Even in the depths of winter, Araxi Restaurant's executive chef, James Walt, manages to root out conucopia of local seasonal sustenance from Whistler, BC.
Even in the depths of winter, Araxi Restaurant’s executive chef, James Walt manages to root out a cornucopia of seasonal sustenance from the local growers surrounding histler, BC.
Admittedly, as one of Canada’s most-respected culinary ambassadors, the top toque of Araxi Restaurant, and a tireless proponent of regional ingredients, Walt’s wish list is usually moved to the top of the produce pile.
Having served as the executive chef to the Canadian Embassy in Rome, cooked a trilogy of meals at the celebrated James Beard House in New York City, and been recognized by the Globe and Mail as “one of the top seven chefs in the country shaping the nation,” Chef Walt remains endearingly down to earth.
His inspiration comes from the fields and farms that surround the increasingly metropolitan ski village and his passion for matters of source has inspired diners and farmers alike.
“Every year things get better. We have one of the fastest evolving food cultures in the world,” said Walt, who has seen enough of the world to know. “Ten years ago you really couldn’t create restaurant food at home and even for the restaurants. Getting those unique local ingredients was a challenge.
“Now, even in the winter, 60 percent of our produce is local: beets, turnips, salsify, sunchokes [Jerusalem], parsley roots, parsnip, potatoes. Winter is our busiest time and it is great to be able to work with such a variety of great ingredients.”
Of course, no one looks forward to the coming of spring more than a chef, and Walt merges practicality and poetry in contemplating the advent of April.
“There is no other time like it. Everything begins to melt and those first shoots of green are magic because they are a sign of the great food to come,” said Walt, who showcases both the fall and spring seasons with 100-mile menus.
“First the thaw and then the great food really starts to roll in. Asparagus, rhubarb, garlic shoots, baby leeks, the first micro-greens: they’re all great reasons to look forward to April.”
As passionate as Walt is about the seasonality of ingredients, he knows the value of a well-primed pantry as well and puts serious stock into quality keepers such as crushed tomatoes, olive oil, European butters, non-iodized salts, vinegars, fresh chilies, good cheeses, and cured meats. With these on hand, the culture of cooking at home changes into a thing of pleasure as opposed to duty.
“Instead of big weekly shops at the supermarket, trips to market for bits of fresh inspiration become possible,” he explained. “There is a misconception that there is an expense to eating well, but the truth is, we just buy too much. When you shop daily you shop smarter and it is more fun. Life is too short to eat crappy food.”
The added benefit of seasonal cooking is a richer appreciation for the fields and farmers and the natural abundance with which we are surrounded.