To mark Canada's sesquicentennial (say that 10 times fast) this year, a prestigious New York City venue is hosting a lavish multicourse dinner that will offer guests a taste of the finest in Canadian cuisine — with a helping of Whistler thrown in for good measure.
Later this month, the James Beard House, former home of the legendary cookbook author and "Dean of American Cuisine," will welcome a team of chefs from across the Great White North who were selected to represent Canada from a cutthroat contest that saw close to 200 restaurants submitting menus they believed best represented their food and region. Amazingly, two of the nine participating chefs hail from Whistler: Derek Bendig, executive sous chef at the Fairmont Chateau, and Stephan Drolet, executive sous chef at the Bearfoot Bistro.
Drolet had a theory on the resort's strong showing in the annual Food Day Canada challenge.
"I think it's because Whistler is pretty global," he said. "We have a lot of people from all over the world who visit Whistler, so we get to be a little bit more creative on that front."
For Bendig, the chance to cook in such an historic kitchen — which has, over the years, welcomed a who's who of the culinary world: Emeril Lagasse, Daniel Boulud and Jacques Pépin, to name a few — is still something he has a hard time wrapping his head around.
"It's kinda surreal," he said. "I think when I walk into the place, it'll feel a little more real. I'm a massive cookbook fanatic; I own hundreds and hundreds of cookbooks, so (cooking at the) James Beard (House), you can put it up there with singing at the Apollo. It's a once-in-a -lifetime opportunity."
In such a geographically and culturally disparate country, Canada has struggled to form a distinct culinary identity of its own. When coming up with their dishes, the chefs were tasked with distilling the elements of Canadian cuisine into a coherent menu that properly represented— and in some cases, combined — the ingredients unique to each region of our far-flung nation.
"It'll be nice to tear down some of those stereotypes. (Canadian cuisine) goes so far beyond the maple syrup and the poutine and the tourtiere," Drolet said, who teamed up with an Ontario chef on a spot prawn tartare with a new-crop apple and fennel mignonette, a smoked root vegetable Chawanmushi, and powdered — yes, powdered — bacon.
"It's a good opportunity for Canadian chefs to step forward and show that we're on the same playing field."
Paired with Mission Hill chef Patrick Gayler out of Kelowna, Bendig's was challenged with creating a main course that showcased two vastly different ecosystems.
"The ingredients we have available in Whistler are quite different than what's going in in Kelowna. It's night and day," he explained. "So, for us, we wanted to find a way to tie both those regions into a single dish and showcase a little bit more of British Columbia." What they came up with: venison marinated in leftover merlot leaves, served with foraged Coast Mountain forest vegetables, pickled pine mushrooms, and a bone-marrow-Spruce emulsion, all plated on a piece of smoldering cedar. Can't get much more B.C. than that, can ya?
Bendig said he isn't feeling any nerves heading into the New York foodie mecca; rather, he's looking forward to taking some time to enjoy the fruits of his labour.
"In this industry, you put so much into it. You work 15 hours a day, you work seven days a week a lot of times," he mused. "I have put in this time, I have worked so hard, and now I get to showcase what I've learned and all these hours I've put in. To be able to showcase that in a place like the James Beard House, it's hard to put into words, but that's a reward in itself." "The Flavors of Canada" event — notice they rudely left out the "U" — is set for May 24 at 7 p.m., and will run you a cool US$175, unless, of course, you happen to be a James Beard Foundation member, then you can dine for the low, low price of $135. For more details, visit www.jamesbeard.org.