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Chef's Choice: André Saint Jacques



In the days before Christmas, André St. Jacques is on the phone to talk about champagne but he has a bit of a caviar situation on the other line.

Seems his supplier is having trouble meeting demand for beluga caviar heading into the holidays. This just doesn't work for one of the only restaurants in Whistler that serves caviar, so St. Jacques takes a moment to find a way to get the caviar supply he needs for the holidays. Once the caviar dilemma is resolved he switches gears to discuss champagne.

St. Jacques is the founder of the Bearfoot Bistro in the Listel Hotel and a former holder of a Guinness Book of Records for opening 21 champagne magnums in a minute using a sabre. As the manager of an inventory of 20,000 bottles of vintages from around the world at his restaurant there's no doubting that St. Jacques is a walking champagne dictionary.

St. Jacques is a legendary host with a passion for food, wine and champagne along with the ability to spin a smooth tale. There are no better storytellers in the restaurant industry than St. Jacques.

This storytelling, champagne lover says any time is a good time to celebrate with champagne and he adds that Christmas and New Year's are particularly appropriate times to celebrate with bubbly.

When St. Jacques opens a bottle of champagne he does it with flare. There isn't much entertainment value in simply taking off the wire trap and popping the cork with a thumb or two so St. Jacques keeps a sabre on hand to make bottle opening an event.

He loves showing people how to use a sabre to open a bottle of bubbly.

When St. Jacques demonstrates how it is done, the lesson is precluded by the story of how the tradition of opening champagne bottles with a sabre started. He spares no detail. He starts at the beginning and delivers a history lesson to the end that history teachers struggling with how to improve their delivery could learn from. Napoleon and his officers, says St. Jacques, started the tradition at parties they attended in advance of the legendary battles of the Napoleonic era.

"In the wee hours of the morning after copious amounts of drinking some of the officers started taking their sabres out and they started whacking the necks off the bottles," St. Jacques recounts. "If the bottle broke clean it meant good Karma and then they go to war, fight and become victorious. If the bottle blew up that means you better party, enjoy the last night because you won't come back.

"And that's how it got started," says the master orator as he closes out an historic yarn he has delivered hundreds, if not thousands of times.

St. Jacques says the Bearfoot Bistro and many other places around the world are keeping the champagne and sabre tradition alive.

"When guests come to the Bearfoot Bistro we teach them how to do it and once they've learned it is one of their best party tricks," says St. Jacques.

The founder of the Bearfoot explains that champagne, the real stuff, is made in the Champagne region of France. It starts as white wine then it is placed in glass bottles to go through a second fermentation process to create the bubbles.

"When people understand champagne and they know the process and the time it takes then you realize that it's beautiful. It was Napoleon's favourite drink," St. Jacques says.

According to the expert, there are many great champagnes and he says there's a great range of flavours to be found in different champagnes from the various makers.

While St. Jacques prefers true champagne he says he also enjoys sparkling wines.

"There are some beautiful sparkling wines coming out of British Columbia," says St. Jacques.

He also likes some of the product from Spain and California.

For those planning to uncork champagne or sparkling wine St. Jacques cautions that some producers artificially carbonate their wine to produce what St. Jacques characterizes as an inferior product that doesn't taste as good as the real thing. Sparkling wine producers who use the traditional champagne method indicate that on their bottles.

According to St. Jacques there's a rule of thumb around cost.

"If it's under $20, pretty much for sure it's not done in the traditional method," says the bistro founder.

However the bottle gets opened on Tuesday, Dec. 31, St. Jacques would have you enjoy yourself while drinking the contents of what ever you choose to mark the end of 2012. Happy New Year!