The Evrensel empire

Big city success built by a man with heart for a ski town

The Jack Evrensel empire sparkles with the glamour of Vancouver's city lights on a moonless night. Four critically acclaimed restaurants make up this world of Gourmet and Wall Street Journal accolades, Robert Redford sightings (last weekend at Araxi) and cellars boasting more than a thousand wine labels.

Like the four cardinal directions, Evrensel's Top Table Group restaurants - Araxi, West, CinCin, and Blue Water - act as the points of a compass, a beacon that restaurateurs look to for guidance. As the recipient of the 2011 Lifetime Achievement Award by Vancouver Magazine, Evrensel's success is acknowledged by both critics and industry peers.

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A great man with an even greater vision. So why does Evrensel roll his eyes when asked what he foresees for the next three decades as Araxi celebrates its 30th anniversary this year?

"Oh geez," Evrensel laughed. "I have no idea. People have asked me this repeatedly over the last 30 years. What's your five year plan? I've never had a plan.

"We kind of go with the flow. You do what excites you and interests you and then you take it to the next level to explore and you find yourself there. Honestly, I couldn't tell you what my plans are for the next year, let alone 30 years."

Said like a true snow-blooded Whistlerite who follows his passion, then lets that dream naturally unfold under the sweat of hard work.

When Araxi first opened its doors on Halloween night in 1981, $6 burgers were served up on the menu alongside "Lyon-Mackenzie-King-bill" fish dishes.

"The majority of our guests were in costume - (my wife) Araxi and I were quite surprised," Evrensel said.

Much has changed since Evrensel and his wife moved from Montreal to open Araxi on Lot No. 1 during a time when Whistler Village was little more than a construction zone. But many of the guiding principles established in Araxi's toddler years are still present in the Top Table Group restaurants today.

Wine and food tastings along with service training meetings are part of the weekly routine. Evrensel has also kept the broad-ranging menu, both in appeal and price point. Araxi had to be everything to everyone during a time when only four restaurants existed in Whistler.

"We still have a burger on the menu year-round at dinner time," Evrensel said. "You can spend a little. You can spend a lot. You can have a bowl of pasta or a (multi-course) tasting menu."

Change was and is always a constant. Ask any old-school Whistlerites, such as Paul Fournier or Laurie Vance.

"One thing Jack has always done, he has never sat still," Fournier said.

Vance added, "He would spend a fortune every year completely renovating the restaurant space and each time upgrading it several notches."

Evrensel certainly hasn't rested on his laurels. In his first 10 years in Whistler, Evrensel and his wife opened Araxi, the Savage Beagle nightclub and a clothing/jewelry shop, as well as CinCin in Vancouver.

"I learned you can only do so many things," Evrensel said.

But recent developments in the restaurant group seem to indicate otherwise. Economic downturn notwithstanding, this year Evrensel completed expansions at CinCin and Blue Water. He also opened the new Thierry Busset Patisserie in Vancouver and launched his own wine label. Evrensel said he wanted to challenge and utilize the talents of his wine directors from the four restaurants to create something entirely their own.

"It was for inspiration," he said. "You have to be excited about what you do."

And with longstanding staff such as executive chef James Walt, pastry chef Aaron Heath, wine director Samantha Rahn and restaurant director Neil Henderson at the Araxi helm, it's easy to see why Evrensel's excitement is as fresh as the day he named his restaurant after his wife.

Staff is only one cornerstone of the Evrensel empire. Other pillars holding up the foundation include inspiration, quality, passion and hard work -all culminating in annual awards and repeat visits from high profile guests such as Queen Latifah and Three Michelin Star Chef Heston Blumenthal.

The winning combination is why Gordon Ramsay and Hell's Kitchen producers came knocking on Araxi's door. The atmosphere is what drew an executive chef who cans, pickles and preserves local farm produce to ensure quality is served all winter long. The equation is what keeps employees, such as Tim Pickwell who worked at Araxi from day one, from not retiring their corkscrews until three decades later.

There is much to celebrate on Monday (Oct. 31) as Evrensel and his team mark 30 years.

"We are always evolving, working with very talented, like-minded people who never settle," Evrensel said. "We are always exploring what we do and how we can better do it. You do the best you can and give it everything you have."

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