Today’s story will whet your appetite for some tasty home-cooking! It comes from Shelley Adams, author of the highly popular, award-nominated Whitewater Cooks cookbook series, and former co-owner of the Whitewater Ski Resort in Nelson, British Columbia. You’ve already seen her recipe for Hungarian Mushroom Barley Soup featured in my Soup Column. Now you can read how the cookbooks happened, and how she ended up carving out a unique and personalized life for herself, simply by doing things she loved. Here is her story, as she was good enough to relate it to me.
Cooking as a Career Path
I was always interested in food because my mom was a really good cook and we ate really well. She always laid a beautiful setting and used good, local food.
But I was actually unsure what I was going to do with myself. I was working at a restaurant, a summer ski camp restaurant, and a woman who was working with me said, “The movie business is starting to build in Vancouver and they really need catering. I’m wondering if you would come and be my assistant because I’m going to start a company.” And I said, “Sure, I could do that – you know, until I decide what I want to do at university.”
It turned out that I loved it! It was interesting and fun. Eventually, I left her and went out on my own and ran my own movie business catering company for twelve years. It was a great kind of cooking because unlike in restaurants, the menu is up to you every day, you make whatever you want to make. It was a great way to learn to cook.
Then I decided to go to a cooking school in Paris, the École de Cuisine la Varenne. So after I had almost been a self-taught chef, I went and became a chef, went to school, got a diploma. The experience in Paris was fantastic, although I think I learned a lot of my craft on my own, just from reading and loving to cook and running my catering company.
So that’s how I got into cooking, just kind of by fluke. And when I went to the cooking school, I met all sorts of people from all over the world who were chefs and caterers, and I knew that was definitely how I wanted to make my living.
The Cookbook Story
After I married my husband, we continued to live in Vancouver. Mike worked in the ski business and I kept working as a movie and film caterer. So he was working away and I was catering away, and then one day he got offered a job in Nelson as manager at the Whitewater Ski Resort. So he moved to Nelson, and I soon followed him, giving up my movie business catering company. In Nelson, I started another business called Pink Peppercorn, a catering company for weddings and parties and Christmas events.
Within a year, however, the ski resort was in danger of going bankrupt, of just being shut down, and there would be no more skiing for the Nelsonites. So we got together with a group of ten other local businessmen and we put in an offer and bought the ski area, the group of us. It was risky, we were taking a big, huge gamble, buying into a ski area that depended on things like snow and tourists and maintenance and staffing. It was a great big unknown. But we bit the bullet and decided to buy into it, and therefore Mike was able to continue on as manager.
And because my background was in food, I took over the little cafe at the resort, which at that time was a little, basic, fries-and-hot-dog-and-hamburger cafe. I just knew there was no way I could go from my background in catering to being satisfied with running a basic cafeteria. So I turned it into the Fresh Tracks Cafe, a trendy little upscale cafeteria or cafe similar to what you would find anywhere in a big city, with interesting food and everything homemade – all of the soup stocks, even the burger patties and the baking. Everything was made totally from scratch.
After a while, we built a reputation, and people started to come to Nelson not only for the skiing, but also almost as much for the food – it seemed like they fell in love with the food. And I began to have some great interviews – I had one with Sunset Magazine and the New York Times, and a huge one with More Magazine. It just grew from there.
And then customers and friends started begging for the recipes. They would say, “Can you give me the recipe for this or that”, and at first I was writing out the recipes by hand and giving them out. But I was doing this so often, I finally just decided, with my friend, Lori McGuinnes – it was actually her prompting – to put them into a book. We had kids the same age, and we were standing outside the school one day and she said “Shelley, you have got to get the recipes from Whitewater and put them together in a book because everybody is wanting them all the time.” She said “I’ll help type, I’ll do anything it takes to get this project going.”
So I went through the task of figuring out how to write a cookbook.
I started out by just taking a recipe I loved from Whitewater and turning it into a recipe to serve eight instead of 200. Then I would test it and test it, and then I gave the recipe to Lori, and she would type it out and start the file, and that’s how the first book – Whitewater Cooks: Pure, Simple and Real Creations from the Fresh Tracks Cafe – got started.
Then I went out and found a designer – actually, I went through a few different designers – to help turn my recipes and photos into the text you need to send to the printer. I found an excellent girl, she was freshly out of graphic design school, only 23 years old, and so talented and sharp. Her name is Minn Benedict. I went to her with my huge box of files and I said, “Here’s my work, what do you think?” Together we came up with a look that we really liked, and from there we just worked together, on each recipe. It takes a long time. You have to make sure each recipe fits the page, everything looks the same, decide how the picture layout will be, how many pages per book, etc.
The photographer, David Gluns, had never done food before either – he was a sports photographer – so for him the food part was really fun and challenging. He would come over and I would take food out of the oven, and I would have all the different setups lined up – all the different plates, lighting, tables, napkins – and he would take probably 100 photos of each dish. Then we would go through the hundred photos and pick one. Our criterion was always, “OK, which picture makes you want to eat that the most?”
It took a year, but we did it, we put it together and got it published. Then all the books arrived, and I was pretty nervous because I had no idea if ten were going to sell, or 100 or zero. I think we had 5000 books in the first printing, which seemed outrageous. But it arrived in December 2006, and they all sold, I think within a couple of months or maybe six months. It was obvious that people were loving the recipes. So I just kept printing them.
And then about a year later, I would be walking down the street in Nelson or wherever, and people would tell me, “Time for another cookbook!” So I made another one – Whitewater Cooks at Home. And I thought that was it, two was it. It’s a lot of work. It definitely takes a full year of testing and developing the recipes, doing the photographs and everything.
But the second one was so popular, that last year, I made a third – Whitewater Cooks with Friends.
The Ski Business Story
When we bought Whitewater, were very young and we couldn’t even borrow any money from the bank, so we had to find private funds. Even my father thought it was nuts – we asked him if he would co-signed the loan and he said, “No way! I’m not helping you with a ski area. Do you know what a risky business that is?”
But my husband is a very good businessman. He had a degree in business from Carleton and also took the ski area management program at Selkirk College. We also had the support and encouragement of a friend of ours, Tex Mowatt, who actually discovered Whitewater, is a very good businessman and used to be the mayor of Nelson. He really convinced us that this would be a good move for us. So although we were nervous because we had no idea what would happen – and we did have some tough times – we decided to rely on Tex’s advice and my husband’s knowledge of money and business and ski areas, and just go for it. But it was scary, because I think I was only 27, and he was 32. It was before we even had our kids.
The next big decision of our lives came after seven years of owning the ski area with ten people, when my husband and I decided we wanted to own it on our own. It was just becoming complicated – every time we wanted to change something, it meant we had to get together with ten other guys to make a decision. So we took another big, giant gamble in our lives, again on Tex’s advice.
He said “Mike, Shelley, I think it’s time that you guys make an offer to the other owners that they can’t refuse.” And he was really right, that was the way to do it. We made an offer to each of the ten guys to buy them out. And they all said yes. Each of them got quite a nice little chunk of money, because we wanted to make sure that they were not just selling because we want them out, but because the offer was fair.
Then we took over, just Mike and I, and it was just the two of us to run it and talk about it. And for about the last 12 years, it was the only Ma-and-Pa owned ski area in North America. He did everything with the lifts and in the downstairs, the accounting and everything, and I ran the upstairs, bar, cafeteria, retail-type stuff. And we got excellent managers underneath us. We sort of divided up the business that way, went to work every day, ran our little business, and the kids were up there all the time.
Then, about three years ago – we weren’t actually planning to retire yet, we were going to work until we were about 55 and 60 – but some really great guys from Calgary came along, three guys that loved skiing, and had families and loved Whitewater. They’d been going there for years as customers, and they said, “We really want to own this place.” They made us an offer, and after not much negotiating, we said yes.
We love these guys that took over, they’re the best thing for Whitewater and the locals love them. They put in a new lift and they kept all the managers that worked for us, and they’re totally happy with them. So that was really good news.
And Mike and I have become really good friends with one of the couples. We went to Italy with them in the spring, and we just came home from Banff where we went hiking together and went in a bike race with them. They are great people and we are thrilled that they are the ones who took over our business.
At Whitewater, the kids would come up skiing on the weekends, and it was fine. The only hard part was that we always had to work Christmas, spring break and weekends throughout winter, so our kids’ Christmas was that Mom and Dad go to work in the ski area. Which was fine, we just didn’t get to go on any holidays like regular families or take weekends off.
But we had a little trailer up there that was really cozy and cute. They would come up and go skiing, and when they got tired of skiing they would go hang out in the trailer with their friends and watch TV or read or eat fries or get out of their ski boots and just kind of wait until we were finished work. It was probably a bit frantic for them at times, especially at Christmas because we were pretty busy and preoccupied.
But the great thing was that I never worked a single summer in their whole lives. So from the time they were babies to teenagers, summers were always just me and the kids, and Mike could take most of the summer off. So that was a real bonus.
I’m sure when they look back on some of the winters, they probably think, “Wow! My parents were frantically busy!” But because we were at a ski resort, they skied – especially my son, he would just come up and ski all day anyway. My daughter didn’t love skiing as much but she stayed home and she probably liked that too, to have the weekend with us gone and her girlfriends there. That was just our lifestyle.
When it came time for us to sell and we had an offer, we asked both of them if they want to take over, and they said, “No way would we want to work as hard as you guys!”
My son is 21, he’s in physics at McGill, so he going to be a physicist. And our daughter is 22, she’s at UBC, taking political science and thinking possibly to become a lawyer. Totally opposite to what their parents did. You never know what your kids are going to turn out like. But they didn’t want to be self-employed ski area managers like us.
Both of my children have all three of my cookbooks in their kitchens in their houses, and that’s the food they like all the time. My son will make dinner for all the guys in his big, goofy house of guys, and my daughter will make delicious healthy things, so for them it’s a gift. They’re used to watching the whole process, and they both ended up being very good cooks. And they like having a collection of their mother’s recipes.
If it hadn’t been for Whitewater, there would never have been a cookbook. And if there hadn’t been the first cookbook, there would never have been the second, or the third. And the exciting news for the third is that I’m actually just in the midst of booking a plane ticket, because the third one has been voted in the top three books in Canada in the Taste Canada Culinary Writing Awards in November. I’m super excited!
I had entered the first two cookbooks and they didn’t even make the top ten. I entered the third one in October when it came out, and on January 1, I found out it was in the top 10. Then, on August 1 when they announced the top three, I went onto their website and there was my little name! I was thrilled, I could hardly believe it. So I and my husband and the kids and lots of girlfriends and all the people who helped work on the book, we’re all going to the big gala awards on November 5 in Toronto. I’ll find out between 6:30 and 7:30 that evening who is the winner.
It’s pretty exciting because it’s almost like the little cookbook that could. The whole thing was totally not preplanned, absolutely not. It went from, “Oh, let’s put some recipes together,” to being one of the top three in Canada. Except I kind of almost hope I don’t win because I’m not a very good speech writer! I’ll have to get some help from somebody.
Mostly, though, the part that I love is knowing that, now that there are probably a hundred thousand of my books out there, there are a lot of people making those recipes that I love too. Those are my favorite recipes that I put together in the books, and it’s fun to know that they’re all out there having happy, yummy, successful lives in all sorts of situations from weddings to potlucks.
I get emails all the time saying things like, “Hi Shelley, I’m having a shower for my daughter and we’re making everything from the Whitewater cookbooks.” Or I get emails from the nutrition department of the Lions Gate Hospital saying, “Hi Shelley, just wanted to let you know that we recommend your books for healthy eating to people who come to us for nutritional advice”.
Here’s a funny story about my Hungarian Mushroom Barley Soup. Last week we were mountain biking on Vancouver Island. We were up at the top of this trail, just sitting at the top – there’s this bench where you can rest before you ride down – and this woman came out of the bushes with this huge, beautiful basket of mushrooms she had picked. I looked at her – she wasn’t a cyclist, she was just his gal coming out of the bushes with a big basket of mushrooms – and I said, “What beautiful mushrooms. What are you going to do with them?”
She said, “I’m going to make this really good Hungarian mushroom soup.”
I asked her, “Does it have sherry and sour cream and paprika and fresh dill and lemon and barley?”
And she said, “Yes, it does. It’s a recipe from the Whitewater cookbook.”
It’s a really funny story to me because we really were out in the middle of nowhere. And here’s this gal, just popping out of the bushes, and that was her intention in picking those mushrooms, to make that soup out of my cookbook!
Life After Whitewater Resort
I’m fairly busy with the world of bike riding now, and we have a fairly active outdoor life. My husband races a lot in the Masters cycling races, but we also have been going in all the Gran Fondo series races, in Kelowna and Whistler and Penticton and such. And last year we did a five-day bicycle tour in Italy. We also go to Europe in the spring now that we’re retired, to train, train, train, and then we come home and go in as many races as we can. We also to do more hiking. We’re pretty active now. It’s marvelous to have the time. And I have the kids that I go and visit.
My cooking now is very simple and quick. I usually know in the morning what we’re going to have for dinner and I have it marinating. I’d say we eat at home almost every night, especially in the summertime when the kids are home and I want them home for dinner. I announce in the morning what we’re eating that night and they say, “OK, see you at six.” So every night at six our kids are home at the dinner table, which I love. I still really like food and I still put effort into having a good dinner every day.
And actually this year we had a lot of work done on our house so we were making lunch for painters, carpenters, etc. We had a long table outside with an umbrella and we’d all sit down in our working gear and eat a very healthy, lovely lunch. It was very fun, actually. I loved feeding them lunch.
I’m planning a fourth book, starting in January. I think it’s going to be called Whitewater Cooks for Life. It’s going to be my healthiest one yet, lots of gluten-free, wheat-free, and vegan recipes. It will still be based on using fresh and healthy foods, but a little more geared towards people who are wheat-free, because that’s the way we eat now. We are doing cooking all the time now that doesn’t involve wheat and it’s actually pretty easy. So there will be one more.
And it’s the same team exactly, the same designer, same photographer, and my friend and assistant Marianne Abraham. So we’ll all be back together working on this in January. I think it should be coming out in November.
But I’ve also started something else right now that I’m excited about. I’m going to bottle some of the sauces and dressings in my books, like the Glory Bowl, which was really popular. We’ll be working on that in the next couple of months, so soon it will be on the shelves and people will be able to go out and buy their favourite sauces from my books without having to make them.
Personal Qualities That Contribute to Success
I’m super hard-working and energetic. With employees, I’m very caring and open and honest, and I let people have lots of freedom at the same time. I think I’m pretty fun and creative – I think fun really works in a kitchen because kitchen work is really hard. And I think people liked the fact that I cared so much that the food was delicious. If the staff can see that the owner really cares, then they’re going to follow in those footsteps and do the same thing.
I don’t know if it was our intention to create such a unique life for ourselves, but it sure worked out, for both Mike and I. You know, he’s a business degree guy, he could have been an accountant in a brown suit. Instead he was a ski area manager in a really nice ski suit, skiing around. We’ve had a very nice life of work and raising our kids in this little town of Nelson. Neither of us would have ever guessed that we would end up in a small town like this but now we’re hooked, we love it here, we have lots of friends and we live right on the lake in a cute little house and that’s where we plan to live forever.
Now that we’re retired, we look back and we think, “We had a really good job. That was a nice way to spend 30 years of our working life.” It really was. I’m really fortunate that my life turned out to be that way, that all those working years and kid-raising years were spent doing hard work but in an environment that I love. My job was two things I love, cooking and skiing. I don’t know how often that happens to people.
Hi Shelley – such an interesting blog and what a lovely life you have carved out – I wish Colin was around still to read it – he used to talk about you a lot at one time. I must try and find one of your books.