Willie White is often stopped while shopping at St. Albert grocery stores, and it’s usually with the same questions: “Why did you sell the River House Grill?” and “What are you doing now?”
It has been just over a year since White and his wife sold the award-winning fine dining restaurant that sits prominently along the banks of the Sturgeon River. For a decade the couple ran the intimate, popular space with a passionate farm-to-table philosophy that touted the use of fresh, local ingredients wherever possible.
It’s a philosophy White learned while studying culinary arts in his native Edinburgh, Scotland, and through a 14-year career with the Fairmont family of hotels.
For the last dozen years, the fit in St. Albert has been a good one, with the Whites taking up residence (they still live in Oakmont) and raising children (now 16 and 22) – all while running the much-loved eatery.
“After 10 years of working six or seven days a week, we just wanted a change,” said White, admitting it has been hard to no longer see the many regulars that became a fixture at the River House Grill.
The year off involved some soul searching for White, who wondered what other opportunities the world might hold for him. Plenty of travel and enjoying time in their California home – complete with lemon and lime trees in the yard – offered a much-needed rest.
“When we came back, I looked at doing something in the food and beverage industry, but the new DoubleTree Hilton came calling. I knew Grant (the hotel’s general manager) and they were looking for an executive chef. Since I’m not a nine-to-five guy, I took it on, and it’s been non-stop ever since,” White said.
White took on what has now become the largest hotel, food and beverage operation in Edmonton, with the 240-seat Stages Restaurant, a mini-convention centre with two ballrooms and a hopping dinner theatre that boasts 7,500 season ticket holders.
Estimating that he oversees up to 3,000 dinners a week, White handles twice-weekly orders of fresh meat and produce worth $50,000 each – to the tune of 230 whole pieces of prime rib and 1,000 pounds of wahoo fish at one go.
“It’s high volume, and when you’re the executive chef, you have to be able to do it all,” laughed White.
Hotel restaurants aren’t usually known for food, and that’s a stumbling block when you want to make a name as a boutique-style hotel restaurant that’s on par with any of the other fine dining establishments in Edmonton.
“Willie knows what it takes to create an intimate dinner experience. It’s difficult to balance that with the volume needed in the dinner theatre or Silver Birch conference centre, but the food is hitting all the right spots,” said DoubleTree general manager Grant McCurdy. “It’s great to have Willie on board.”
Stages Kitchen and Bar manager Symon Wilcox agrees, saying that in the few months since opening, the restaurant has garnered plenty of traffic and good energy, with a relaxed vibe and “an amazing calibre of food for the price point.”
White’s farm-to-bowl concept is evident across the menu in the lounge, dinner theatre buffet and prairie-focused Stages restaurant.
“I still use the same Morinville supplier for bison and elk. Everything is fresh and local wherever possible,” White said, pointing to organic Alberta cooking oils, the St. Albert-based Blue Kettle Specialty Foods dressings, local chicken, pork and breakfast sausage, and a Prairie-made saskatoon and rhubarb jam.
“We make our own pastries too – fresh muffins served right in the tin – it’s a challenge to create a variety of styles for a variety of tastes in the hotel trade.”
Getting a hotel kitchen and a staff of 50 up and running is a work in progress, from finding good local suppliers to ensuring quality with homemade sauces and desserts, White said.
“There’s too much frozen food on menus, so it’s important to me to make quality food from scratch, but that’s why we were successful in St. Albert,” he said.
It’s also important for White to create opportunities for young cooks, just as he did at the River House Grill. He currently has five apprentices from local schools, training in the hotel’s large-scale operation and gleaning valuable lessons under White’s watchful eye.
“Our industry needs to train young people – to give them a chance,” he added. “My goal is to have six apprentices and train them properly.”