Hans Stierli matches food and wine with enthusiasm
Enthusiasm. Any executive chef in Whistler usually pulses with an abundance of it, provided you haven't caught them at the end of their typical 12-hour days.
However, when discussing the menu for a Cornucopia dinner held last weekend at the Westin's Aubergine Grille, executive chef Hans Stierli, could barely contain his enthusiasm as he explained each dish and its wine pairing.
"I'm really pleased to be doing this dinner in conjunction with the St. Michelle Winery. They are a Washington State-based winery, who really have produced some excellent wines that complement the dishes that my staff and I have prepared."
Opening course: chestnut soup with truffle cream, paired with an Eroica Riesling 2001.
"The amount of fresh vegetables and herbs in this area are outstanding and go wonderfully with a Riesling," Stierli says.
Next up, a Pacific Grouper poached in black olive oil, paired with a Canoe Ridge Estate Chardonnay 2000.
"Grouper is a fish, similar to cod. Since it's poached in black olive oil, the Chardonnay gives it a nice counterpoint."
Following that, a course to drive your cholesterol through the roof: sautéed rock lobster medallion with Quebec foie gras, paired with a Late Harvest Semillon 1998, a wine that is just a millimetre short of being an ice wine. Isn't the dish a teensy bit rich to be paired with a sweet wine?
"Not at all," Stierli says. "You don't always have to counterpoint food and wine. A sweet wine can often enhance and complement a rich dish like foie gras."
Following the lobster, came a lacquered Chilean Tinamou on a warm snow pea salad with a bacon vinaigrette, paired with an Indian Wells Merlot 1996.
"Tinamou is a small bird from Chile, very much like quail, and it pairs extremely well with a Merlot," Stierli says.
And finally before dessert, roasted wild Arctic Musk Ox, with licorice-like lemon puree, Pemberton root vegetables, and Juniper berry syrup, paired with a Cole Solare 1998 wine.
"The most exciting thing for me is matching the food and wine," Stierli says. "And it's also exciting in terms of how much North Americans are willing and open to trying new dishes like Musk Ox."
And finally if anybody had room left for dessert, Opera Torte, paired with a Columbia Valley Syrah 1998 wine.
"Opera Torte is a very rich chocolate, coffee layered dessert and matches up perfectly with a full Syrah wine."
Having the knowledge and skill to pull off a dinner like the one above, it is not surprising to learn that Stierli learned his craft in Switzerland, a country known for producing some of the world's best gourmands. After a three-year apprenticeship at the Hotel Speer, Stierli spent the next eight years at a variety of hotels and restaurants in Switzerland, including the leading Swiss boutique hotel in Lucern and the luxurious Tshuggen Hotel in Arosa.
In 1987, Stierli's parents immigrated to Ontario and he decided to join them. However, he had one problem, he didn't speak English, which resulted in him starting at a lowly cook's position.
"It was a challenge for me as I had been a sous chef in Switzerland. But once I learned some English and I showed what I could do, I got a job at the Westin Hotel in Winnipeg."
After three years in Winnipeg, Stierli was promoted to executive sous chef at the Westin Hotel in Kansas City. After a year there, Stierli accepted an offer to open the Westin Dragonara resort in St. Julian, Malta.
"It's a beautiful resort that overlooks the Mediterranean. I really enjoyed my time there."
Since Stierli now had experience in staffing and opening a new Westin hotel resort, he was the ideal candidate to approach when the Whistler Westin was ready to open in the spring of 1999 and hotel GM Victor Burt convinced Stierli to return to Canada.
Back in Canada, Stierli embraced the opportunity to cook with such exotic B.C. fare as Musk Ox and Caribou and the wide variety of B.C. fish like Sable and Wild Salmon. "It's fun to cook with the wide variety of ingredients that the hotel provides. Their commitment to quality and freshness is outstanding."
While Stierli is committed to high standards in his kitchen, he is equally concerned with his meals once they head out into the high-ceiling room with the gorgeous views of Rainbow and Sproatt Mountains.
"Every year we change the menu to a certain degree and I make sure the waiters are trained to know as much as possible about what they are serving," he says.
Stierli is excited about this year's menu and he wants locals to know that the first two weeks of December the Aubergine will be offering meals at 50 per cent off for Whistler residents.
"I want everybody to come. I think this is our best menu yet and at half price you can't go wrong."
Indeed, if Stierli were any more enthusiastic, one might not get a seat until the spring at the Aubergine.