Melissa Craig, the executive chef of Whistler’s Bearfoot Bistro, shares at least one trait with her restaurant’s animal namesake: nerves of steel. At only 32, not only does Ms. Craig direct a 20-person team in preparing gourmet dishes for full houses, she does it in front of her hungry patrons in an open kitchen. She studied culinary arts in Nanaimo before landing in Canada’s chicest skiing town, and in 2007 she won the Canadian Culinary Championships. Though the sweetness of success wouldn’t have pleased her palate since she readily admits she is not a desserts person, she will sit down and eat even a bad meal – so long as she has the right company.
How did you get the cooking bug?
At home, I was always involved in making dinner. I started to help my mother out when I was around four or five years old. I would make Caesar salad, even the dressing, and other things like Hollandaise sauce. I definitely liked cooking better than my siblings, that’s for sure.
What was the first dish you remember cooking by yourself?
I used to make perogies, make the dough and the filling all by myself. I was probably about 12.
Did you have a favourite meal growing up?
Sunday nights we always had a roast, like roast beef or Yorkshire pudding or even a roasted chicken. My mom would do carrots smashed with turnips and she’d put maple syrup in it. That was always good. I’m pretty sure my family still has their Sunday night dinners but they’re on Vancouver Island. I try to take Sundays off but I don’t like cooking at home so we like to go out.
What’s your guilty pleasure?
I eat a lot of pizza, cause there’s nothing open late in Whistler. And grilled cheese sandwiches are always good. They are like a comfort food for me. It’s got to be old-school, white cheddar and of course with ketchup. My staff will even cook that for me if we’re really busy and they noticed I haven’t stopped to eat.
Is there a food you don’t like?
I rarely eat sweets. I’ll have a bowl of ice cream here or there but I’m not really a dessert person.
I also don’t like cloves or juniper. It’s the taste of cloves, they remind me of the dentist.
What’s your favourite city to eat in?
I spend a lot of time in Spain. Eating in Valencia is great. I just love the tapas-style of eating. And on the Balearic Islands there is an awesome little restaurant on the beach that we go to quite often. They have a lobster soup – and I don’t normally like lobster, but it’s stewed lobster, still in its shell, seasoned with paprika, onions and garlic. It’s really rustic and messy. I also really enjoyed eating in Beijing when I went to see the Olympics. I love Chinese food too. We went to the oldest Peking duck restaurant and it had this huge tasting menu. It’s the combination of salty, sweet and spicy that I enjoy. But texture is right up there for me. I feel like I should be able to take a mouthful of food and have everything on one fork.
With Valentine’s Day coming up, what are the ingredients for a great romantic meal?
Shared plates, definitely. Like dessert for two. And red meat and red wine. Something classic.
What’s the best element of working in an open kitchen?
You can see what’s coming. Like last night, we had a full restaurant but no orders in before 8:30 p.m. so you know it’s all going to come at once.
And what’s the worst part?
Having to be on your toes. And it’s not really that bad. But you do have to make sure you aren’t touching your face or your hair.
What’s your meal to warm with after being out on the slopes?
Champagne and oysters. I know it’s not warming up but it’s kind of a nice après ski thing to do.
Is there an ingredient that you feel represents Whistler?
Pemberton [farm]vegetables, I even use them in the winter. Like carrots, potatoes and beets. I actually phoned them the other day to get some crosnes (Chinese artichokes) and they told me that I could come and dig them out of the snow. [Laughs] We have tons of snow, so I didn’t take them up on the invite.
What would you order for your last meal?
It would have to be a regular Sunday dinner at home. For me it would be more about the company than the food. A meal is not just about food but your surroundings. I could have a crappy meal with great friends and family and still be happy.
Special to the Globe and Mail
This interview has been condensed and edited.