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Narratives  a gastronomic anthology

Dale MacKay

2014 was a great year of discovering the lesser known (to me) areas of Canada, one of which was Saskatoon, SK.

There were a few reasons, most all of them gustatory, including visiting Ayden Kitchen & Bar which had been generating plenty of buzz across the coasts.

Although I might have come to meet, and see chef Dale MacKay's world, what I found was an incredibly rich, budding culinary scene. One that I was equally surprised and delighted in.

Because of the strong impression the city, I chose to feature MacKay inaugural piece in Best Health magazine's new Best Chef column. From high school drop to becoming Canada’s first Top Chef, it was intersting to learn why the internationally trained chef returned to Saskatoon (and how he's shaken up the food scene).

In fact, Mackay's turning point was Boiling Point, a documentary about the opening of Gordon Ramsey’s London flagship restaurant and pursuit of three Michelin star status. Three weeks later, the 20-year-old high school dropout was cooking in Ramsey’s kitchen, dedicating the next six years of his life to perfecting his craft. MacKay’s hard work and sacrifice resulted in his quick rise through the ranks of a cut-throat kitchen, eventually helping to open the celebrity chef’s Tokyo and New York outlets. But home and his young son beckoned, and MacKay returned to Canadian soil, where he helmed the stoves of Vancouver’s celebrated Lumière for Rob Feenie, and later, Daniel Boulud at until it shuttered in 2011. With Top Chef Canada, MacKay – already a reputed force in culinary circles – became a household name. His homecoming with Ayden has been met with great enthusiasm, garnering accolades including one of the nation’s best new restaurants. The space is relaxed and inviting; here MacKay steps away from high level food and serves cuisine that’s not fussy, but refined rustic with globally-inspired flavours, including crisped skin and juicy Thai wings (a crowd favourite), and handmade papparedelle tossed with rich elk ragu. Along with some of his best friends, including co-chef and butcher Nathan Guggenheimer, MacKay’s finally found balance between a healthy family life and creating an experience that is accessible to everyone who likes to eat.

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Published: January/February 2015

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Dale MacKay: Uncensored & Uncut

On taking over at Lumiere when Rob Feenie left:

DALE MACKAY: Quitting is not an option when you’re in this profession. Vancouver was a great experience and I had a lot of creative great years. I got to run, in my opinion, the best restaurant in the country for a number of years, and we were pushing the boundaries. I got to be executive chef for Daniel Boulud in New York. I’ve had a very blessed career in many ways,

On Top Chef:

DM: For me it comes back to the competitiveness. I love Top Chef when I lived in the States, me and my ex-girlfriend used to watch it religiously. To me it was a very legitimate cooking show and I knew some of the people on the show and they’re all really good chefs. And when it came, I had to do and to be honest, how often is it that you can do national television and give everyone a run? You know what I mean? (Chuckles) Basically it sounds rude, but it was a chance to go on national television and show how good you are and stand on your own two feet and let everyone watch. So for me, it was a perfect opportunity to do what I do and again I think all my training led up to it. It was nice because after Top Chef I calmed down a lot, which was good.

RS: Do you think that this could have been possible – because you do come with a list of accomplishments and accolades prior to Top Chef – without Top Chef?

DM: Yeah, I do. Again, in my opinion, I was already quite well known in the chef community, and I would have made my mark either way. That’s just the way I am and that’s what I believe whether people think that’s the truth or not.

It definitely, there’s no 100% around it, made me a household name. There’s a difference between people who know restaurants and are into food and people who live in suburbia who are really into watching the Food Network, or kids who watch it with their parents – you can’t buy that. You can have a million dollars and not be able to buy that publicity.

I’m a huge reality tv watcher – like So You Think You Can Dance – where you want someone to go and put it all out there. People feel like they get to know you because they see you under pressure, they see you in a touch situation, and you can’t really buy that.

On returning to Saskatoon:

DM: Coming home to Saskatoon really made a big difference because not only are people proud that one of their own had gone to be successful, but to promote their city, and to be able to come back and give them something they don’t already have. So 100% it made it 1000-times easier, I’m sure but I’m also 100% sure it’s possible with or without the show.

We’ve been lucky that people have taken an interest in what we’re doing. Saskatoon, Saskatchewan and Canada’s been super supportive in what we’re doing and interested in talking about it.

I couldn’t be happier to be home, to be honest about it. I love Saskatoon (chuckles). I do travel a lot anyway, but I love Saskatoon. I love being here; I’m happy I came here. All the people who have moved with me are all happy to be here. It’s a thing that you’re always worried about. I didn’t know if they would settle in the city, but they all have. (“Blessed to have top notch talent join, believe and be satisfied to be here.”) I wouldn’t have any of this without them, there’s no way. There’s only so much myself. You have to be able to let them have their own credibility and grow as well. We all worked together: Jesse [Zuber], has worked with me almost 6 year, since he was 18 and I trained him from the start to where he is now. He’s and extremely good chef for his age. And [Christopher] Cho , I remember opening up the door for Cho in Vancouver, and that was 7 years ago. I’ve known Nathan since he was 19, so we’ve known each other for 12-13 years. I’m extremely lucky and we’re all very lucky that we’ve found each other.

MacKay (center) at Ayden's kitchen pass with Zuber (left) and Guggenheimer (right)

MacKay (center) at Ayden's kitchen pass with Zuber (left) and Guggenheimer (right)

RS: What does being in Saskatoon mean for you?

DM: Saskatoon had been on my mind for quite a while. I was coming out here even before 3 years ago. I didn’t know if it meant shutting down everything and moving here the whole time or just having something here. But I think as you get older – or at least when I got older, and living in Tokyo, London, Rome, and New York – the bigger centers and stuff, this just seemed more and more appealing to me. I don’t really care about going out that much; I don’t really need the night life, I don’t need the subway, I don’t need to deal with any of that stuff, I’m a pretty simple blue collared kind of guy. Even though I might be more popular being on television and stuff, I still like watching tv and going to bed. [RS: Just have a good work-life balance…] Yeah, yeah. And for me, if I can run a beautiful restaurant in a city that needs it, and my home town, to me that’s perfect. And to have my best friends to come here and do it with me, even better.

Like I was saying earlier, I feel like I’ve sacrificed more than most in the chef community. (And Nathan’s done the exact same thing in his career.) You do give up a lot with your family over the years. I think there was a good 8-year period where I really wasn’t around for anything. It kind of dawned on me when I hadn’t met my first niece and she was two-and-a-half, or something like that. And me and my brothers are extremely close, so to not see my niece for two-and-a-half years kind of gives you a wake-up call in life. You’re not a very good uncle.

So I just kind of looked at what’s important and being a good father, a good brother, being a good son is probably more important than being a chef. So, I reevaluated everything: I packed away everything and moved from Vancouver; moved my son, moved my life here, and that’s where we are.

RS: What’s surprised you most since coming home to Saskatoon?

DM: There’s a shift, a big shift: I think the old ways of Saskatchewan are going away, and now the younger… Saskatoon’s been always kind of hip, I think, compared to the other parts of Saskatchewan. I think money and having a boom helps any city, and I think my generation is making a good living. And when you think about it, the shift in society: when I grew up here, there was one person working in the family, versus now where both parties are working which means there’s generally a little more money. It’s a small big city now, and at the same time everyone’s still got the same attitude: people are making more money but their attitude isn’t changing, they maybe just have nicer things.

On Ayden Kitchen & Bar:

RS: How did you decide on the type of food served at Ayden (which is very different then the type of cuisine you served in the restaurants you trained in)?

DM: When I was doing fine dining – my whole career was doing fine dining. At Lumière, for example, I used to terrorize Jesse, in a real way, for years. Just downright mean. You should sit down with Jesse. Jesse can tell you some really bad stories. Yeah, yeah. [Chuckles] But it was the point of getting what you needed out of people and the people who are willing to deal with it become head chefs when they’re 24 or 25 (Jesse’s just turned 26, and he’s extremely talented). You see that kind of growth from people but you can’t be like that forever. It’s extremely exhausting and it’s not really healthy. I think once you get to a level, you know, “yeah, I’m good enough not to have to do that.” I’m happier coming in and doing the stuff we’re doing now… it’s a difference of either proving to your guest with a fine dining meal so that they’ll say, “yes, he’s that good or yes, this restaurant is that good” versus people coming in here and going “oh shit, this makes me happy” or “holy shit, this is an amazing burger/great fried chicken or this is an amazing tuna dish.” So you get to connect with people a lot more, or connect with them all the time. [RS: So not just on special occasions or once a year.] Yeah, you get to see people all the time, and on the streets, talking about the burger. It’s a lot more personal, I think. And at the end of the day, we have to make a living too, and high end dining is not a good business model. To be able to do it, you need to charge two hundred bucks a person, you know? You need a ton of staff. This makes me happier and I like the business side of it too.

RS: Is it also because you’ve already shown that you can do high level cooking so it’s not necessary to pursue it to prove that you can do it?

DM: Yeah, when you take chefs that have done high level food, and when you pull back a little to do something a little more casual, I think you get a better result because you’ve got a better understanding of the technique, flavour, and a wider range of understanding of food. I think we’ve done a good job of having a bit of refinement in our food, even in the desserts or the starters – the chicken wings, the popcorn prawns, and those things that make people feel comfortable, but then they’ll try something new or a little different. We’re not trying to please everyone; everything, I think, fits in really well, so it works out.

RS: How would you define Ayden’s concept?

DM: Refined rustic, if that makes any sense. I use a lot of Asian ingredients. A lot. It’s just something I’ve always done, especially in fine dining. I love Thai. I love Vietnamese. I lived in Japan for a couple years. So having those flavours is really important. That’s why I say I was doing moderate French when I was doing fine dining, because you’re using flavours and spices, but you’re using French techniques. I guess that’s what we’re doing, but we’ve got everything from Southern to Thai, to everything. I think it all fits together. I don’t think you ever really sit there and go, I don’t really think this goes together on the menu. It always does.

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For iPad subscribers there was a condensed version of the very frank warning MacKay gave below to those attracted to cooking for possibly the wrong reason (see Video 1). This was the unabridged answer.

RS: What's your best advice for those interested in cooking as a profession?

DM: Cooking isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, unless you love it. There’s nothing glamorous about it. You don’t get the glamour until many years later, plus even if people think that I get the glamour, I still work 14-hours a day. I’m still here at seven in the morning. I still sleep on most of my days off because I’m fuckin’ tired.

One in very few will be the ones on the Food Network, but most of those aren’t real chefs anyway.

I would say, don’t go to culinary school. Get a job. Find out how shitty it is. If you still think it’s awesome, or shitty, then decide. If you are going to do it, be real about it. You have one life. If you’re going to be a painter, or musician, or anything else, don’t expect to get paid for it. Don’t get into this for money. A musician doesn’t expect to be booking massive stadiums, getting paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for concerts; they expect to strum the same tune a hundred thousand times, maybe on a fuckin’ street corner just like you’re going to wash dishes, peel potatoes, just like you’re going to get yelled at for years and years. I made absolutely no money for the first six-seven years of my career and that was a short time to not make very good money.

It has to be about the food. It has to be about your prep list, thinking about what you want to get done, thinking about how bad you want to beat the guy that stands beside you and what he’s doing, and how bad you want that sous chef job. If any of that stuff doesn’t mean anything to you, then don’t cook. Forget it.

RS: So if your son came to you and expressed interest in cooking…?

DM: He doesn’t want to do it, but if he did, I’d tell him the same thing. I’m very forward about this sort of stuff. This isn’t a joke and we don’t take this as a joke. We joke around, but we take this extremely seriously. It's big boy, big girl stuff. This isn’t “come in and play with sugar,” and “we’re so passionate,” it’s all bullshit. It’s about dedicating your life to something.

Hopefully I turn a lot of the losers off. [Laughing]

You know, you always get the people coming in and going “I’m so passionate, and so on and so on. Everyone says I should open up a restaurant, blah, blah, blah.” I’m like, yeah, that’s great but you know, it’s all bullshit until you can show me that you are willing to dedicate stuff. Even recently, I’ve had a cook who came out culinary school and she was doing well, but she would need Fridays and Saturdays off because she wants to go to a baby shower, or she wants to go do this, but then she goes “maybe I want to go do catering.” And after a while you go “I don’t give a fuck. Go and do it, because you’re wasting my time, you know? I don’t have time for your bullshit. I’m giving you an opportunity to learn from some of the best chefs in the country here, from Nathan and Jesse, from me, and I’m paying you way more than you’re worth, but yet you feel like you can still walk up to me and ask for two days… you can’t walk up to someone in an office and ask your CEO “hey, can I have Thursday and Friday off because I want to go do something?” I don’t give a shit, do you know what I mean? What the fuck makes you think I can do that for you?

So people are under these weird fantasies. The sense of entitlement that this generation is bizarre to me: it’s like we’re raising a pack of losers.

RS: I think on top of that, given your “all in” profession, that standard where you know you have to give your time and dedicate your life to things that it’s…

It’s disheartening. We don’t treat any of our staff how we were treated, which is unfortunate for them in some way, but at the same time [chuckles] it’s almost cheating them in a way, because they won’t be as solid as we are. They won’t be put in the grinder; they won’t be going home crying very often, you know? I used to go home and cry all the time. As a grown adult, crying there at the end of my bed without my family. That shit makes you better, it’s uncomfortable.

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