Executive chef Isabel Chung is a bit breathless as she strides into the Gold Lounge at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler. Most of the prep work for her first Canada 150 dinner, being served that evening in the hotel’s Grill Room, has been done, but she still has plenty of details to attend to—so taking a bit of time to have a cup of coffee and talk about her culinary journey is something she has to carefully slot into her schedule. “We’re almost there,” she says, “just the staff meeting, and a few little things. But it has come together really well.”
Chung has been in Whistler for just over a year now, after almost three at the Fairmont Olympic in Seattle; this, her first executive chef role, makes her one of only two females to have the title at any Fairmont worldwide. “This is an amazing region for food,” she says. “We stay true to things from the Pacific Northwest. Although, this is a luxury hotel, and there is an expectation to have such things as strawberries 365 days a year. That’s why we do a lot of research, especially about technology that can help us be more sustainable, and have a lesser carbon footprint.”
Chung is thoughtful, and when she gets started on a subject—such as bees, for example—she has a lot to say. “I’m like a lifelong scholar, I guess,” she says. “When I get on to a topic, I just need to learn everything I can about it. I can’t help it, I’ve been that way since I was a child.” And about those bees: “Bees and their pollination are responsible for fully one-third of everything we eat.” The hotel has two Mason bee hotels on an upper garden area, plus several other hives.
Her thirst for knowledge influences how Chung teaches apprentices in her kitchens, too. “I like the old saying, ‘You can either give a man a fish, or you can teach him to fish.’ So, I often challenge the apprentice chefs; I don’t like to spoon-feed,” she says. “They are expected to learn some things for themselves. And we don’t just order them around, we explain why things are done in a certain way, and they are enabled—they become stronger cooks.” The “we” in that is executive sous chef Derek Bendig, of whom Chung says, “If anything, he’s even more knowledgeable than me. You can get a dissertation from him about poutine or goat cheese anytime!”
Speaking of poutine, that special Canada 150 tasting menu (available at the Grill Room through summer 2017) features a remarkable smoked salmon poutine, with Yukon gold potatoes, fresh cream cheese, canola oil sabayon, and British Columbia sturgeon caviar. It is a playful interpretation of a Canadian classic, and simply bursting with intense flavours. Other menu items include bison tartare with a huckleberry compote; grilled beef tenderloin with lobster and grilled corn; a fantastic venison loin with barley risotto; and fabulous house-made goat cheese with red fife wheat crostinis. This menu is worth a detour, or a specific visit. It is certainly a great reason to head to Whistler.
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