Even a thunderous storm couldn't damper the mood this weekend for Araxi's wildly popular Pemberton Longtable Dinner. Cooking for hundreds of hungry diners while battling the elements is tough enough under normal circumstances, but Sunday's storm — which brought whipping winds and torrential downpours — presented quite the challenge to the cooking team at the idyllic North Arm Farm.
"It was insane," said Araxi Executive Chef James Walt. "Just brutal — stuff blowing away and shattering, tents flying."
In the end, however, the trying conditions served to bring the 400-plus assembled diners and staff together, both literally and figuratively, to share in an al fresco dining experience like no other.
"It was neat because everyone was all huddled together under the tents," said Walt. "There was no doubt about it, people had a really special time."
Walt has always had a knack for creating special moments around the dinner table. The B.C. Restaurant Hall of Fame inductee was one of Canada's early pioneers of the farm-to-table movement, and the Longtable Dinner, which features a hearty menu comprised of dishes sourced and prepared right at the farm, is the perfect reflection of his career-spanning ethos.
It's a philosophy that has now moved from the kitchen to the page with the release of the restaurant's latest cookbook, Araxi: Roots to Shoots, Farm Fresh Recipes, unveiled at Sunday's dinner.
"I wanted this one to be more a representation of the longtable dinners, and family," Walt explained. "I wanted people to embrace the overall experience of dining in your backyard, and it all centred around the longtable dinner."
A follow-up to its 2010 James Beard-nominated cookbook, Roots to Shoots is Araxi at its most buttoned down, offering a less serious glimpse into one of Canada's most revered purveyors of fine dining. The book includes rustic, family-style recipes and features funky cocktails instead of wine pairings, and some playful platings courtesy of Walt and photographers Alison Page and Issha Marie.
"When I did the first book, it was all serious. This time around you could see it on the plate, even with the saucing I'm doing a lot of freeform, and we were just trying to be playful," Walt noted. "We were just going nuts and having fun. It was beautiful."
With its more accessible approach, Walt is confident even the greenest of home cooks will find something to be inspired by in Roots to Shoots.
"With the first book, there was some more technical stuff that maybe people wouldn't try at home," he said. "This time we tried to include accessible ingredients. There are things like sausages and bacon that take a little bit of time, but nothing overly difficult. There are soups in there, a couple different salads that you can bust out pretty easily at home. I definitely wanted that to be a part of it."
A few of Walt's favourite dishes from the book:
• Roasted beets with chickpea caponata and pesto made from nasturtium, an edible flower you can find at the local farmer's market or in your neighbour's backyard. "It's a good home dish and really easy to make," Walt said.
• Seared wild scallops drizzled in golden-raisin vinaigrette with cauliflower tempura. This dish has been featured on Araxi's menu on a few different occasions and takes advantage of Whistler's proximity to the Pacific Ocean and its bounty of fresh, flavourful seafood. The Espelette pepper — a French chili blend — adds a touch of spice to the tempura that nicely balances the natural sweetness of the seared scallop and vinaigrette. "It's almost classic with the raisin vinaigrette," Walt said. "I love eating this dish."
• Ricotta gnudi with peas and mint. A soft, gnocchi-like pasta, gnudi acts as the perfect vehicle for the fresh, bright flavour of the peas and the rich, tangy ricotta. The essential summer dish.
Of course, none of the cookbook's 80 recipes would be possible without the growers, ranchers and fishers who supply Araxi with its quality seasonal ingredients. Walt knows this, and made sure the book also shone a light on the people who keep his kitchen humming and diners happy on a daily basis.
"I think sometimes people think chefs are consumed with themselves. But I've always been about the producers, the people I work with and the guest. It just becomes more fun that way," he said. "These farmers and producers, oyster farmers, ranchers, fishermen, it's all about them. It's not really about the chef in the end. Anyone can learn how to cook."
Yeah, but can they learn to cook like James Walt?
"Well, that's why you buy the book, you know?"
Araxi: Roots to Shoots, Farm Fresh Recipes is available for purchase in bookstores, at the restaurant or online at www.araxi.com.