Neal’s love of cooking started early, at about four years of age, when he drained the family aquarium of water to boil a pot of onions. The fish… well that’s a detail only Neal can tell.
Raised in a large family kitchen with European roots, Neal played sous chef to his grandmother and quickly learned the heart and soul of hearty home cooking, traditional recipes, and respect for market ingredients. Neal understood that sitting around the table isn’t a meal–– it’s an experience.
Neal thrives in a busy kitchen, where cooks exchange ideas and inject personal and ethnic inspirations to create menus that are innovative, fresh and outstanding. Meeting with local growers and selecting the very best ingredients and wines, is essential to this successful kitchen.
Neal’s culinary philosophy is simple. Keep dishes delicious and honest. Let the integrity of the ingredients steal the show. Less is more.
Neal has hung his chef’s hat up and down the Pacific Northwest and into San Francisco, but he always returns to Whistler. A dad to three spirited children, Neal connects to the youthful friendly vibe of his alpine home.
Q & A
Genuine & down-to-earth, Executive Chef, Neal Harkins opens up to share some insight into his beginnings and culinary philosophy.
Q: Tell us about your culinary education and background?
A: I attended George Brown College in Toronto, where I completed the Certificate of Apprenticeship and then wrote the exam to obtain the Canadian Red Seal certification. I was 22 years old when I decided to become a chef and had no idea what was involved or what I was getting myself into!
Q: What are some of your biggest achievements as a chef?
A: The biggest accomplishment of my career was becoming an executive chef before the age of 35, a personal goal I had set for myself. My greatest achievement was becoming Executive Chef with Centerplate.
Q: Who or what are your major culinary influences?
A: I have been greatly influenced by the chefs that I have worked with and the people who work with me in the kitchen. You can learn something new every day, if you're open to it. I have worked with many chefs who appreciate the integrity of the ingredients and preserving the honest quality of the food. You have to believe in the ingredients you use and in what you serve.
Q: What unique services or menus do you offer? How does this differ from a restaurant setting?
A: We have hosted private and VIP events with interactive cooking classes. We've also hosted cooking show themed dinners, where I cook in front of the guests and interact with them, occasionally calling them up to cook with me. At a conference or a restaurant, people have the same expectation - hot food hot, and cold food cold! We look to exceed this expectation by utilizing local and fresh ingredients wherever possible.
Q: How do you approach meeting and event planning from a chef's perspective?
A: It is important to understand the psychographic and demographic of each group. Understanding these dynamics enables me to customize our food and beverage services and present it on a grand scale. Our groups can range in size from 100 to 1,200 guests, so it's important to understand their needs.
Q: How do you see trends such as sustainability, local sourcing and dietary needs affecting the market?
A: I like to take a holistic approach when creating menus. One popular trend of late is the option to choose a gluten and/or dairy-free diet. As these dietary choices increase in popularity, offering gluten or dairy-free options will play an important role on my menus. From a sustainability perspective, I'm finding that many clients are no longer looking for an extravagant meal, rather, tasty home-style rustic fare with great value for money.
Q: What is your most memorable moment as a chef and why?
A: My most memorable moment would have to be the first day I stepped into the Banff Springs Hotel kitchen (my first job). Talk about being the small ant on the hill! Assisting in a Mother's Day brunch for 4,000 people was life-changing for me. I knew that day that catering was my destiny.
Q: What gets you excited about being in the kitchen?
A: Every event is new and different, and carries its own challenges and opportunities. I love finding creative solutions to our client's catering needs, and meetign their budget requirements. There's almost nothing more exhilarating than serving 1,200 entrees in 12 minutes!
Q: What are some of the menu items you're most proud of and why?
A: My philosophy behind our current menus is one that is focused on a 'rustic' look and taste. Letting the ingredients do the talking – such as the brightness of our local root vegetables. I personally find Pemberton's purple potatoes, local Jerusalem artichokes and purple carrots to be very versatile.
Q: What makes the Whistler Conference Centre an excellent catering choice for planners?
A: The Whistler Conference Centre introduces new menus every year to ensure we are staying on top of the ever-changing food and beverage trends, while meeting the needs of our clients. This also allows us to be creative, adding a personal flare to the menus each year. We do not compromise on quality, whether you have a group of 50 guests or 1,200.