How did a French-born pâtissier with a Michelin-gilded resumé end up alone in British Columbia’s isolated Lardeau Valley? By mixing the puzzling ingredients of life with a recipe from scratch. Words and photos by Louis Bockner.
Pascal Janin walks westward down the winding gravel road that leads out of Ferguson, British Columbia, towards Trout Lake City. At the turn of the 19th century, the street was lined with hotels like the The Lardeau, The Balmoral and The Kings. Back then, prospectors would have walked alongside him, discussing the jackpot they had just discovered or inevitably would. Like those hard-skinned pioneers of the past, Janin came to this remote corner of the world in search of enrichment, but not of the mineral kind. His big strike was found in a deeper vein, one mined from self-governance, where freedom can be gained when money takes a back seat to experience, and when isolation gradually transforms loneliness into solitude.
“I found the isolation was bigger in the cities,” says the 50-year-old originally from Tournus, France, as he walks off the road into forest that heads towards Ferguson Creek, which eventually reaches the shores of Trout Lake, 90 kilometres southeast of Revelstoke, British Columbia. “In London I saw all these couples and felt lonely. Here I don’t see anyone.” After 20 plus years in Canada, his French accent is noticeable but tempered. He is unassuming and amiable with light blue eyes, a full head of short black hair and a wispy soul patch. He is also an exceptional cook. In fact, his resumé as a chocolatier and pâtissier (the less colloquial term for pastry chef) is filled with heavyweight, European restaurants. He could work in any kitchen in the world. Yet, after decades of plying his craft in places like France, Spain and Belgium, he settled in Ferguson, population one.
It was the mid-90s when Janin descended from a spire near British Columbia’s Bugaboo Provincial Park right into the lobby of Canadian Mountain Holiday’s Bugaboo Lodge. After asking for a job, he was given the manager’s phone number on a piece of two-by-four. Three weeks later he was their new pâtissier. “It’s all the perspective you have in life,” he says extracting a colony of yellow-footed chanterelles from a patch of moss before placing them in a crumpled paper bag for tonight’s dinner. “You have to be lucky, but you have to go for it with an open mind.”
He could work in any kitchen in the world. Yet, after decades of plying his craft in places like France, Spain and Belgium, he settled in Ferguson, population one.
“EVERY TOWN OWNING its existence to the removal of ore from a mountain can never hope to have any permanency,” writes Milton Parent in The Silver Circle, a dense but informative book on the Lardeau Valley’s industry years. “Death will be slow but sure.” After a brief period of silver and gold-induced grandeur, Ferguson succumbed to this fate in the early 1900s and lay more or less dormant until 1997, when Janin bought two lots for $300 a piece. His dream was to build a bed and breakfast that would pay for itself. Nearly two decades later, during the summer months, his vision has become a reality.
It’s hard to fathom how a man with no construction experience, few tools and very little helped build the small, quirky house now tucked into a backdrop of swaying cedars. Its existence is testament to the dedicated stubbornness and remoteness-induced ingenuity Janin carries within him. “I knew nothing when I started and I learned fast because I made a lot of mistakes,” he says, placing the foraged chanterelles on the counter of his small kitchen after walking home through the silence of Ferguson. “I had a chainsaw and a broken tape measure. I didn’t have a level and I don’t like using them.”
On Sundays, during the summer, he opens his doors to the public and serves tea, coffee and pastries to those who are either in on the secret or wayward enough to have stumbled across this enigma of European elegance amid the redneck wilderness of the upper Lardeau Valley.
The building was made in two stages. The first half serves as Janin’s living quarters and includes the kitchen, a small living room, a robust Fisher wood stove, a pantry and a loft where he sleeps. The second, larger half, mimics the first in its hybrid construction of cordwood mixed with post and beam. A spiralling staircase dominates the centre of the open room, leading to two small but beautiful bedrooms reserved for guests.
The entire house and most of the furniture was built by Janin. It has a distinct feel, cultured, yet rustic and unpretentious. A halved canoe stands against one wall with shelves for books running from gunwale to gunwale. Repurposed steel brackets support thick slabs of wood that make up the stairs. Above the bar that separates the kitchen from living room are rough-hewn, slotted boards suspending wine glasses—homage to the many kitchens he has worked, learned and played in.
“Beets, mushrooms and fish. Are you happy with that?” he asks from behind the bar. “Oh, and I have a little dessert. Nothing fancy.” For him, “nothing fancy” means something different than it does to most. After two years of pâtissier apprenticeship in his hometown, followed by a stint of military service, he sent out resumés to every restaurant he could think of. He soon heard from one of the most renowned chef’s in France, Paul Bocuse, owner of L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges, a Michelin-rated three-star restaurant outside Lyon. This was his golden ticket to experiences across the globe. Even today, though, he is oblivious as to why he was chosen. “The things that fall in your lap, the coincidences,” he says, slicing fresh beets from a friend’s garden. “I don’t know if that’s God or what it is.”
After a brief period of silver and gold-induced grandeur, Ferguson succumbed to this fate in the early 1900s and lay more or less dormant until 1997, when Janin bought two lots for $300 a piece.
When watching Janin cook the influence of Bocuse is evident. An advocate for fresh, local ingredients prepared simply, Bocuse helped father the movement of “nouvelle cuisine” in the 1960s. It offered a reprieve from the heavy sauces and confining restrictions of traditional French cooking. As fresh bull trout fillets are lightly poached in butter and white wine, and beet greens and chanterelles are sautéed in more butter with salt and pepper, Janin ponders the outer world and his removed relationship with it. “I try not to spend too much time on the Internet,” he says. “I allow myself one hour in the morning and I find Facebook is mainly egocentric.” His house is completely off grid, not so much by choice but because there isn’t another option in Ferguson. He has to kick in the generator to go online and has small solar panels that power LED lights in the evening. A large pot of water warms on the stove for the used dishes steadily gaining elevation next to the sink.
“It’s not always easy to live a simple life but you learn from all the hiccups,” Janin says. “This year it was my tractor, which broke down, and no one was willing to come and fix it, so I learned.” On Sundays, during the summer, he opens his doors to the public and serves tea, coffee and pastries to those who are either in on the secret or wayward enough to have stumbled across this enigma of European elegance amid the redneck wilderness of the upper Lardeau Valley. The menu, which is always short and always different, depends greatly on what is in season.
Crown Royal is drizzled over sponge cake, whipped cream and huckleberries to complete his take on a Rum Baba; a chocolate eclair surprises you with its subtle sweetness (Janin almost exclusively uses 70 per cent cacao), and a fresh Saskatoon berry flan is garnished with mint leaves from his neglected backyard garden. He is a one-man show and service isn’t always immediate, but the beauty of the house and an extensive collection of yellow-backed National Geographics provide ample entertainment for those waiting. If it’s sunny, tables and chairs sit out on the lawn and people wander the property looking at the unfinished slate swimming pool. “It’s a sore subject,” he quips. Although he left Canadian Mountain Holidays after five years because he needed a change, he still works at mountain lodges throughout the Kootenays.
IN RECENT YEARS, Ferguson has seen a resurgence in popularity among hunters and snowmobilers who quickly erect small cabins for seasonal forays into the surrounding mountains. They are of a different breed than Janin, and while he gets along with most of his intermittent neighbours, there have been tensions over land use and late-night engine revving. Whether it’s because of this change to the landscape or simply Janin getting restless for exploration, he talks about the future in uncertain terms. “I’m almost 50 and I can see it coming to an end,” he says, reducing cherries over the stove with kirsch and sugar for the “nothing fancy” dessert. “I want to see polar bears and northern lights and the East Coast. I don’t know how to sail, but I want to sail around the world.”
He has tried caretakers in the past, but the house is so quirky they almost destroyed it one winter. And so, when he speaks of leaving there is an unmistakable finality in his voice. “I’m attached to the house and property, but it’s kind of monotonous now, even with all my little projects,” he says, plating the last meal of the evening and pouring a final glass of red wine. “It would be heartbreaking but I’m getting antsy. Time is ticking and there’s so much to do.” He pauses to take a bite and think for a moment. “I’m afraid to run out of time.”