One misconception about the world-renowned holiday destination that we call Whistler is the notion that it has a lull period, which is identified as the handful of weeks that sit between the end of September and the beginning of December. The fall season at the little resort town in the southern Pacific Ranges often plays a minor role to its summer and winter counterparts, when locals and international tourists flock to the village for world-class mountain-biking, skiing, and snowboarding.
But those popular activities shouldn’t cast a shadow over what Whistler has to offer during the autumn: auburn leaves covering the sidewalks, crisp fall mornings, and arguably the region’s most popular culinary event of the year: Cornucopia, an annual celebration of food and drink.
Now in its 22nd year, the festival (November 8 to 18) will be curating more than 100 gourmet events. The gastronomic fete attracts guests from near and far with its lineup of offerings, which range from large-scale wine-tastings to chefs’ luncheons, and from drink seminars to winemakers’ dinners.
One of the most talked-about events launching at this year’s Cornucopia is the Blue Room: an unparalleled five-course dining experience that takes place in a hidden ice cave that’s accessible only by helicopter. Organized by Four Seasons Resort and Residences Whistler and Head-Line Mountain Holidays, this trip of a lifetime will set you back $20,000.
Of course, there are countless more wallet-friendly happenings taking place throughout the 11-day extravaganza. If you’re a first-timer, check out the Crush Grand Tasting—it’s considered the festival’s flagship event where dozens of wineries and Whistler restaurants will be offering wine samples and small bites. Several drink seminars will also be taking place, which will teach you about the fundamentals of wine and junk food pairings, chocolate and cocktails, wine and charcuterie, and craft beer for wine-lovers.
But wines are not the only focus at Cornucopia, because the culinary creations are just as much in the spotlight. Some of Whistler’s best restaurants will be hosting special winemaker dinners, and a number of notable names from Vancouver and other B.C. regions will be at the helm of the chefs’-table luncheons.
Some may say that Fairmont Chateau Whistler’s executive chef, Isabel Chung, is at the forefront of epicurean feasts during the annual food-and-drink celebration. This year, the hotel has 10 dinners scheduled for Cornucopia, and Chung played a large role in connecting with the wineries that she will be working with.
“My executive restaurant chef and I picked all the wineries,” Chung told the Straight in a phone interview. “I think it’s the only year that we’ll have this luxury. We had the opportunity to pick who we wanted to work with, and go out and essentially recruit them into it.”
There is one particular event that the seasoned chef is most excited for: the sold-out Bella Wines collaboration dinner on November 17. She’ll be joining forces with chef Eva Chin (formerly from Vancouver’s Royal Dinette), creating a multicourse meal that will marry both of their unique cooking techniques and styles with the best B.C. ingredients.
“I think she [Eva] is awesome,” said Chung. “I invited her to come do a dinner with me, [so] it’s a really great friendship that’s just started. I think she’s got a really outstanding palate, and she’s not shy. She does what she wants, and I can appreciate that about her.”
Besides being able to work with talented chefs from out of town, Chung also believes Cornucopia is a great opportunity for chefs to create dishes that they wouldn’t always have the chance to cook.
Asked if she thinks it’s the food or the wine that is more important at these types of culinary events, the Fairmont chef picked the former without hesitation. “For me, it’s always going to be the food. I can’t help it,” she said. “But if they are in great pairing and if they play off each other, I think that actually improves the food. Conversely, winemakers will say that if the food complements the wine, the wine will taste better.”
Executive chef James Olberg at Nita Lake Lodge’s Aura Restaurant also believes that food is the star of the show in a winemaker’s dinner. “The only reason why I say the food [is] because it is the unknown,” Olberg told the Straight by phone. “I think the food is the most important because maybe it’s the most vulnerable in any function. It has to be pretty well thought out and executed properly.”
Aura Restaurant will be hosting the Sip & Savour Winemaker Dinner on November 10, serving up a six-course meal paired with wines from 50th Parallel Estate Winery. The menu will feature dishes like braised short ribs, pan-seared sea scallops, and a crowd-pleasing dark-chocolate dome.
It’s the first year that Olberg will get to cook at Nita’s in-house dining establishment for Cornucopia. He joined the team last year, just in time to cook at an off-site location for the annual event because Aura was undergoing renovations. With a new kitchen concept and restaurant redesign to work with, the Whistler-based chef believes there’s plenty of opportunity to become a mainstay at the fall festival.
“I think [Cornucopia] is going to be a great, and we’re excited to become a family member of this yearly event,” said Olberg. “We want to start strong, and if we get great feedback, maybe we’ll have two or three [dinners] next year.”
Cornucopia, presented by BlueShore Financial, runs November 8 to 18. For a full schedule of events and to purchase tickets, visit the Whistler Cornucopia website.