In 2016, Jean-Sebastien Ouellette made a decision that an increasing number of Whistler residents seem to be replicating these days: He left.
"It's a very transient town with lots of new employees that you have to train every six months to a year. I guess I was looking for more of a stable community," said the former Nita Lake Lodge and Alta Bistro cook. "I was ready to get out of the busyness of Whistler."
But the young chef didn't venture to Pemberton or even Squamish, as so many exurbanites have. After "stumbling on" a sous chef job in Lillooet at the Fort Berens Estate Winery's summer restaurant, The Kitchen, he relocated to the sleepy rural community. Less than two years later, and the 27-year-old has worked his way up to the Executive Chef position—and he has no intention of leaving Lillooet and its wide array of quality ingredients anytime soon.
"To be honest, at first I didn't really know what was going on in Lillooet. Then I started working here and met all these great farmers, and started working with all this beautiful produce, and it just kept me here," he explained. "It's the best thing you can do: You don't have to call the major suppliers, you just call your neighbour, basically, and he will bring you some beautiful produce. I like that part."
Replacing his former boss Dylan Foss, who helped open The Kitchen at the award-winning winery in 2015, Ouellette brings more of an international influence to the position.
"We really want to keep encouraging local agriculture and the local economy, but at the same time, I've done quite a bit of travelling—I just came back from a winter in Australia, New Zealand and Indonesia—so I also want to feature food that's not typically Canadian. We're going to use local produce and put a bit of flair on it," he said.
Fort Berens has become a committed supporter and showcase for Lillooet's farming community through its work with several small-scale local producers. Known primarily for orchard fruit due to its long, hot growing season, Lillooet's agricultural landscape has diversified considerably in recent years, explained winery co-owner Rolf de Bruin.
"The diversity of people who have come here share this similar passion of the potential of this area, and each has chosen their own unique way. It's a beautiful pallet of different colours coming together," he said, crediting the efforts of the Lillooet Agriculture & Food Society in fostering the community's food production. "That's the neat thing you're starting to see here: We're not all growing grapes, we're not all growing hops, and we're not all growing tomatoes. Everyone is doing something different, and I think that's the appealing part."
It's the kind of progress that Ouellette believes could transform Lillooet into more of a culinary destination.
"Give it a few years, and it will be a thing. Lillooet vegetables should be a thing," he said. "We need to start treating our vegetables and our fruit a bit like wine; there's a terroir with wine, and the wine varietals taste different depending on where they're grown, and vegetables are the same."
The Kitchen at Fort Berens Estate Winery officially opens on May 18. Lunch service will run from 12 to 4 p.m. seven days a week. Prior to that, however, the restaurant will host a Mother's Day brunch, on May 13, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
For the first time, The Kitchen will open for dinner every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m., starting on June 29.
For more information, visit fortberens.ca.