Dale MacKay continues to build upon one of the most fascinating and heart-warming stories in Canada.
A supremely talented chef, MacKay is also a driven entrepreneur and passionate advocate for his hometown. He brought attention to Saskatoon in 2014 when he returned home to launch Ayden Kitchen and Bar, a restaurant named after his son. MacKay had gained national acclaim when he won the first Top Chef Canada competition in 2011.
The reality TV fame earned on the Food Network Canada program propelled interest in MacKay and his cuisine. The move from Vancouver to Saskatoon was partly economic (real estate costs are much lower in the prairie province), partly sentimental (MacKay maintained an affinity for his hometown even though he's cooked in culinary capitals around the world) and partly pioneering spirit (the chance to take Saskatoon's food scene from one that's largely unknown to a recognized culinary centre was enticing).
MacKay is not only an incredibly successful restaurateur, he's also emerged as a culinary tourism champion. Across the country, chefs have developed programs meant to attract tourists to lesser-known destinations. In Nova Scotia, Michael Howell has turned his food and film festival, Devour!, into a massive event that draws so many attendees the population of tiny Wolfville doubles for one weekend each fall. In Winnipeg, Mandel Hitzer of deer + almond has added culinary ingenuity to the Warming Huts arts festival with his pop-up restaurant on the frozen riverbanks each winter.
MacKay's vision is embodied in Prairie Feast, an annual celebration of Saskatchewan food and culture that wrapped up its second edition last weekend. This year, chefs from around Canada came and cooked sensational food on the street, beneath tents and amid the hot sun and famous big, blue skies of the middle of the country. The event took over a block of 3rd Avenue, one of the city's main downtown streets.
"It's always nervewracking putting on these kinds of events. You never know if people will come and party and create the ambience you're looking for or if they'll just come for the food and then leave," MacKay says.
They stayed. Even after the food was gone, the cocktails, music and street performers kept many attendees on 3rd Avenue. By late in the evening, the visiting chefs were also among the party-goers.
Todd Perrin (Mallard Cottage) arrived from Newfoundland, Derrek Daman (La Maison Publique) journeyed from Montreal, Jason Bangerter (Langdon Hall) made his first trip to Saskatoon from Cambridge, Ontario, and Calgarians Connie DeSousa and John Jackson (CHARCUT, Charbar) and Justin Leboe (Model Milk, Pigeonhole) took the comparatively short trip from Alberta.
"It's bringing attention to what's happening in the city and helping to put this part of the country on the map," says Trevor Bird, the executive chef from Fable in Vancouver who participated in Prairie Feast for the second year in a row. "More people need to be aware of what's out here."
It was a gathering of culinary talent you would expect in Toronto, not Saskatchewan. MacKay asks and the chefs are happy to come.
"We like to be ambitious. I love Saskatchewan and Saskatoon. I want to bring other chefs here to experience what we're doing. Whenever you come to a place like this, you don't know what you might be expect from it, and maybe you don't have too many high hopes of what you might experience. But we've had so many people come and be surprised by what we're doing here, by the people and by what's going on in the community," says MacKay, whose generosity and spirit is bringing notoriety to one of Canada's most unheralded provinces. "I have a ton of Saskatchewan pride and I want the rest of Canada to come here and try us out."
Tickets to the event cost more than $200 and drew 300 people. The cost included the chance to taste the cuisine of the visiting chefs, as well as a dish prepared by MacKay protege Jesse Zuber, whose Little Grouse on the Prairie has added to Saskatoon's wealth of excellent restaurants, and delicious pork steamed buns prepared by Ayden chef and partner Nathan Guggenheimer. There were also unlimited cocktails prepared by Ayden's team.
The profits from Prairie Feast goes toward supporting the local food bank and there was also a scholarship contest, the Ayden Young Chef Competition, that awarded one winner a prize of a three-night trip to Calgary to study with DeSousa, Jackson and Leboe at their restaurants.
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