Food & Drink » Glenda Bartosh on Food

On the shelves with Super Mario

What's in a great restaurateur's fridge, anyway?

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In all the years I've been doing this feature — "What's in your fridge?" (stress the "your" when you say it) — it's the first time I've phoned somebody for the pre-interview and they've tentatively said, "My fridge is full of Dom Pérignon," as if this might be a problem.

"No, no," I assure Mario Enero. That's fine — we can work with that. In fact, it'll be really interesting..."Champagne, I really like it," he says, almost apologetically. And who doesn't? "Champagne — Breakfast of Champions," and we laugh.

So it's a go for a tour of Mario's fridge to reveal to the world what exactly you'll find on the shelves of one of Whistler's most respected, most fun, longest-lasting, most generous restaurateurs. A restaurateur with a backstory longer than a banquet table. An original local who's become something of a fixture around town — a delightful, unexpected fixture, much like that crazy chandelier some artist modified that you got on a twisty back street in Europe years ago and can't bear to part with. An original that's — thankfully — its own thing.

In fact, Mario is from Europe. From a village northwest of Madrid called Medina de Rioseco that dates back to Celtic Iberia. And it's true, if you've heard the stories — at age 12 he really did try to become a bullfighter, only to be dragged back to reality by his dad, who owned an inn.

It's also true Mario has three homes: one in Blueberry Hill Estates, one on Vancouver's South Granville, and one in Valencia where his daughter, Isabel Brueggemann, and her husband often visit him. Plus he really does travel a lot. He fact-checked this story from Puerto Vallarta, where Pat and Julie Kelly recently visited him, and his own winding trail to Whistler took him from Spain to the Canary Islands and all over Europe; then London, Ont.; Vancouver; Saskatoon; Seattle and, finally, to Whistler to work for Umberto Menghi at Il Caminetto.

But it's Whistler that's home in the deep sense, and that's where I caught up with Mario not long after he returned from Germany to visit Isabel.

Here at home in the typical stone-and-wood Whistler townhouse he's had for 20 years, Mario has a fabulous view of the top of Blackcomb Mountain framed by trees and flowers in summer around his patio. He's also got some fabulous neighbours that have turned the area into some kind of Restaurant Owners' District. Bob Dawson, co-owner of Rimrock Café and another Whistler classic himself, now lives in the neighbourhood. So does Jay Pare, owner-operator of Caramba since 2014 when Mario sold it to him.

Their paths first crossed 33 years ago when Jay was 18, and Mario hired him as a busboy at Il Caminetto. Jay went on to work for Mario at the popular Caramba, Mario's second big restaurant hit after his first, La Rúa. The success of both restaurants — excellent food and wine, ambiance and personalized service — earned Mario kudos from locals and visitors alike, culminating in the honour of being the first inductee into the Restaurant Association of Whistler Hall of Fame.

Coming over for lunch the Monday after we speak include: Jay and his nephew, James Pare, Caramba's executive chef; Chris Vick, one of the managers at Chateau Whistler. A lunch with a long history, and one where all that champagne will be served.

Maybe even Michel Bertholet will be there. Another Whistler original, Michel is the former owner of La Vallée Blanche, a '70s icon that was like a woodsy chalet teleported from Switzerland. Long-gone from Nesters Road, but not before morphing into Rudi's Steakhouse, it's like so many of these old places — alive and well in many a happy memory bank, like the smell of wood smoke from a fireplace.

"We don't have too many people," Mario says. "With all this good food and wine, we want to take our time. Normally we take about four, four and a half hours for lunch."

The timing — really, the whole concept — goes back to the 1980s and the Sundial, where the inaugural lunch was held. A mixed grill that the late Pascal Tiphine of Sundial Restaurant and, later, Le Gros, whipped up, recalls Mario, with lamb and lots of meat and sausage. (Who else but a restaurateur would remember what they ate nearly 40 years ago!)

In those days, Whistler Village was dotted with an equal ratio of good intentions and failed outcomes, and concrete footings and rebar. Mortgage rates hit 21 per cent. Beirut, one wag called it, referring to Lebanon's civil war.

And a bunch of these restaurant originals — Mario; Michel and his fellow Swiss countryman, Pascal; the late Joel Thibault of Stoney's cum Chez Joel II (the first Chez Joel was in Vancouver's Gastown): JJ (Jean-Jacques Aaron) from Club 10, and more — would meet in someone's restaurant or another's.

"Joel would do fondue. Michel would do paella," says Mario. Oh, to have been a fly on those walls or, better, a guest at the table!

It was always for lunch. And always the wine glasses had to be emptied and plates cleared before 5 p.m. because they all opened for dinner then. Nobody was open for lunch — not enough customers!

Fast-forward to today, where lunch is at Mario's home with its deep red and blue rooms, classic furniture and original paintings. The open plan kitchen, with its stainless KitchenAid fridge, invites guests to sit at the counters or the table, wherever they feel comfortable eating and watching Mario cook. All very casual, very Whistler.

"We do all different kinds of foods in this tapas thing," he says. And all these foods are in the fridge.

Tune in next week to learn what else is in that fridge, besides champagne...

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who's eaten in all of these original Whistler restaurants.

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