If you were a recreational drug user in Pemberton in 2004, the day Paul Charron sobered up was a good day. His “yard sale” to clear out the stuff he was quitting cold-turkey, fed a few appetites. But 13 years ago, at his own personal rock-bottom, the long-time fixture in Whistler’s cooking scene was done.
“My life was going in a certain direction,” Charron says, making a narrowing gesture with his hands, like a tunnel coming to a constriction. “I was so lonely, doing all kinds of drugs, I was losing my home. And I was, weirdly, watching a lot of Christian television. I hadn’t grown up in a Christian house at all. But I literally had this white light moment. I said, ‘Take these addictions away.’ Two weeks later, I was leading AA and NA meetings.” A few years after that, he left town for Prince George, where he shifted his focus into social services work, lending his cooking skills and newly acquired drug and alcohol counseling certification, to a series of jobs in various recovery and treatment facilities in the north.
Charron, like a lot of long-time Whistlerites involved in the food and beverage sector, has a storied culinary resume, from opening restaurants with Umberto Menghi and Mario Enero, to running the kitchen and later the front of house at Big Sky, to catering, consulting, even working for the national ski team at the Nagano Olympics.
He got out of working in restaurants for two reasons – he needed a change of scenery, a chance to be in some more healthy environments for his recovery. And he was tired of “struggling with not having enough staff. I was constantly exhausted.”
Steve Jobs has famously said, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.”
In mid January, I sat down to lunch with Chef Charron and a dozen culinary arts students dressed in their neat black chef’s uniforms. They were six weeks into their program, still “baby chefs” as Charron said. And the dots of Charron’s story, as he’d recounted it to me two weeks earlier, created such a perfect narrative, it was, as Charron himself as said, “like a dream.”
Now, the 49 year old is married, has a 5 year old son, a step-son, and a job as a First Nations outreach education assistant at Signal Hill, from which he was recently granted a leave of absence in order to teach Lil’wat’s first cohort of culinary arts students.
All the bumps in the road had led him to this place. Ready to be a teacher to twelve people hungry for an opportunity to learn, gain some skills, invest in themselves, be believed in. It was a role which, he discovered, did not require him to be the loudest expert in the room, the toughest task-master, the most critical – but the most humble, the best listener, the most patient and encouraging guide.
The cooking program had been his idea. He knew Big Sky’s clubhouse and restaurant was empty during the winter. He knew the local hospitality industry was still desperate for skilled workers. He’d taught a level 1 culinary skills program while working as a chef in Prince George in a recovery centre for youth.
He pitched it to the right people, and after three years of starts and mis-starts, funding was secured, and Lil’wat Nation, through the Aboriginal Skills and Training employment program, fielded its first cohort of Culinary Arts students, in November. “I only ever wanted to be the instigator,” says Charron, but when the program was formed, he was asked to teach it.
After fourteen intense weeks of hands-on learning and cooking. on Friday February 10, twelve Lil’wat graduated from the SASET Culinary Arts Program. They wrapped up their two week practicum placements on Friday, February 24 – some leaving with job offers in place.
Charron was proud. “It filled my heart to watch them work so hard, collaborating, putting in so much effort. It was wonderful to be part of that learning team.”
Charron reckons he learned the most.
“Staff who used to work for me at Big Sky see me now and say, oh Homie, you’ve come a long way,” says Charron. “I used to make people cry. I was hard on them. I was a perfectionist. I was always yelling. I was so poorly skilled as a communicator. I was that guy who, if somebody didn’t understand English, I would just repeat myself exactly, only louder. For me, somewhere, that made sense,” he laughs at himself.
“My heart really changed 13 years ago.” And at the front of a pop-up culinary classroom, at Big Sky over the winter, he got a chance to prove it.