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Get Stuffed

Resurrecting the hotel kitchen

Vincent Stufano leads a staff of 70 at the Chateau Whistler

Cooking trends, theories and reputations come and go, but one of the more ridiculous theories that bit the dust recently was that a serious chef would not work at a big hotel longer than he or she had to before striking out on one’s own.

One presumes the theory gained some credence with the decline of many of the world’s famous hotel restaurants and the emergence of many celebrity chef owners. But many of those famous hotel restaurants have been winning back their Michelin stars and favourable reviews by modernizing their menus and paying the big bucks for chefs to lead hotel dining into the 21 st century.

Fortunately for the Fairmont Chateau Whistler Executive Chef Vincent Stufano, never subscribed to the theory that big hotels would reign in his talents. He loves leading and training a staff of over 70 in his kitchens at the Fairmont.

"I need the insanity of leading big teams and the diversity you get in working in big hotels," he says. "There is no way you can be a food snob, nor do I see why a chef should ever be one. I have no problem at all jumping on the food line and cooking chicken fingers and fries to designing and cooking for a seven-course, tasting menu. It’s all food and you have to cook everything to the best of your ability."

Not that Stufano is adverse to a little three-star Michelin guide experience, as he spent a month cooking at the Gavroche in London a couple of years ago.

"It was incredible to see the lengths the owner went to keep his three stars. A new carved ice sculpture every night. The finest crystal and silverware, throwing out pieces if they got scratched. And the food was incredible, finest ingredients you can imagine. But the expense! You can’t make money if you’re going to try and keep those standards. It’s mostly an ego trip if you want to do a restaurant at that level and I don’t have to be in the limelight like that."

Stufano has recently passed his silver anniversary in the chef game, but he still pulses with a huge, restless energy that the Executive Chef position demands – steaming out of the Fairmont Chateau Whistler’s flagship restaurant, The Wildflower, restlessly drumming his fingers on a lobby chair, saying hello and offering encouragement to his staff, before charging back into the fray, leading his team of cooks in preparing a banquet dinner for 500 that night.

Stufano got his start in 1977 as an apprentice under a French chef, Daniel Rigolet, in Victoria, before moving on to the Hyatt and the Pan Pacific in Vancouver. After a stint at L’Auberge in Vancouver, Stufano had a real wild life and cooking experience as head chef at the Dunsmuir Lodge on Vancouver Island.

"That was a great experience and a real challenge as the menu changed every day. We offered three appetizers, two soups, four entrees and two desserts and it changed every day. It challenged you to be creative, to keep yourself from repeating anything."

Unable to resist the temptation of owning his own place, Stufano returned to Victoria and opened Pranzo, which means main meal of the day in Italian. But after four years of long, long days, fierce competition and three young children who he wasn’t seeing, Stufano decided to return to hotel kitchens.

"It was a great experience in that we made a lot of our food from scratch – jams and breads and we changed the menu every week, had our own herb garden. But the hours were just too much. I wasn’t seeing my kids."

Stufano says any time away from the kitchen is spent with his kids but other than that he is happy to spend his time in a hotel kitchen. It’s a passion that has taken him around the world, entering cooking competitions in Toronto, Seattle and Singapore.

And for those who think that Whistler skiing and dining is getting too expensive, listen to Stufano’s guest chef experience in Davos, Switzerland.

"I went as a guest chef promoting B.C. food and it was a real eye-opening experience. That’s real high end there. Ferraris, Lamborghinis, you name it. Great food too, with prices to match."

Kind of puts into perspective the $225 price tag for 30 grams of caviar that the Wildflower’s starter menu describes as "the highlight of your day and the gaiety of your evening."

If such highlights of your day are beyond your pocketbook, check out two very reasonably priced $45 Wildflower specials. Every Saturday at 4 p.m. in the wine room the Wildflower hosts a Canadian wine discovery which features five Canadian wines, including the Golden Nectar Icewine and samples from the Wildflower's dinner menu.

Tuesday evenings offer the Wonder of the Ocean, featuring the freshest seafood of the Pacific Northwest, with an emphasis on local ingredients paired with an extensive wine list that offers over 350 labels.

Stufano says he enjoys ordering from and supporting local farmers and by doing so, often gets the first pick of local produce.

"Our fish and chips at Portobello are extremely popular and at Wildflower the catch of the day is very popular with our guests."

And for meat lovers Stufano recommends the Gulf Island rack of lamb.

"We thought maybe that lamb was getting too expensive and we experimented with some other cuts, but our customers wanted the rack back. We only serve what people want."