We Tried It: Christmas in November at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge
Christmas comes but once… or maybe twice a year?
Getting off of the shuttle bus in the early evening hours, I’m immediately struck by the natural beauty of Jasper National Park, even as the daylight quickly wanes. The snow-capped mountains that surround the chalet-chic Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge are the perfect wintery backdrop for a week of festivities known as Christmas in November (CIN for short)—and the decorations transforming the hotel landscaping into tenenbaums don’t hurt either.
I’m here for three straight days of eating, drinking and merrymaking while attending sessions hosted by celebrity chefs and designers, all laced with a heavy dose of Christmas cheer. In between learning how to decorate and cook for the holiday season, and all of the dining and dancing, I’m hoping to sneak in a little quality time in the heated outdoor pool or curled up with a cocktail next to the cozy fire burning in the main lodge, but it’s shaping up to be a busy weekend.
The first night there’s a welcome reception and ugly Christmas sweaters are practically mandatory. Luckily I’ve remembered to squeeze one such item into my regrettably small carry-on luggage and I won’t look out of place among the seasoned CIN attendees. There are some serious super-fans here, some who have been coming for years. For them, this event is about all the good parts of Christmas (food and festivity) with none of the stress of hosting family and cooking for days. I’m more than game to experience the same.
After an indulgent and delectable buffet-style dinner—including an entire corner of the room dedicated to gourmet cheeses and towers of pillowy croquembouche—I find a spot by the fire in the main lodge and strike up a conversation with some locals who fondly remember the 10th anniversary of this pre-Christmas celebration. Like I said: super-fans.
Friday morning I take it easy with breakfast: we’ve been warned to pace ourselves when it comes to food because, in addition to the high-end plated meals (think slow-braised short ribs served atop smoked lentil purée, baby carrots and asparagus, tomato horseradish chutney and cabernet jus), there are also edible offerings during some sessions; not only can you watch Ocean Wise Executive Chef Ned Bell cooking on stage, you can sample his (sea) weed brownies and take home the recipe.
Looking over my scheduled events for the day, I can see why it’s important to enroll in advance. Some popular sessions have filled up quickly, like the Best of Canadian Wine and Cheese tasting or the mixology class wherein veteran BC bartender Micah Dew demonstrates the skills required to ensure your seasonal cocktails are on point—did I mention the ample opportunities to overindulge?
At 10:00 a.m. I find myself seated in front of a cooking set, complete with overhead cameras to show the food prep in action. When Montreal-based chef Chuck Hughes hits the stage there are more than a few excited ladies in the crowd. They are ready to laugh at all of his jokes, snap pictures and ask any questions they can think of, even if (or especially if) it means being the butt of his next joke. These demos are akin to live versions of cooking shows and the audience seems to adore seeing the stars perform live.
More meals and workshops ensue with local culinary stars like Connie DeSousa and John Jackson, the chefs at the helm of Charcut and Charbar in Calgary. VIP guests (anyone in attendance can upgrade to this status) are also treated to an exclusive Bollywood Kitchen Party with dancing, wine and plates piled high with crispy pakoras. Before we know it, it’s cocktail hour again and a team of bartenders greet us outside the dining room with signature cocktails to sip before dinner. My favourite (and the least sweet on offer) is the Christmas Beauty; a playful take on the classic Negroni, with Bols Raspberry and grapefruit juice in place of vermouth.
We round out the evening in the somewhat awkwardly named Man Cabin (it’s 2017 after all) where the whiskey flows like water and the beer pong table is frequented by notable chefs. At one point Chuck Hughes actually jumps in the Drift food truck parked outside to help serve French fries to the beer-soaked masses. Upon returning to my room I’m delighted to find milk and cookies from Edmonton’s renowned Duchess Bakeshop, as well as a rustic, commemorative enamel mug—sorry Santa, these treats aren’t for sharing.
The next morning I manage to squeeze in a brisk (-2 degrees!) five kilometre run around the adjacent Lac Beauvert to work off Friday’s indulgences and it’s back to business. I take in a session with local designer Cory Christopher during which he shows us tips and tricks for easy to achieve holiday decor that won’t break the bank (like suspending heirloom ornaments in cylindrical vases, or bundling firewood with festive scarves and ribbons).
Christopher’s team is also responsible for the Decor Cabin; an entire stand-alone cottage of themed rooms inspired by Mother Nature (he suggests using rich greenery like magnolia leaves, seeded eucalyptus, white pine and cedar in a modern vase for your centrepiece instead of traditional flowers), and brightly coloured wrapping paper (use lots of white, he advises, to balance the featured colours and keep it feeling wintery) giving visitors ample ideas for making their homes tastefully festive.
That afternoon, the Man Cabin plays host to chef/authors Michael and Anna Olson’s grilling demo, after which all in attendance are treated to fall-off-the-bone barbecued pork ribs glazed with “mop,” a basting liquid consisting of BBQ sauce, cider vinegar and beer that helps keep the spice rub in place during the smoking process, as well as jalapeno cheddar pull-apart bread and bananas foster. I stick with scotch, saving my appetite for the gala dinner that night and ensuring my stomach isn’t sticking out in my portrait with Kris Kringle. Everyone is grateful for the live band that night and a chance to dance off some of the day’s decadence.
Sunday morning is one last chance to catch a celebrity demonstration before a brunch of made-to-order omelets, roasted vegetable salads and some much needed coffee to ensure no one travels home on an empty stomach. Last-minute selfies are taken with the life-sized reindeer and sleigh, and hugs are exchanged as the weekend’s revelers say their goodbyes and make vows to return for the undoubtedly epic 30th anniversary celebrations in 2018.