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Feet on the Ground: Chef James Walt & the Evolution of Fine Dining at Whistler

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Araxi_ExecutiveChef_JamesWalt_photocreditpageandpaperTo begin, James Walt came to his unique style of modern mountain cookery naturally, even organically. It was an evolution that has taken place over decades, and that has many component parts – his love of the farms and ranches in the nearby Pemberton Valley, his close connectivity to the coastal fishery first earned while a chef at the iconic Sooke Harbour House, and his restless culinary roaming that has embraced the essence of Peru, Italy, Mexico, Vancouver and Manhattan, amongst many other gastronomic touch points.

Along the way there have been many accolades: countless “Best Whistler Restaurant” Gold Medals awarded annually in Vancouver Magazine, a lengthy recognition of Araxi Restaurant + Oyster Bar’s 11,000 bottle wine cellar by Wine Spectator, and even a featured role on Gordon Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen just prior to the 2010 Winter Olympics.

But for this cheerful yet self-effacing chef – who’s published his second cookbook Araxi: Roots to Shoots, Farm Fresh Recipes – his greatest joy lies in connecting field, farm, and fishery to his seasonal kitchen. And it is a natural connection, for this son of the soil grew up in the small farming community of Stittsdale, Ontario in the Ottawa Valley. Surrounded by hay fields and potato farms, James worked in the farm labour pool while still a boy, picking fruit, milking goats and haying. At home, his family ran a large fruit and vegetable garden, and raised two cows that would be slaughtered and frozen to sustain them through the winter. For the Walt family and their neighbours, the term ‘Eat Local’, was made a virtue of necessity a full generation before it became fashionable.

Twenty plus years ago, when James moved to Whistler to head up the kitchen brigade at Araxi, cuisine on the mountain was only just beginning to shed its ubiquitous cloak of ‘international cuisine’, pizzas and pastas. Working with other early adopter chefs such as Bernard Casavant of the Fairmont Chateau Whistler, James reached out to the famers of the Pemberton Valley to grow menu-specific fruits and vegetables that could be used fresh in the growing season and canned for the winter. Local beef and pork soon followed, and close liaisons with coastal oystermen, prawners and fisherfolk of all stripes assured pristine ingredients throughout the year – and, unusually, delivered daily up Highway 99 to the mountainside restaurant.

Local sourcing was challenging at first: many of the farms in Pemberton were still fledgling operations, and Jordan Sturdy’s North Arm Farm was just starting out. Now the site of Araxi’s annual Longtable Dinner, the farm is now a vast purveyor of first-class fruits and vegetables. “I don’t have to think about it as much now,” James says. “We know the growing rhythms, and what’s ready to harvest every week – it’s very helpful to have the consistency of supply in volume now during the busy summer season.” And beginning each spring, Chef Walt extends his reach to the Fraser and Okanagan valleys as well, for stone fruits, berries, and vegetables.

Chef James Walt will be speaking at Tasting the Divine: Cooks with Books at the Whistler Public Library Friday October 18, 6:15 – 7:30 p.m.