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Chef's Choice: Dustin Harkness, Whistler Cooks Catering

Responsible for the Christmas cheer of hundreds of people, the executive chef of Whistler Cooks Catering, Dustin Harkness, is not cooking turkey himself on the big day. He's probably going skiing. "I'm always working.
big on birds Dustin Harkness, executive chef at Whistler Cooks Catering, will feed turkey dinner to hundreds this Christmas. Photo by Cathryn Atkinson

Responsible for the Christmas cheer of hundreds of people, the executive chef of Whistler Cooks Catering, Dustin Harkness, is not cooking turkey himself on the big day.

He's probably going skiing.

"I'm always working. So my parents come out here from Kelowna and my mom usually makes dinner. I work on Christmas Eve, that's the big day for us, and we always take Christmas Day off."

But in the days leading up to Christmas Harkness will be plenty busy — "We deboned over 100 last year, this year we have 140 turkeys ordered," he said.

Whistler Cooks Catering is well practiced at providing the big bird, the trimmings, the appetizers and the desserts throughout December. It starts early with corporate parties and hotel deliveries, moving into deliveries to local families and guests closer to Dec. 25.

With the expertise that served turkey with all the garnishments to 380 people last Christmas Eve, Harkness treated those closest to him to a home-cooked festive celebration in 2013.

"Last year, I brought our turkey dinner home. We had 12 people and I have a small kitchen at home, so sometimes it's easiest just to bring the one I'm selling here home to the family for dinner," he said.

All are organic and grain-fed birds.

And it's the ease, as well as the taste, that makes ordering in a complete turkey dinner an attractive option.

"It's the old-school style," Harkness said. "We offer a squash soup and all the vegetables that go with (a turkey). When we do the turkey we take it apart. I make the legs into roasts.

"I have all the turkeys in a brine for two days, with sage and thyme. Then we roll three legs together and make a roast with it, a carved boneless roast. And there's also the carved roasted turkey breast. We do that with the stuffing and all that. And all of the sides that go with it."

Whistler Cooks delivers the turkey dinner ready for reheating. It includes stuffing, gravy, cranberry sauce, roast potatoes and sticky toffee pudding.

The service starts at $39.95 per person, excluding GST. Additions, including ham or apple pies, can be purchased separately. Information is available on their website at

Asked to provide Pique with their special turkey instructions, Harkness is generous with the tips for the best bird.

"The main thing is how to make sure the turkey doesn't dry out," he said.

"I like to brine the turkey because that inserts the moisture into it and then cook it at a lower temperature for longer. This is rather than cooking it hot, because when you go hot it will carry-over cook. You cook it to your temperature — 68-degrees to 72-degrees C — and it just carries over and you dry out the whole thing. It keeps cooking and cooking — every 100-degrees of cooking is an extra 10 minutes of carry over.

"If you cook it lower then you can avoid it. Some people throw it in at 400 degrees and once you get the middle cooked, the whole thing is dried out.

"If you layer butter under the skin it helps to baste it, if you pull up the skin and stuff around the breast part with thyme and sage and all that, season underneath the skin of the turkey as well. That helps create more flavour.

"Then when you take it all apart you can make the gravy with the bones, roast them off, and go from there."

Whistler Cooks Catering was created in 1999 by Grant and Hilarie Cousar. Harkness joined them in 2006 as executive chef.

The company started with in-home private chef dinners, but now delivers to hotels such as the Delta Hotel, First Tracks, and the Aava Whistler Hotel. It covers large-scale regional events like Tough Mudder, the Squamish Valley Music Festival and The Pemberton Music Festival, or venues like the West Coast Railway Heritage Park in Squamish. It also ran three different venues during the 2010 Winter Olympics.

"We like to get into the bigger stuff. It is what our niche has become, more festivals and concerts," Harkness said.

Most of the work gets done out of the Function Junction kitchen. The winter season traditionally kicks off in late November with their deliveries to Whistler Olympic Park in the Callaghan Valley, where they run the cafeteria.

"Then we start doing corporate events. Christmas dinners start a week or so later," said Harkness.

"We do a few every week, that's your full turkey dinner. This time of year it means getting all our staff (on board) and then there's lots of events.

"December is good. Summer is our busy time but now is always a good season, too."

Classic Roast Turkey


4 litres water

25g black peppercorn

7 bay leaves

300g kosher salt

5 kg turkey (remove neck and giblets)

6 sprigs fresh sage

15 sprigs fresh thyme

1 peeled and sliced onion

In large stock pot bring water and kosher salt to a boil. Then turn off burner and add all remaining ingredients except turkey. Once brine liquid is below room temperature add turkey to brine. Make sure turkey is fully immersed. Place in fridge, or cool place, for 24 hours.

Ready to Roast

454g butter (room temperature)

3 tbsp chopped sage

3 tbsp chopped thyme

3 tbsp chopped parsley

2 onions chopped

4 sticks of celery chopped

4 carrots peeled and chopped


Preheat oven to 300°F

Mix butter with sage, thyme and parsley together. Then rub under the turkey skin the butter mixture. Place turkey breast side up in roasting pan, then add onion, carrots and celery to roasting pan in cavity of turkey and around the pan. Place the roasting pan in the oven. Baste turkey every 30 minutes with olive oil or turkey drippings. Cook turkey until internal temperature reaches 165°F. Estimated cook time is 3.5 hours.


Once turkey is out of the oven, remove turkey from the roasting pan. Skim the fat from the roasting pan and place pan on burner, then deglaze with red wine and allow to boil gently. With the fat that was removed make a roux with flour, then mix the roux with the deglazed pan drippings. until the rich gravy thickens to desired consistency. If it is too thick add some stock or water, but in very small amounts. Enjoy.