When Whistler Blackcomb's executive chef Wolfgang Sterr came to work for the Fairmont Chateau Whistler in 1994, he found the idea of eating on the mountain unappetizing at best.
"When I first came here, when the two mountains were still separate, I just wouldn't eat on the mountain," says the affable German chef. "Things have changed drastically in the last five years."
Coincidentally, that's the same amount of time Sterr has held the top job in WB's food operations.
After his first stint in Whistler in the mid '90s, Sterr moved to the Niagara-region of Ontario and for the next 14 years he operated his own farm-to-table eatery. Returning to Whistler in 2010, he knew he could improve the quality of slopeside food whether it was a grab'n'go sandwich, a quick lunch at one of the mountain lodges or full-service dining.
He took the reigns at WB with a vision of creating an on-mountain dining experience like no other ski resort. This winter, that vision comes closer to fulfillment with the opening of the newly renovated Rendezvous Lodge which includes Christine's, one of the two fine-dining establishments in the WB family of food service providers. Adding to Sterr's excitement is the hiring of Chef Steve Ramey. The former sous chef at the nationally recognized Hawksworth in the Hotel Georgia will be taking over Christine's. The prospect of offering food on the mountain that meets or exceeds the quality Vancouver dining experience is one that Sterr relishes. And while he definitely enjoys working with a chef who's helped open three renowned Vancouver eateries, and is developing a new take on Christine's, Sterr is also pretty pleased with the reinvention of the Rendezvous and believes guests will be, too.
It's not your dad's Rendezvous
The fact that things have changed dramatically at the Rendezvous is evident the moment the building comes into view. No longer is the 2,500 sq. m. (27,000 sq. ft.) lodge clad in nondescript weathered wood accented with red. Instead, the architectural firm that headed up the project, Michael Green Architecture (MGA), made the bold choice of going with an all-black colour scheme. The result is striking, with the snow framing the building to create the ultimate high-contrast image. Elegant. Simple. Inspiring.
MGA has won accolades for the dramatic design and creative it applies to residential, commercial and community projects such as Parthenon Place in West Vancouver, Vancouver's Rennie Gallery and the North Vancouver City Hall and the proposed Harvest Urban Farm. While it's out-of-the-box conceptual work is bold and compelling, the firm's prowess is most apparent in its renovations.
Executing MGA's vision was Pemberton's Murphy Construction Co. The local company has a history of building quality projects in Whistler, most notably 85 units in Cheakamus Crossing and more recently the $5-million building envelope restoration for the Carleton Lodge. Murphy Construction began the $5-million renovation of the Rendezvous this past spring, typically sending 20 to 40 workers to the site every day.
"The experience has been fantastic," says company owner Graham Murphy.
When word went out that Murphy Construction had been awarded the contract, tradesmen throughout the Sea to Sky Corridor came out of the woodwork.
"We had lots of people approach us who wanted to work on the project, to be a part of this... to the point of offering to drop their prices," says Murphy. "Because at the end of the day, it's an iconic building."
The local builder describes the extensive renovation as "fresh" and one that will result in a better guest experience. Changes to the building included moving the entrance to the front of the building, creating a better flow within the main servery and updating Christine's to include a proper lounge area. The result will be more people being served more efficiently in a space that is more welcoming.
"The Rendezvous was called the 'zoo' for a reason. There was no flow in the building. You would come inside, and people didn't know where the washrooms were, where Christine's was or where the servery started and where the servery ended." says Sterr.
To create a better guest experience the lodge's sight lines were cleaned up, the entrance changed, retail moved downstairs and more seating — with more captivating views — was installed. "The new design is less confusing and easier," says Chef Ramey. "It offers a faster, cleaner, better-organized experience."
But the real star of that new improved experience is the food that will be served up in the iconic building.
Where the WB food revolution began
Sitting down with Sterr and Ramey a month out from the opening of the mountain, the two chefs are brimming with enthusiasm. Despite the fact that the menus aren't quite set and staffing hasn't yet been completed, the two men look relaxed, but that could be the result of being positive that they're on the right track. Sterr is particularly confident that guests and locals alike will embrace the changes to the iconic building and the food it provides.
"The changes to the food started two years ago when we analyzed and benchmarked against other ski resorts and found that we were looking at the wrong benchmark," says Sterr. "We looked to Vancouver to see what our guests were eating. They're well educated, they have disposable income — they spend, but they also want high-quality consistency when they come to visit us. This clientele wants to spend money; they go out four or five times a week. They go to Hawksworth for lunch; they go there for dinner."
The challenge Sterr faced was how to replicate that experience throughout WB food services. The first project he and his team undertook was reinvigorating the Crystal Hut. A faster, meat-and-bread approach was implemented at the cozy mountain cabin that had been known for being incredibly slow.
"By having fewer offerings but higher quality and more consistency, we saw we were able to speed up the process and give dining pleasure to more of our guests."
The second overhaul to the mountain's approach to food happened as part of the Carleton Lodge renovation.
"When the lodge was renovated we were given the opportunity to have a permanent fixture outside, a small 23 sq. m. (250 sq. ft.) barbecue hut and we opened Garbo's Smash Burger Shack (now Garbo's Grill)," says Sterr.
Garbo's was the first of the WB restaurants to clean up its proteins and go to hormone- and antibiotic-free beef. The customizable burgers, which feature 20 choices of garnishes and sauces, were an instant hit.
"We started to serve breakfast sandwiches with a fun spin on the names like Plain Jane, The Hangover — the most popular one, which you'd expect in a ski town — and the Three Amigos featuring chorizo sausage and some other goodies," says Sterr.
(This year the Garbo's concept moves up to the Rendezvous, one of the venue's many new food stations focused on creating maximum choices for guests.)
"From there, we kept driving change last year in the Alpine in the big three — Glacier Creek, the Roundhouse, and the Rendezvous — by changing all our grill menus. We reduced the number of menu offerings from eight to seven, which was cluttering the servery and making it difficult for our staff to achieve consistency," says Sterr.
Another menu improvement has been the introduction of better quality raw products. An example of the new commitment to excellent ingredients has been the introduction of chicken from Rossdown Farms in the Fraser Valley. The farm produces the feed for the birds, hatches its eggs and raises the birds to slaughter, with much of the processing taking place on the property.
But it's not only the meats, including beautiful Pacific wild salmon, that have been upgraded. Produce is fresher and, when possible, locally sourced. And the introduction of a quinoa burger has proven to be a welcome change for vegetarians.
Sterr may have had an ulterior motive in reimagining WB's veggie burger.
"I am the butt of all jokes because I am a chef and a vegetarian," says Sterr. "My boss enjoys watching me suffer through burger tasting."
"My personal belief is that animal farming has a very large footprint with a negative impact on the environment," he adds. "Personally, I choose not to eat meat outside of work. I think over the past few years I've been able to influence what we do at WB. For example last year, we opened The Raven's Nest, the first vegan/vegetarian restaurant on the mountain. It was a bit scary at first, we didn't know what the response from the guests would be like."
Sterr had little reason for his trepidation; the response to this new approach, from both patrons and the media, was terrific. The new eatery, the first of its kind in any ski resort in North America, was one of the mountain's biggest wins last year, drawing positive reviews from vegans, vegetarians and even meat eaters. What's proven very attractive is The Raven's Nest's ability to create meatless versions of classics such as meatball subs consisting of Gardein soy-based proteins, a rich tomato compote and Daiya vegan cheese served on a multi-grain ciabatta bun.
A new item that will appear on the menu this year is a vegan fish taco that also uses a Gardein protein. The "fishless fish taco," topped with coleslaw, chipotle sauce and mango sauce appears to be a winner.
"You would not know the difference," says Ramey. And Ramey, who's been cooking for more than 15 years, would definitely know the difference.
A new chef and a new food philosophy at Christine's
Christine's will be the fourth restaurant opening for the former Hawksworth sous chef. He was involved in the re-launch of Lumière under the leadership of Daniel Boulud, and the opening of Robert Clark's Nu and Hawksworth.
"This is the first time when I've been responsible for everything — with a lot of support. Four-and-a-half years ago I was developing the menu for Hawksworth, but that was with three guys; now there's just one. But I'm having fun. It's different and it's exciting," says the immensely talented young chef who lives in Squamish.
A fan of outdoor recreation who was getting tired of driving to the city for work, Ramey, jumped at the opportunity to work in Whistler.
"We (Ramey and David Hawksworth) came up and did a couple lunches at Steeps last season and met everyone," says Ramey. "I heard about this opportunity that was coming up, they were making all these changes and were looking for someone to bring new ideas, new flavours and skills up to Whistler, and I thought it would be a perfect fit. I wanted to be part of the mountain lifestyle again. I wanted to get out of the city but still have the ability to make awesome food."
Ramey's ability to turn out "awesome food" made Sterr stand up and take notice. The fact that the young chef had experience working on mountains, having started his career at Cypress Mountain scooping out soup and making fries, followed up with a six-year stint at Grouse Mountain, further piqued the executive chef's interest.
"It really interested me to see where he had started," says Sterr of his new colleague. "He has a very good understanding of what the ski industry is and what it takes to get qualified people here."
Another plus for Sterr was the younger chef's experience with the province's culinary apprentice program (Ramey graduated top of his apprenticeship class, earning his Red Seal, before starting at Hawksworth).
"We're establishing at this point an apprenticeship program at WB to attract young people to come here and use Whistler as a training platform and not just a place to work and have fun," says Sterr.
The apprenticeship program is already underway with three of the mountain's unit chefs currently completing their Professional Cook 1 designations. Once they have completed the first of the three courses required for their Red Seal, they will be taking on apprentices, hopefully mid-spring. Chefs from the Four Seasons and Hilton are also involved in this distance-learning trades program, bringing the number of participants to nine.
The opportunity to apprentice at "North America's #1 Ski Resort" (as named by respected sources such as SKI Magazine and Freeskier Magazine) is proving popular with applicants. Sterr points out that Ramey is key to the success the mountain is having in securing talent this year.
The addition of the buzz-worthy, tattooed young chef combined with WB's innovative ad campaign promising that working for the mountain affords "an elevated experience," is generating great applicants that are as interested in food as they are about working in Whistler.
"These are people who are passionate about food, they work when they're at work, and they're here because they love food," says Ramey. "I want to have people that work for me that I want to do stuff with, like go snowboarding or go for a run after work. I want people who care. That's the most important thing to me."
The food Ramey's crew will be producing has already received good reviews at tastings for items on a menu that will be unlike anything that's ever been offered on the mountain.
"My goal is to try to bring the components of the food I was making in the city — a cool balance of textures and flavours, maybe cool ingredients and technique people aren't familiar with — and make that something that will work on the mountain."
Ramey, who is committed to a menu that is as seasonal as it can be, is becoming increasingly familiar with all the local suppliers, including farms in nearby Pemberton, but is still trying to find "some cool products."
"One of my goals for the menu is to have a slightly smaller menu, but with the ability to change items every two to three weeks when an ingredient becomes available. It sucks that we'll be too late for pine mushrooms," he says with an edge of remorse in his voice. "I'm looking for food that can be featured as long as its season lasts."
Guests will be able to pair these seasonal delights with wines handpicked by Araxi's wine director Samantha Rahn, who, in 2013, was named Sommelier of the Year by the Vancouver International Wine Festival.
"At Christine's we'll be offering the full dining experience," says Ramey. "You can come in and have a couple courses and a great bottle of wine and enjoy yourself for a couple of hours. We want to give another option to our guests. There's nothing like this on the mountain right now."
What customers will also enjoy at Christine's is an elevated level of service.
"Our guests are used to the service they get in the city," says Sterr. "We've hired someone to oversee both full-service restaurants from the service perspective. One of the things that will be addressed is a dress code that's neat and professional; servers will be educated on wine and how to interact with guests. If we improve the food side, but not the service side, it's not going to be a better experience."
Better value, better experience
In the past, part of what's hindered the guest experience has been what many consider to be captive audience pricing.
"When I look at our food costing, it falls in line with industry standards. From a pricing perspective I think it's fair pricing when you compare us to any other leading ski resorts in North America," says Sterr.
"I don't think we're out-pricing ourselves. I think what you'll see at the Rendezvous is that the price/value/quality component is much better. We're using cleaner, higher-quality products and fresher ingredients in order to provide a better meal for the guest."
Sterr's ultimate goal is to create a culinary experience at WB that no other ski resort affords. He sees this season as being the one where the new concepts employed at the Rendezvous and Christine's will be proven. His hope is that the changes will be noticed by senior management and implemented across the mountain. If initial response to what he's been doing to improve mountain food so far is any indicator, he doesn't have much to worry about.
Food services "Net Promoter Scores" have grown considerably during Sterr's time onboard. (A "net promoter score" is a measurement that reflects a guest's intention to recommend a travel destination indicating overall satisfaction of a travel experience. Higher numbers mean more likelihood of positive word of mouth.)
"Last year our Net Promoter Score in the quick-serve sector target was +20, we reached +22," says Sterr. "Five years ago we were at +12. We take a lot of pride in that. All the chefs and sous chefs in each building, they want to do well and provide service that's exceptional."
This year, with the changes to one of Whistler's truly iconic buildings, this culinary goal seems more achievable than ever. Let the gondolas begin loading.