Years ago I had the joy — and it always was a joy — of interviewing Chili Thom for a regular feature I do in this column called "What's in your fridge?" Over the years I've gone through many fridges with many amazing Whistler characters. Chili was right there with the best of them. His premature death on Nov. 30 is a huge loss. You'll find tributes to Chili elsewhere in this issue, but I think this conversation from Pique on July 27, 2010 (lightly edited here) gives voice to the remarkable space — physical and metaphorical — he occupied then and always will.
Living in a 380-sq-ft bachelor pad like Chili Thom's is like living in an Airstream trailer without wheels. Located in, and I quote, "the narrowest kitchen in the universe," Chili's fridge is only six feet from his bed. Along with a sink and three-burner stove it forms a sleek 3-in-1 unit called SpaceAid that would be at home in a Tokyo tube hotel.
For Chili — voted Whistler's favourite artist every year since 2002 — home for the past three years has been at Adventures West overlooking Alta Lake. It's pretty ironic that's where he lives.
Chili grew up in Chilliwack, ergo his nom de guerre, Chili, for his hometown, which he got while working at Sushi Village and three employees had the same first name. His first visit to Whistler happened when his parents brought him up to ski for his fifth birthday and they stayed at his godparents' place at Adventures West. During that visit he walked out onto some ice and snow near a river — he couldn't remember where — and broke through, getting thoroughly wet.
"It was super shallow so it wasn't a big deal, but the whole time ... I was trying to figure out where that was. A few years ago, I moved in here and walked down to the little dock at the riverside and was like, oh my God, this is full circle for me — this is where I fell in and started my whole Whistler experience."
That chilly baptism didn't put Chili off. He kept coming back every year for the mountain biking, the rock climbing and the skiing. Now he's lived in Whistler 15 years, seven of them with fridges without a functioning freezer. That includes this one, where you can put something in the freezer for days and it will never actually freeze.
"I think the next place I get, I want one of those big double-door fridges that you can sleep in if you have to," he says.
Double doors or no, Chili's fridge holds an amazing amount of food for its size.
On the top shelf we find Vlasic zesty dill pickles and three-year-old Freezies intended for a barbecue that have never been frozen due to the freezerless freezer. There's also some miso shiro, the light-coloured miso he discovered at Sushi Village, where he also learned how to make sushi.
Next there's organic apple juice for blended drinks before he goes to the gym, and unsweetened vanilla Almond Breeze. (He's not lactose intolerant but Chili doesn't enjoy drinking milk from "chemically enhanced cows" or otherwise.) Finally, there are two Fuji apples, organic broccoli and a jicama, which he likes to marinate with salt, pepper, dill and lime juice — something he learned from guiding guru, Bruce Wilson.
Over the years, Chili has worked as a guide from ocean kayaking to winter survival trips, including as host/guide for the TV series, Wild at Heart. Jicama played a pretty fun role on some of his kayaking expeditions.
"We used to actually fool people on the trip," he says. "I'd be like, okay, we've got to find some food right now because some of the stuff has spoiled so I'm going to go see if I can find some vegetables.
"I'd go and bury the jicama in the sand and then pretend I found it. Then everybody would go, like, oh my God!, and dig around looking for more jicamas."
But back to his fridge, where the second shelf includes organic veggies; sugar snap peas that remind him of his grandparents; pickled jalapenos; an ancient and very disgusting piece of wiener left over from a barbecue last summer; and raw almonds soaking in water, which his friend, Lara Cooney, taught him about. ("They taste good, they're more alive, and they're way easier to digest.")
Finally, we find a bottle of rum from Nicaragua, where Chili was shooting his latest creation for the 2010 Heavy Hitting Films' B-Grade Horror Fest (the brainchild of Chili and Feet Banks), and bottles of Whistler Brewing's Powder Mountain beer sporting labels with artwork by none other than Whistler's favourite artist. (Don't tell anyone, but it's actually an image of Fissile Peak.)
This is the first time Chili has done a label, but his artwork has been featured on T-shirts, snowboards, skateboards, skis and surfboards. Pretty amazing for a self-taught artist and gallery owner who kicked off his art career one Christmas when he painted a scene from a hiking trip on Mount Robson for his mom using old acrylics he found left over from high school.
"I just thought I'd give it a shot, and it was pretty fun. Then I went guiding and I was out in nature and I'd see the coolest sunrises and sunsets and scenery, and I'd come back and paint."
So how does it feel to have something in your fridge with labels featuring your own artwork, or to stand in a lift line-up and see people holding skis and snowboards with your art?
"It's pretty rad," he says.
(Editor's note: Sadly, Lara Cooney passed away this year, too.)
Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who keeps a fond place for Chili in her heart.