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Toques off to a 30-year work in progress

Araxi marks a milestone most only dream of

My husband and I once looked at buying a restaurant. Seriously.

But once you shake off your dreams and investigate such undertakings, the average person usually sobers up. While the numbers vary, the prognosis is consistently grim - by most business surveys, only 15 to 20 per cent of new restaurants make it through their first year.

More rare is the restaurant that succeeds or, rarer still, flourishes, by foregoing gimmickry and hubris or, even worse, habit - you know, the well-worn "favourites" that have kept the same tired menu for eons and rely on "regulars" who have aged along with the tablecloths to keep them afloat.

And so I say, toques off to Araxi, a creative institution that's not only survived, but thrived by continually evolving during its 30-year reign at Whistler. An institution that kicked off Jack Evrensel's sister establishments in Vancouver: West, Blue Water, CinCin and, most recently, Thierry.

Araxi, so-named for Jack's wife, along with its siblings have been turning heads and palates of customers and critics alike for years.

It may well be because Jack has been astute enough to hire staff who find as much, if not more, value in things intrinsic to their personal codes as they do in earning a living doing whatever it is they do so well.

"I tell my people, nobody can really pay you enough for your time," he says with a laugh in a phone interview from his home in West Vancouver. "So you'd better be getting a lot more than the money out of it when you're working."

They must be. For starters, sous chef Tim Pickwell had been there from Day One until he retired, on Araxi's 30th anniversary this past Halloween, a very special night when the restaurant closed its doors early so alumni could celebrate, some coming from as far away as Newfoundland.

Then you have the inimitably unassuming and talented executive chef, James Walt, who's pulled numerous multi-year stints at Araxi since 1997, carefully crafting his ideas over time until they've culminated in what that love 'im or hate 'im chef-cum-celebrity, Gordon Ramsay, declared as "the best restaurant in Canada."

In the front of the house you've had Neil Henderson, who spent some six or seven years there as sommelier and restaurant director - a role much like a theatre director's - before carrying on with Top Table as project manager to this day. And there are more.

These are virtually unheard of terms of service in a business that usually sees people scrabbling to the top, stabbing backs and other bodily parts, and jumping ship more often than politicians.

Then you've got the awards and accolades Araxi has earned, besides the Ramsay declaration. Praise from the likes of the London Times ; bouquets of four-star ratings; return engagements at James Beard House, New York, and, more recently and closer to home, something a little more personal: For Jack, a well-deserved Lifetime Achievement Award this year from Vancouver Magazine, home to the most respected restaurant awards in the Lower Mainland, and as close as we get around here to a culinary queen bequeathing a knighthood.

But to me, tracker of all things sustainable, from oceans to carbon content in our atmosphere, to the growing class divide, and more, what stands out about Jack and Araxi - to be clear, the man and his restaurant, not the man and his wife, which may also be true, but of which I have no knowledge and so cannot fairly comment - is the putting of his money, and his actions, where his mouth is when it comes to social and environmental responsibility.

For starters, Jack and his company are big supporters of the David Suzuki Foundation (a personal favourite), Chefs for Life, British Columbia Hospitality Foundation (giving a hand up to those in the hospitality industry who need one), and the Green Table Network, which works hard to get Canadian restaurants and the like to go green with Canadian solutions.

The sustainability thing comes out in practice, too. Top Table restaurants are part of the Vancouver Aquarium's Ocean Wise conservation program, which means whatever fish or seafood you see on their menus is from a sustainable source.

This is no token gesture. Check it out, sushi lovers and beyond. Whenever you're next in a restaurant, scan the menu or ask your server about seafood sustainability. Despite the fact we've fished out 90 per cent of the world's major fish stocks and the ocean is acidifying daily with increased carbon content, I'll bet my organic lentils you'll find that 9 out of 10 eateries out there aren't providing sustainable options, even when they know better.

Same with Chef Walt's "locals rule" philosophy. What's more sustainable than featuring whatever's in season - beef, beets, berries - from nearby Pemberton, and why the heck aren't more local eateries using local ingredients?

Never mind a "best-in-Canada" dining experience, although that's not hard to mind. These approaches and actions are much more valuable and valued, and supersede any kowtowing to convenience, novelty, or trend lines. Must be about more than the money.

And all this from a starry-eyed, 20-something-year-old engineering student from Montreal, who came to Whistler with his wife and young friends in 1981 to ski all day and work a restaurant at night. They arrived with a 44-foot trailer packed with all the furniture they needed to open a restaurant in Mountainside Lodge - a building they naively assumed would be completed as promised, but wouldn't be ready for a year.

The art world coined the concept of a "work in progress" - something you're always working on because it can never be completed. That's Araxi for you, and I think it all started when those Montreal kids stared into that hollow building shell.

Ever dreamt of opening a restaurant? Think you'll buck the odds and have it past the first year? The first 10? 20? Jack might have some words of wisdom for you, dreamer that you are. But then, of course not, he's too thoughtful for that.

"I hate giving advice," he says. "I can only think what I think.

"It's very important for people to be skeptical of advice, because everybody's journey is personal and they should be open to it."

Here's to your personal journey. Jack's found his.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who's also found hers.