roughly 150 in the main room, plus the capacity for 60 more in a private dining room, Henderson said the forms are inspired by the sea, while the materials used are earthy and warm.
“It’s darker in tone but definitely celebrates an overall style of light, shadow and reflection. A palate of stained oak, black walnut, soapstone, velvet, handmade mirrors and glass with a focus on warm light,” Henderson said. “There’s a huge amount of detail in this room.”
Like any self-respecting fine dining spot, there will be ample cellar space for wine, with the capacity to line thousands of bottles within the main room, in addition to a 16-foot bar with a black walnut top.
A northern patio, meanwhile, will seat roughly 60, while a still-to-be-commissioned southern patio will seat approximately 25, designed for more intimate, private events and chef’s table dinners.
The Wild Blue team is also looking to stand out from the crowd with its emphasis on staff culture, which has bled into the design of a staff area that should be the envy of restaurant staff across the resort.
“We have worked so hard on creating a staff culture and amenities that I don’t think have really been seen in this part of the world. We’re really trying to demonstrate a successful work-play lifestyle that Whistler is so renowned for, so we built these staff amenities in the building,” Henderson said.
That means “spa-like” changerooms, staff showers, a “chillout lounge” equipped with a ping-pong table, yoga area, TV, culinary library and kitchenette, as well as ample storage for skis and bikes, and even a boot-dryer in the winter.
“I wanted to create a staff environment that is second to none, one that’s great for the Whistler lifestyle and the community,” added Henderson. “There is an expectation of working hard and delivering exceptional guest experiences, but on our side of things, we want to create an environment for them to come back to, to come home to.”
The approach has evidently paid off, as the restaurant hasn’t been as challenged as expected recruiting staff, even amidst Whistler’s ongoing labour shortage.
“I think it’s exciting for the staff in Whistler, the workers,” Bendig noted. “One of the big things coming back is the amenities and looking at our industry and seeing what we can do for our staff that’s different than most restaurants.”
Wild Blue is targeting Aug. 12 for its official opening date. Learn more at wildbluerestaurant.com.