In 1980, Jack Evrensel and his wife Araxi decided it would be fun to move from Montreal to Whistler to open a restaurant. They didn't have any restaurant expertise at the time. In fact Evrensel was still an engineering student but they decided to make good on the idea anyway. As he laughingly tells it, it was an objective born of wine and highballs while dancing with friends at a nightclub.
"We had heard about the village and the promise of the village, the idea of the village. In fact I fell in love with a rendering of it, the beautiful architecture...and I said, 'you know, I wouldn't mind living here,'" said the Istanbul-born Armenian-Canadian. "The idea was to open a restaurant in a ski resort with another couple and ski all day and how much work can it be having fun with people at night? And then we would lock the doors and go fishing in the summer. That was the plan. It didn't work out like that."
Evrensel still chuckles at the innocence of the original idea - he knows better than most that there is nothing easy about running a successful restaurant, let alone four. Along with Araxi he has established Blue Water Café + Raw Bar, West and CinCin in Vancouver under the umbrella of Top Table Group. His restaurants have not only achieved elite status among palates in the know, they were some of the first to work from a local and sustainable blueprint. Evrensel's effort and talents were recently recognized with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2011 Vancouver Magazine Restaurant Awards.
"I believe there is no substitute for effort, you get out what you put in, but the reason the restaurants are successful is a different story," he said. "I think one of the main reasons why all of them are successful is because we're always changing, we're always evolving, we don't sit still."
Though many would argue Evrensel possesses a rare Midas touch in developing restaurants that enjoy staying power and cult status, he refuses to see himself that way. Admitting success is one thing but riding its coattails is a dangerous business - one the ambitious entrepreneur has no time for.
"If I did I would be bankrupt very soon after that," he said. "I think the minute you think you're there, or that you know (everything) you stop learning and you stop putting effort in."
One of the reasons Evrensel's restaurants are constantly lauded by the foodie community is the freshness each brings to the table. Under the hands of Executive Chef Frank Pabst, Blue Water Café was the first to ensure its seafood menu adhered to wild and sustainable standards. Araxi Chef James Walt works closely with farms in the Pemberton Valley and across B.C. to present the best each region has to offer. Evernsel and his staff have developed close relationships with a variety of Okanagan wine makers. They are constantly promoting that area's products through the restaurants, which won awards at the Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival in early April as well as at the Vancouver Magazine Restaurant Awards two weeks ago. And while local and organic have dominated Western headlines of late, the sustainability angle has long been a part of the Top Table mandate.
"I think it's a really natural way of doing things and that's how it was 50 years ago, you had no choice," he said, crediting his chefs for forging relationships with local food providers. "Food doesn't fare well over time and distance and when something is picked it starts dying so the longer it is out of the ground it just loses its energy and power and flavour so we're not really discovering something new, this is how it was and we strayed a little bit and are coming back to it."
Supporting British Columbia's farmers and allowing their individual pursuits to flourish in a stable market is one way Evrensel can ensure the quality of his restaurant's food. As local regions mature and succeed they inspire other farmers and all rungs in the food chain benefit, including those lucky enough to dine at Evrensel's restaurants.
"I think you have an obligation to do things right and expose your guests to different flavours and different possibilities that they might not have been exposed to," he said. "But ultimately they have to like it so it doesn't matter if it's right or wrong, good or bad - it's very important that we never forget that we're doing all this for our guests."
Evrensel will add a fifth member to his fleet in six weeks when he opens Thierry, a patisserie on Alberni Street in Vancouver. For more information on the Top Table Group go to www.toptable.ca. n