If the walls of Voyageur Bistro could talk, they would tell tales harkening back to Canada’s colonial fur trade and countless odysseys from residents, visitors, staff and the owner, Kevin Tessier.
After over 12 successful years owning the Voyageur Bistro, Tessier closed the doors of his French-Canadian, fur-trader-themed restaurant Aug. 15. The Bistro’s journey was long and winding, borne out of Tessier’s experience as a canoe tour-guide, restaurant industry professional and his education in adventure studies at Thompson Rivers University.
Tessier began leading canoe tours out of McGillivray Lake in 1999, where he offered catered meals styled after French-Canadian voyageurs, from Elk Wellington to meat pies.
Comments about the high-quality fare from busloads of people embarking on canoe tours and the opportunity to lease a restaurant space in Sun Peaks fed his dream for Voyageur Bistro.
“As much as possible, we would use ingredients that the Voyagers had available to them just to make it an authentic experience,” Tessier told SPIN. “It turned out to be wildly popular.”
Running a business outside of ski season in Sun Peaks requires a connection to available guests, which Tessier already had through canoe tours in the summer.
“We had contracts that would eat here, and at the same time, we would have things going on McGillivray Lake, so some weekends pre-COVID, we were serving like 500 guests in two days.”
The canoe tour and fur-trading theme worked their way into the brick-and-mortar restaurant.
Growing up in Ontario, his family inspired his love of antiques like the items that adorned the walls of the bistro, but Tessier’s time working on the river led to his interest in fur-trade history. Tessier once worked on the upper Fraser River by Mount Robson, which led to time spent learning fur-trading history.
“The Fraser River is the longest undammed river in North America,” Tessier explained. It’s [around] 1400 kilometres, and I started reading about these guys, Simon Fraser, Alexander McKenzie, David Thompson…John Tod, Mcgillivray.”
“To read about the exploits of these people who paddled 4000 kilometres upstream, against the current, with three tons of trade goods at 55 strokes a minute, 10 to 12 hours a day – it’s just mind-boggling… how many calories would you burn? So that was always a part of the flair and the story of the restaurant.”
The calories people burn skiing and boarding in Sun Peaks fit well into his dream, inspiring his hearty meals, which guests enjoyed after long days spent in the cold on the slopes.
Inside Voyageur Bistro, copious pieces of history collected by Tessier and guests lined the walls. Moose antlers, a mock Stanley Cup, a chainsaw collection, a birch wood canoe from 1937 and a bear trap all offer stories on the history of the Bistro and voyageurs.
Tessier found the aged birch bark canoe in an unlikely place – Kijiji.
“That was like winning the lottery, right? Truth be told, it belongs in a museum and had I carried on with the restaurant, I think that’s where it would have wound up,” Tessier said. “Now there’s a bit of a financial crunch. I’m going to see who wants to buy [the canoe] for a significant sum of money.”
Tessier recalled how the bear trap was frequently used in a seemingly high-stakes game for a shot of liquor on the house.
The trap sat open on the bar at one time, appearing ready to clamp shut should it be triggered. Tessier would place a shot in the middle for any brave souls who could grab the freebie and still keep a limb.
“They’d look at it and go, ‘well, I can get a free shot, but I might lose my hand. But still, it’s a free shot.’ And they go for it,” Tessier said with a smile.
“It was a big risk, and people would do it successfully. Everyone would cheer, and nobody knew that it was welded open. So we play that trick on pretty much everybody.”
While many items will be kept by Tessier – or returned to the people who gave them to the restaurant – some are available for sale.
An auctioneer will sell items used for the restaurant’s operation and some memorabilia will be available for free, by donation or for sale on Aug. 26 to 27 between 12 p.m. and 5 p.m. at Voyageur Bistro.
While the COVID-19 pandemic led to difficulties for Tessier, as did the early passing of the restaurant’s head chef, Annie Campbell, in 2019, Tessier said the new owners of his building didn’t renew his lease.
“We didn’t go under necessarily. Truth be told, yes – for every business, especially restaurants, it’s been very difficult in the last four or five years, but our lease didn’t get renewed.”
He hopes another restaurant featuring Canadian cuisine will return to Sun Peaks, with Indigenous-inspired restaurants like Kekuli Cafe thriving in Interior B.C.
“If anyone has half a brain, they’ll come up here and use these concepts,” Tessier said. “There’s a lot of restaurants that are moving in this direction. It’s a huge part of tourism, and it’s a huge thrust whether it’s in our local industry or region.”
The final trip for guests and Tessier came on Aug. 14, and the night included live music by Andrew Christopher, a long-time performer who graced the halls of the Bistro over its 12 years in operation.
Tessier said the evening was “monumental, with a lot of love.”
For Tessier, opening the restaurant involved a rollercoaster of emotions, with his excitement driving him to work tirelessly to start serving customers. Its closure has caused the opposite reaction.
“It’s been incredibly difficult to get motivated…I’ve never been wracked with such anxiety to the point where I’m frozen,” he said. “The key thing is starting – once you get started, keep going. There are so many cliches – Rome wasn’t built in a day. It wasn’t destroyed in a day either.”
While he isn’t sure exactly what’s next for him, whether it’s a return to the river for tour guiding or writing a book about the restaurant industry, he’s looking forward to not being responsible for ensuring a business’s survival and taking time for himself in the shoulder season.
He’s also hoping to frequently visit the bench outside what was once his business, where a memorial plaque honouring his former chef sits and his dog, Rio, would spend her days.
“That’s definitely her domain, and I’ll try and maintain that ritual. I haven’t spent a lot of time sitting down there. But I have taken a few moments, especially lately. And that’ll be a place for me to go to find sanctity.”
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