If Executive Chef James Olberg is feeling the heat, it might be because his brand-new kitchen was completed in the nick of time.
In any case, he's not sweating it. Careers in the kitchen, after all, thrive on time margins. The fact he's so relaxed about the opening of Aura, Nita Lake Lodge's newest lakeside restaurant, means he's the right person to Captain this ship.
On Aura's third day in operation, I dine in to experience it myself.
"We went freehand," Olberg tells me. "It was important to start fresh. I was able to hire a really interesting, talented crew. I have Australian, Dutch and Swedish sous-chefs. Another [chef] has strong vegan cooking skills."
The way he speaks dispels any egotistical chef stereotype. "I'm always asked, 'Are you motivated?' I don't want to be motivated. I always answer that I want someone to motivate me. Working with these young people excites me because you play off one other," Olberg explains. "Now we can start creating."
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From my table, I can see directly into the hubbub of Olberg's kitchen. This isn't a coincidence - the space was specifically designed to pull back the curtain and afford guests a peek into the kitchen's inner workings. I watch as Olberg intently supervises his young team, making subtle corrections to technique or demonstrating alternate form.
The dining room that wraps the kitchen is a warm space. It marries timber, a mix of textiles (cowhide, soft felt, and masculine leather) with pops of colour and hip art accents. Yes, it's absolutely as Instagrammable as it sounds.
Aura's dining philosophy
Olberg is a newcomer to Whistler but no stranger to the coast. Previously, he worked with Vancouver's Glowbal Group in Vancouver.
I probe him to define Aura's dining philosophy. The marketing team would say something like "a focus on high-quality West Coast ingredients presented with a modern, innovative twist, cultivating a healthy relationship between plate and planet," but Olberg is much more cavalier about such things. After a brief pause he humbly admits: "I made a menu I thought would work from what I understand about Whistler."
Aura's menu is concise. However, Olberg is not married to its current length, nor necessarily to tonight's features. I personally prefer a short menu, so I'm happy to see that this evening's dinner menu boasts just eight starters and seven entrées, four of which are vegetarian. It's a mix of seasonal trends (burrata and roast beet salad, poke), French-inspired dishes (hen, crisp duck confit) and familiar favourites (Caesar salad, braised short ribs.)
"Going forward, I think there's going to be a lot of finesse. Aura will be a tasting, flavour-forward kind of place. I put the Ceasar salad on the menu because I didn't want to scare anyone off. Eventually, that's probably going to move on. Or maybe it's our biggest seller, who knows? Guests will lead us to where we need to be," he says of the current menu.
Although fresh snow is currently falling on Whistler's slopes, Olberg has a sunny outlook for summer dining. Aura's seating capacity will nearly double when warm weather temperatures draw diners outside onto Nita's lakeside patio. Grilled meats and fresh seafood for sharing and chef tables are all part of his vision. Perhaps most exciting are the gastro opportunities offered by Nita's expansive rooftop garden.
Olberg's enthusiasm is obvious: "Cooked fresh herbs are way better than anything you can buy. I see fresh herb flavourings, sauces, lavenders, flowers on plates; herbs are my priority. The logic is, it's real. It's not just for show so it's important that it makes sense."
Dining review: Aura, Nita Lake Lodge
I start my meal with the burrata cheese and honey-glazed roasted beet salad - a dining trend I've happily sampled a few times this winter - but it's the tamarind-glazed tiger prawns that excite my palate most.
For a main, I select the free-range farmed chicken breast served atop smoked corn potatoes, complemented by a colourful vegetable medley and dressed with Madeira jus. It's good, but my husband has made the superior choice: roasted lamb chop and braised lamb neck with squash and potato gratin.
Burrata + roasted beet salad | Jennifer Hubbert
Tamarind-glazed tiger prawns | Jennifer Hubbert
Rossdown free-range farm chicken breast | Jennifer Hubbert
Crème brûlée | Jennifer Hubbert
Photo credit: Gregory Hubbert
Why I'll be returning
I love that Aura's experimental menu rebukes the franchise kitchen. From what I can gather, Olberg's collaborative leadership and easy-going nature means diners can expect a fresh, seasonal experience. Between honest ingredients, playful craft cocktails and a gorgeous lakeside setting, I'm up for seconds (and thirds) at Aura.
Address: Aura is located within Nita Lake Lodge (2131 Lake Placid Rd, Whistler)
Dining style: Upscale-casual
Wine list: International & B.C. local
Budget: Entrees range from $27-$44
Make a reservation: 1-888-755-6482 or click here
Have a question about my Aura dining experience?
Tweet me: @gypsetjenn
Disclosure: Meal hosted by Nita Lake Lodge; all opinions are my own.
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