Yesterday, I finished penning a column for the WE about a Whistler restaurant that has seen its brand buffed in technicolor by a medium I generally abhor – reality TV. The restaurant is the venerable, 28 year old Araxi, a favourite of mine and near-perennial winner for Best Whistler at the annual Vancouver magazine restaurant awards. The show was Hell’s Kitchen, an expletive-bleeped Gordon Ramsay pressure cooker that sees a bunch of cooks from diverse backgrounds, skill sets, and weight categories thrown together in a bubbling stew of well-seasoned contrivance, all vying for a chance to work under the restaurant’s executive chef, James Walt. I write this tonight after interviewing the show’s final four competitors – Dave, Ariel, Tennille, and Kevin – and joining them at Araxi to watch the finale on the big screen with a few hundred television addicts (admittedly, I watched the last hour or so in bed at the Fairmont with my wife).
It was an odd experience. People were lined up dozens deep and four abreast in the Village Square just to get in. Big searchlights (a la 20th Century Fox) flanked the entrance to the restaurant, where the final four contestants stood for over an hour in the freezing cold to fulfill what I imagine must have been the last of their contractual obligations: smiling with their arms draped around every paid guest as the house took keepsake photos for them. Smile. Click. Brr. Smile. Click. Brr.
Inside, it was beautiful, charming, timeless Araxi with the staff that never changes (there’s Rene at the bar, here’s Steve making the rounds, that’s Samantha looking spectacular), but then on went the televisions, and the bubble popped. “Are you having a good time, Andrew?” one servers asks. Of course, I say, half-wondering if I’ve told the truth. Two of the best restaurant meals of my life were had at Araxi, so seeing its ambiance ruled by two minute commercial breaks every ten minutes was bizarrely uncomfortable, like watching Sophia Loren desperately trying to make out with Seth Rogan. A good time, to be fair, but an altogether weird one just the same.
That distaste isn’t there because I consider all staged, high stress Survivor-type shows to be beneath me. Sure, when the phenomenon hit a decade ago, my life-long love affair with TV hit the skids, but the divorce was way overdue. Instead, I’ll selfishly prefer to think them beneath Araxi. Either way, in the case of Hell’s Kitchen I’ve seen so many people get screamed at in the kitchens of my lifetime that I’m now unwilling to endure it without being able to buy the victim a beer afterwards. Call me crazy.
Given 10 minutes alone with the finalists (pre-show at the Fairmont), I didn’t know what to ask. I’d seen all of two episodes: the first, back in 2005, and the most recent one, when Tennille was eliminated. At a loss and desperate not to waste anyone’s time, I asked if the show had taught them anything about cooking. All of them shook their heads. This was show business, bro. When asked if they had learned anything at all, Tennille deadpanned “I learned how not to be.” Good answer.
After tonight’s hypno-dramatic ending, what can fairly be described as a major distraction for the superb restaurant comes to a welcome conclusion. The Fox television network got what they wanted – a high end venue willing to go along for the ride – and so did Araxi – media attention like no Canadian restaurant has enjoyed since Rob Feenie won on Iron Chef America in his Lumiere heyday back in 2005.
Oh, plus Dave. Araxi also gets superdude Dave, who won. He was the one I liked, and best suited to survive a year in Whistler with all its late nights, Aussie women, and Olympic Games (Dave would like you to know he’s now single, by the way). The long-haired, skinny Californian skateboarder battled through the series with a broken wrist and charmed the continent with all the tonal variability of a solid brick of good hash.
As you would assume, real storybook stuff.