Having just recently returned to Washington, moving to Oakville from Alaska — where he was a chef at several remote, exclusive lodges for eight years — chef Jim Wheeler is now at the helm of the kitchen at McFiler’s Chehalis Theater.
“It was a pretty amazing experience. You had to fly in via helicopter or plane only there in the Denali wilderness,” Wheeler said of his time in Alaska. “Winters are long and cold though. It was negative 20 degrees when I left, so I’m pretty happy to be home and close to my family and friends.”
Originally from Morton, Wheeler, a U.S. Navy veteran, likes to experiment in the kitchen and makes almost everything from scratch. He plans on offering a lot of new specials, focusing on using as many locally-sourced ingredients as possible.
“We’re dealing with quite a few local farms right now,” Wheeler said.
When The Chronicle visited McFiler’s on Thursday, Wheeler was sampling fish tacos, an heirloom tomato and watermelon salad and a vegan nigiri made from seasoned black rice and marinated watermelon.
His brother co-owns a farm in Oakville where Wheeler picks many of the ingredients he uses in his dishes.
“We’ve also got chickens for eggs and berry trees, so I’ll be harvesting a lot of that stuff for the plates,” Wheeler said. “Each plate will have at least one item on the plate from the region.”
While meat will still be on the menu, one particular thing he wants to experiment with is more vegan dishes, like the nigiri he sampled Thursday.
“I’m trying to do vegan dishes that aren’t, you know, a salad. But I want the vegan food to be good enough for someone who eats meat,” Wheeler said. “That’s why we’re sampling the nigiri tonight, that way maybe customers will step out of their comfort zone and order something they don’t usually order.”
Not every dish he creates is vegan, though, such as the house-made nettle pappardelle special this week, which features rustic pasta noodles made from fresh nettles, semolina and eggs in alfredo sauce with grilled farmers market wine cap mushrooms. A crawdad boil consisting of crawdad tails, shrimp, scallops, cod, potatoes and corn in a zesty cajun broth was also on Thursday night’s menu.
McFiler’s Chehalis Theater owner Tim Filer is a long-time friend of Wheeler’s and worked with him before he went to Alaska.
“We’ve worked together at The Hub back in the day, and been friends for years and years and I’ve been trying to talk him into coming home and cooking for me for a while now,” Filer said.
Wheeler has now been working at McFiler’s Chehalis Theater for almost three weeks. Filer said customer reviews have been nothing but positive.
Filer is excited to see how Wheeler’s menu experimentation plays out.
“We do have a pretty good-sized vegan and vegetarian population around here but not enough to sustain a huge vegetarian side of a menu,” Filer said. “But if you can convince some of the omnivore customers to partake in it, it makes having that vegan menu a lot more sustainable.”
The kitchen at McFiler’s is open for dinner service Thursday through Saturday from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. McFiler’s Chehalis Theater is located 558 N. Market Blvd. in downtown Chehalis. The phone number is 360-996-4362.
Learn more by following the business on Facebook or visiting mcfilerschehalistheater.com.