Inside the kitchen of Araxi Restaurant + Bar in Whistler’s Village Square, it’s the calm before the storm. On a crisp Wednesday afternoon in November, executive chef James Walt has come in early to prepare for a meal two nights away. “Expectations are extremely high,” he says, looking up from straining jus for a Wagyu beef cheek. “The type of people who come to Big Guns know their stuff.”
One of Canada’s premier chefs — not to mention good buddies with Gordon Ramsay — Walt is not easily intimidated. But then he’s not preparing for any ordinary dinner. A seven-course, $250-a-plate affair, Big Guns is the culinary climax of Cornucopia, the gastronomic highlight of the year in a town that loves to eat nearly as much as it loves to ski.
For a week or so each fall, gourmands assemble in the Whistler mountains for a celebration of food and wine that would leave Bacchus blushing. Five-, seven- and 10-course dinners are de rigueur. Gala tastings showcase hundreds of wines. Brunches are champagne-paired and afternoon tea comes with martinis. After dark, even party-hardy Whistler is stretched to new extremes with swanky fetes that carry on deep into the autumn night.
In Walt’s kitchen, stockpots are bubbling. Cooks crowd in, clamouring for his attention. It’s my cue to go, but before I do, the chef lets me in on his secret weapon for the big dinner. “White Alba truffles,” he says, raising an eyebrow conspiratorially. “The real deal.” Truffles, of course, are a foodie’s best friend. White Alba truffles — so rare they wholesale for upward of $7,000 a kilo — are the crème de la crème. “It’s gonna blow them away,” he says.
I leave Walt to his fancy fungi and head outside. Cornucopia may be an ode to epicurean excess, but half the charm is Mother Nature’s backdrop. While I’ve come here to eat, I plan to at least work up an appetite first.
“You’re going to want to be careful with that throttle. These aren’t toys,” says Jaime Apps, zipping up her parka and climbing aboard a Honda 400cc Rancher. Since ski lifts are closed, the quickest way into the mountains this time of year is by all-terrain vehicle. I get a brief driver’s ed lesson from Apps, a self-professed ski bum who who spends the off-season leading white-knuckled ATV tours.
Under a cloudless sky, we accelerate up the green runs on Blackcomb Peak, racing through the forest where fall’s last leaves swirl down. Apps is consistently a few lengths ahead, splashing through puddles that look like they’ll swallow her whole rig. We gain altitude fast and suddenly the scene transitions to winter.
Riding between rows of western hemlocks dusted white, we crunch through fresh snow before skidding to the edge of a rocky lookout. All around, the horizon is cut by jagged, glaciated peaks; jade-coloured Green Lake glints below. Apps removes her helmet to reveal long dreads, a nose ring and a pair of oversized Ray-Bans. “I work three jobs just to pay the rent, but there’s no place I’d rather be,” she says, breath billowing out in frosty plumes.
Properly awed, we hop back on the ATVs for a quick descent. Cornucopia packs nearly 100 dinners, wine tastings, cooking seminars, lunches and brunches into just a few short days. For enthusiastic eaters, time is of the essence. After trading my mudcrusted parka for a dinner jacket, I’m ready to hit the town.
“The hardest part this time of year is deciding what not to eat,” explains Edward Dangerfield, owner of Alta Bistro, a restaurant in the heart of the village. “You really have to pace yourself.” Tonight, tiny Alta is straining at the seams with diners packed in for a lavish five-course tasting menu — a scene repeated in one form or another at restaurants all across town.
I pony up to the last remaining seat at the bar for the first course, a plate of organic local beets topped with a swirl of goat cheese. “Our whole drive is sustainability,” says Dangerfield, a gregarious Brit who studied to be an investment banker before being smitten by Whistler on a ski holiday. “Our meat, our vegetables, even our gin, is all from right down the road.”
In the kitchen, his staff work with the fevered intensity of a NASCAR pit crew, racing to plate the next course. Out comes veal tongue and pork terrine, followed shortly thereafter by steelhead trout with Vancouver Island mussels, then finally an exquisite slow-roasted, cut-with-a-fork pork shoulder. “Not exactly your typical ski lodge fare,” Dangerfield says. A few hours and a few too many cocktails later (that local gin is addictive stuff), I stumble into the Whistler night. So much for pacing myself.
A bit winded from the evening’s revels, I rise early the next morning for a unique hangover remedy: zip-lining. “Nothing wakes you up like a blast of mountain air,” says Martin Jungmark, an affable young Swede with spiky blonde hair who’s strapping me and a half-dozen other adventurers into safety harnesses. We load into a van and start a steep ascent along a winding road up Blackcomb.
Zip-lining, for the uninitiated, involves hurtling through the ether at unsafe speeds and obscene heights while tethered to a thin metal wire. It’s standard stuff at many vacation spots these days, but it’s hard to imagine a more vertigo-inducing experience than the one at Whistler. Hung from old-growth trees, Whistler’s zip-lines criss-cross a glacial ravine, sending riders on an 80-kilometre-per-hour ride while suspended up to 12 storeys in the air.
Before I know it, Jungmark is prodding me to the edge of a platform anchored high in the canopy of a Douglas fir. “Don’t worry,” he says, “I passed my online training course this morning.” With a metallic shriek, I plunge through the canopy, only to be spit out above the ravine. Unlike the half-second free fall of a bungee jump, zip-lining is a controlled, sustained terror. Snowcapped mountains, forest, sky and creek blur by in a whirling kaleidoscope as wind whips tears from my eyes.
I finally swoop into the other side for an awkward landing, followed close behind by a pair of giggling eight-year-olds. By the end of the fourth run of the day, however, I’m an old pro. Awake, refreshed and, as luck would have it, hungry, I ready myself for another round of indulgence.
While Cornucopia has its share of black-tie galas, plenty of events also cater to the blue-collar gourmand. After dark, I queue up outside the Dubh Linn Gate Irish Pub at the foot of Whistler and Blackcomb mountains for a tribute to the glories of sausage.
Inside, a half-dozen tables are laid out with cured meats you’re not likely to find in your neighbourhood delicatessen: free-range elk, organic air-dried beef and other exotic charcuterie, all paired with craft beers and some seriously aromatic aged cheeses. In fact, the place smells downright gamey.
While the house band, Ruckus Deluxe, tears through a set of boot-stomping fiddle numbers, I make the rounds. Around me, connoisseurs of cured meats — generally, burly, bearded guys in flannel — are waxing poetic about the marbled bison and bunderfleisch and raw milk cheeses. Near the end of the night, exhausted by the sausage circuit, I step out to the patio for a breather. I’m not alone. Outside,a lone server is handing out samples of France’s finest Maroilles — a cheese so redolent of stinky sweat socks it was actually banished from inside the bar. When in Rome … I hold my breath and dive in.
The night is a late one, and not the last. Over the next few days I consume tens of thousands of calories and eat from food groups I didn’t know existed. I join mobs of drinkers for wine tastings that would do Dionysus proud. And then, when I should be sleeping, I queue up for after-parties where roomfuls of regally bombed people in tuxes and evening gowns sip champagne and slurp oysters into the wee hours. I admit, much of it is a haze. The line between high-class indulgence and plain-old debauchery is a fine one — Cornucopia invites one to cross it. But while some details are fuzzy, one thing seared into my gastronomic memory is those truffles.
On Friday night at 6 p.m., Chef Walt’s Araxi Restaurant is full to bursting with foodies in all their incarnations — highclass epicures, workaday gourmands, food critics, inveterate gluttons. I check my coat, grab a glass of brut from the hostess and wade into the throngs mixing and mingling over duck liver parfait and octopus takoyaki canapés. There’s anticipation in the air.
Big Guns, generally considered Cornucopia’s coup de grâce, plies diners with a succession of seven courses, each paired with the kinds of library wines rarely seen outside collectors’ cellars. Conceived and executed by a chef with a constellation’s worth of Michelin stars and clocking in at four hours, it’s more odyssey than meal.
I settle into my seat for the long haul, ensconced behind a half-dozen wine glasses that are filled and refilled before the night is through. On cue, a squad of synchronized servers stream out of the kitchen, laying out plates of blood-red tuna tataki and Dungeness crab wrapped in crepe. Next comes hot smoked salmon, drizzled with shellfish and caviar. Meanwhile, wait staff make the rounds with 95-point Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs, free pouring once-in-a-lifetime wines.
Then, I smell the truffles: a background note at first, growing stronger until it fills the room. Slipping from my chair, I steal a peek into the kitchen, now a tempest of sautéing, browning and plating. In the eye of the storm, lost in concentration, is Chef Walt. He shaves a few morsels of white Alba truffle over a plate of roasted rabbit saddle, then carefully turns to another plate and repeats: over and over, with all the intensity of a sacrament.
Servers swoop in, and a hush falls over the room as diners dig into a mint’s worth of mushrooms. Toward the end of the night, after devouring that rabbit and the Wagyu beef cheek, not to mention a cheese soufflé and chocolate mousse, I look up to see Chef Walt and his legion of cooks file into the dining room. All around, people are standing and clapping. It takes me a second to realize exactly what’s happening. The kitchen is getting a curtain call.