It's not all that surprising to hear of an Australian making his way to the Rocky Mountains and then ending up working in kitchens to finance some time on the slopes. That being said, chef Nick Cassettari may have initially come for a ski trip almost a decade ago, but with his culinary experience prior to making the flight to the Great White North--a resume that boasts some Michelin-starred and world-renowned restaurants like Lindsay House in London (now closed) and Quay in Sydney, Australia--our country should sure be happy that he decided to stick around. Working for the past nine years in Canada's most iconic mountain town (a.k.a. Whistler) nestled into the Cascade Mountains, Cassettari speaks highly of the town's well-respected Araxi, as well as the iconic Bearfoot Bistro.
His own restaurant, Alta Bistro, offers a menu that's brimming with creativity and locally-grown and foraged ingredients. If you get a chance to try the crispy fried pickled egg with harissa and sunflower hummus or the barbecue carrot salad with yogurt sorbet and pumpkin seed dukkah, you'll see what I'm talking about. As far as mountain towns go in this country, this kind of inventive cuisine is definitely not the norm.
Here, Cassettari chats about the intensity of European kitchens, why the Canadian food scene consistently amazes him and why being able to forage not far from your restaurant is pretty much the best thing ever.
So, what’s it like to work in Europe, as opposed to in Canada?
It’s intensely serious. You start at seven in the morning, cook until 1 a.m., get a bit of sleep and do it all over again. There’s pots and pans thrown at you. It shapes who you are though and I realized early on in that environment that I did not want to be like that. I believe that you can promote creativity and a good work ethic through positive reinforcement. There are a million things you can do instead of violence.
That sort of angry, pot throwing chef nature is pretty typical of European kitchens, isn’t it?
True and it is true for Australia as well, for sure. There’s a lot of European influence in those kitchens. I remember getting lobster thrown in my face with hot butter and I had burns on my face for weeks because my portioning wasn’t right one service. I just would never want that in my kitchen.
What brought you from Europe over to Canada?
I went on a ski vacation to Banff. I was only supposed to be in Canada for six months, but I met my wife and stayed. We eventually decided to move west to Whistler because we had friends out here. I worked at Araxi when I first got here. I knew where I wanted my food to go. I wanted to learn about sustainable, local food [in Canada], using stuff that was growing in the area and James Walt had that vision.
How would you compare the Whistler food scene to that of Banff?
Banff has got a real like...hm...
I don’t think there’s a ton of great food in Banff.
Yeah, you’re right. I mean, they do have Eden and [that restaurant] has been doing what it’s been doing for so many years. But, yes, that’s the number one reason why I left that town.
How do you think Alta Bistro stands out compared to other restaurants in Whistler?
For me, one big thing that we do is that we sacrifice profit and personal time to stand by ethics and how we want our restaurant to operate. We have small portions of protein, smaller menu items, but it’s all ingredient driven. Other than Araxi, there’s no one really doing that here. We can’t imagine ourselves doing anything else. When I first came on board with Alta, just over five years ago, it was very different. We decided to move in this [current] direction and we weren’t busy back then. Now, we are busy and that’s because I think we really stuck to our guns and were true to ourselves.
When I popped in earlier this week to try some food, you were out foraging. Did you find anything good?
Morels! In the last week, we’ve got about 50 pounds of morels. It’s pretty fun! I’ve started obsessing about it a little bit. Ha, ha, ha. I think I’ve been out foraging about five times in the past week because it’s just beautiful out there.
What else can you forage in the mountains around Whistler?
A lot of stuff. Elderflower, the different spruce and fir tips, lots of mushrooms: chanterelles, wood ears, tons of things. There are indigenous ingredients as well.
Is the chef community pretty collaborative here or is it every restaurant for itself?
I’ve got great relationships with the chefs in town here. Melissa Craig (Bearfoot Bistro) and I are good friends. I love Melissa, her food is amazing and their pastry chef, Dominic Fortin, is a genius too. He’s amazing. He really puts effort into his education. He’ll go to Europe to do stages and stuff every year. Melissa, she’s been eating at my restaurant and I’ve been eating at hers for years. It’s fun in that respect.
What have you learned about Canadian food since coming here almost a decade ago?
This whole country is just so, so diverse. I recently did a trip over to Toronto, Quebec City and Montreal, and those cities just blew my mind away with epic food. In Toronto, I ate at 42 restaurants in five days. After that, we went to this one restaurant in Quebec City. There was this guy who was drinking red wine and smoking cigarettes. He walked over, sat down beside us and said, “You hungry?” We said, "Yes." He wipes his hands on his apron, goes into the kitchen and then we had six of the best courses I’ve had in Canada. Tons of offal, hearts, liver, foie sausage. We finished that dinner and then we had Cognacs to another restaurant and do another five-course dinner.
Indulgence and excess does sort of seem to be the Quebecois way to dine, in a good way, of course!
Totally! In a really fun way. Everyone is celebrating all of the time and it’s not like it’s about drinking heavily, but just having a good time. Like I said earlier, I’ve eaten in Calgary, which has a totally different food scene too and then you have the Pacific Northwest style of cooking which, again, is a whole other scene. They really focus on sustainability, especially with seafood.
Is there anything that you think the Canadian food scene has over that of Australia?
The coolest thing about working in British Columbia compared to Australia is the fact that in Australia, you have access to almost any [locally grown] ingredient year-round, so you don’t look forward to certain things. Here, we just started getting fresh strawberries. Now, halibut and dungeness crab are coming into season. Do you know what I mean? It’s pretty cool to get excited about what’s coming.