40 and Fabulous
Araxi Restaurant + Oyster Bar
By Nikki Bayley / Images By Joern Rohde
From an Italian restaurant to a globally renowned farm-to-table fine dining destination, Araxi Restaurant + Oyster Bar has been at the heart of Whistler’s culinary community for 40 years. Inextricably linked with the name of Chef James Walt, Araxi’s story is a love letter to the superb seasonal produce of B.C., written by a passionate team who’ve worked together over the decades to create one of Canada’s most desirable destination dining spots.
Walt, Whistler culinary director of the Toptable Group, including Araxi, Il Caminetto and Bar Oso, is lost in thought. I’ve asked him to name which single seasonal product he most looks forward to each year. Finding it impossible to pick, he’s been listing various seafood and veggies (“asparagus, watercress, peas? All seafood. Only one? Um, spot prawns, geoduck? Uni?!”). It’s no wonder that Walt, who’s built a long career garlanded with international praise and recognition for his work showcasing all that is local, seasonal, and delicious, can’t bring himself to name a favourite. “We are gifted with incredible product here in Canada; everything tastes better! Our defined seasons make such a difference to the soil. What we eat speaks to where it was grown,” says Walt.
A byword for seasonal cuisine, there’s no better way for Araxi to showcase that than with its famous Longtable Dinner series, which takes place outdoors each summer. “There’s no smoke and mirrors; you’re sitting where your dinner comes from, surrounded by the mountains on the farm,” Walt says. “The winemaker is right there, the farmer is right there, and you can see the peas growing on the vines; there’s nothing like it. Relationships start from those dinners; people book year after year to come together because they love the nature of the longtable dinner.”
For his entire career — 25 years of it at Araxi — Walt has been at the forefront of North America’s farm-to-table culinary movement. “I grew up on a farm. Working with the seasons was all I’d ever done,” he explains. “When I got to Whistler, I had no idea what was tucked away just across the valley in Pemberton — incredible farms, such as North Arm Farm and Across The Creek Organics. I wanted us to lean into seasonal produce, to support the local income and reflect the seasons.”
“Originally desserts were plated by the bartenders; cake on a plate, maybe a scoop of tiramisu,” remembers Pastry Chef Aaron Heath. “I was the first cook to do plated desserts in the dining room. There was a glass display case and espresso machine where the raw bar is now,” says Heath. A few months before Walt joined the team, in 1996, Heath began work as a line cook but soon found his passion as a baker. Like Walt, Heath is driven by his excitement for the bounty of B.C.’s fresh produce. “Fruit is so dynamic; rhubarb, which reminds you that spring is here, that first real fresh strawberry, and my favourites, blueberries,” Heath says.
Unremarkable now, but two decades ago, Walt had to hunt down produce in the quest to focus on more local ingredients. “We’d hear about some cool watercress at a farmers’ market and call around to try and get some,” he says. But over the years, Araxi’s relationships with its growers have blossomed. Walt’s culinary direction even inspired one of his team, Sarah McMillan, to switch careers, exchanging bartending for horticulture by starting Rootdown Organic Farm. “It’s a one-on-one relationship now,” says Walt. “Farmers come in to see us now in February or March with a seed catalogue and ask us what we want. It’s not work; it’s fun when I get to do this or visit the farms. We get deep into it with our growers. For instance, people talk about baby vegetables, but for me, the flavour’s not there yet. I prefer ‘teen veg!’”
A year after those changes, one of Araxi’s most recognizable faces, Bar Manager Rene Wuethrich, joined the team. “It was going for 20 years before I got here, so it’s a solid business,” he says with a grin. “Appearing on Gordon Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen may have put us on the map internationally (a chef position at Araxi was offered as a winning prize), but what we give our guests is a great atmosphere, beautiful food, and we earn our reputation.” Twenty years later, Wuethrich is still there, serving his trademark blend of great drinks and easy chat. “I’ve stayed so long because for me, it’s about working with great people every day, and I get to do that at Araxi.”
For Jason Kawaguchi, restaurant manager and wine director, his Araxi story began more than a decade before he joined the team as a sommelier. “Araxi was one of my favourite restaurants. I vividly remember my first time here as I ate an heirloom tomato salad. I remember looking and thinking, ‘Wait, are these tomatoes even ripe?’ Back then, you didn’t see orange or green or yellow tomatoes! I took one bite, and it blew my mind. I came here every summer just to eat that salad.” Now an Araxi veteran, Kawaguchi loves to create those “wow” moments for guests. “It’s always super fun to be able to put a B.C. wine in front of someone who doesn’t even know we make it here and have them just love it.”
For Kawaguchi, after 12 years working in the front of house, restaurant life is never dull, thanks to the seasonally changing menu that allows for an ever-evolving wine list. “It’s also pretty neat to be able to welcome back those guests who come every year and see their kids grow up. It’s always fun when they [then] start drinking wine with their parents; we really are a family restaurant in that sense.”
The same sense of family exists behind the scenes, too, with a core team that’s been unchanged for more than a decade — a rarity in the usual merry-go-round of kitchen-and-bar-team switcheroos. “If it wasn’t for Araxi, I don’t know where I’d be, maybe burned out in a Vancouver restaurant?” muses Executive Chef Jeff Park. “James’s mentorship has shown me how to have a career here.” Park joined in 2003, fresh out of culinary school at 29 (“this was my second career; the clock was ticking”) and eager to prove himself. Over the next 18 years, Park rapidly progressed through the ranks from a start on the first rung of the kitchen brigade shucking oysters.
After he left twice to learn from other restaurant experiences, Araxi always pulled him back. “It was a good feeling when I came back as executive chef two years ago,” explains Park. “I wanted to feel what James felt — controlling this big restaurant, running it smoothly, mentoring guys like James mentored me. It’s a big job. I’m still learning, and thank God James is around!”
Heath agrees that having a core crew of long-term staffers helps the Araxi machine run smoothly. “We all have access to a lifestyle that we love, and for me, I have creative control and having worked together for more than two decades, there’s just nowhere I’d rather be in Whistler. We get to pass on that knowledge and experience to the next generation of cooks and chefs.”
It’s a winning formula that, happily, doesn’t seem likely to change. “I came here almost 25 years ago; I didn’t have much money; I just wanted to live here. But I’ve created a life and a family, and a career that sustains and excites me,” Walt says. “I have people around me who’ve been with me forever, so we don’t have to press reset all the time. We just keep going and keep pushing what we do.”
araxi.com | 604-932-4540