With wild and local ingredients as their instruments, and northern culture as their inspiration, these chefs are creating beautiful art to savour and enjoy. From a Dawson City butcher shop to an Inuit meal literally fit for a king, each of these four chefs strives to create a unique take on the culinary arts and share the beauty of these lands with their diners.
Brian Ng, Wayfarer Oyster House, Whitehorse YT
Chef Brian Ng has always had an eye for visual art, even when he was little. “Before I really invested myself in cooking you could mostly find me tucked up with a sketchbook,” he says. Nowadays, his artistic expression is on the plate, and tending to extremes: bold and colourful, like his seared albacore tuna in a pool of coconut milk, dotted with chili oil and garnished with watermelon radish and cilantro; or a study in monochromes, such as his deconstructed chocolate cake.
Born and raised in the Yukon, Ng was a latchkey kid whose parents ran a restaurant and who spent much of his 20s in search of good food and rock climbing. He dives into those memories to inspire his culinary creations, curating flavours and improvising to find “the soul of that dish.” His culinary style, “a mishmash of all my experiences,” helped make Wayfarer Oyster House one of Air Canada’s Best New Restaurants of 2020.
Ng aims to transport people, to take them to another place. And like all the best artists, he leaves room on the plate for the memories his work stimulates in the diner. “That’s a big part of art as well — [the customer’s] interpretation and storytelling.”
Shelby Jordan, Bonton Butcherie and Charcuterie, Bonton & Co., Dawson City YT
Chef Shelby Jordan’s culinary pilgrimage took her from learning to butcher at Thompson River University in Kamloops to mastering the art of charcuterie at the Italian Culinary Institute in Calabria. Now she runs her own butcher shop and co-owns a thriving café in Dawson City, which was named one of Air Canada’s Best New Restaurants of 2021. “I’ve landed myself in a wonderful world,” says the butcher.
Jordan finds beauty in every aspect of her work, starting with being elbows-deep in a cow carcass, seaming out a muscle, her mind already dreaming up a weekly special that “speaks to tradition” and celebrates ingredients.
Each winter she plans out the coming season with local vegetable producers, their seed catalogues at the ready, and she prides herself on serving only Yukon-grown meat. There is beauty in being green, the butcher says, and supporting Yukon farmers. “I got into this because I wanted to be part of more sustainable living in the North.”
At the café, where Jordan creates the weekly charcuterie board special, every dish starts with what’s fresh and available. Her ideas mix layers of flavour, smell, and texture — chicken liver mousse on crostini, for instance, topped with a nose-stinging haskap mostarda, pickled Kokopelli Farms rutabaga, and pea shoots from Whitehorse supplier ColdAcre’s hydroponic greenhouse. Then comes the artist’s moment of triumph. “When it plays out onto the board how it was in my mind, man that’s exciting.”
Sheila Flaherty, Sijjakkut Authentic Inuit Foods, Iqaluit NU
“All our food is wild,” says Sheila Flaherty. The chef and her husband, Jaani, travel 200 kilometres from Iqaluit by boat or skidoo to get to their favourite Arctic char fishing spots. The hunt and the harvest are integral to the beauty of Inuit food, she says. On the land there is a kind of communion with the animal that Flaherty loves. “It’s a very intimate experience. I like to reflect that intimacy in the dishes I prepare.”
Flaherty has shared her passion for Inuit food at events from Ottawa to New York to Reykjavik and, most recently, at the International Indigenous Tourism Conference in Winnipeg. There, she served an appetizer she created for then-Prince of Wales, now King Charles and Camilla: Arctic shrimp and gruyere cheese chou pastry rosettes topped with a whole shrimp. “It’s a melding of my childhood memories as well as paying homage to my Inuit culture.”
When Flaherty was growing up in Ottawa her dad took a course in French cuisine in order to cook well for his kids. It worked. As a result, “I’ve always been a fan of beautifully prepared food,” Flaherty says.
But combining international flavours with Inuit foods poses a particular challenge. “Our foods have such a delicate and delicious natural flavour, I really pay attention that the spices I use don’t overpower but heighten the natural beautiful taste of the Arctic char, or the seal, or the goose.”
Flaherty is thrilled at the opportunity to showcase more Inuit foods when Sijjakkut, her entirely Inuit-owned culinary tourism venture, will be fully up and running in Iqaluit by 2025. On the menu will be a beautiful, maple syrup-brined smoked Arctic char that Camilla couldn’t stop raving about.
Niki Mckenzie, Fishy People Butchery, Yellowknife NT
Chef Niki Mckenzie learned to cook from the rhythms of the land. Growing up in Whakatane, New Zealand, her mother and grandmothers kept vegetable gardens and her grandfathers hunted. “It became very important to me to be close to the land, to feel the rhythms and learn to process and put things away for the future,” she says.
Now, thousands of kilometres and many years later, she listens to the land and the water when deciding what to cook at her restaurant on the shores of Great Slave Lake.
“What’s available, what is fresh… what is healthy, what is ripening, which ferment is ready to go. The land tells me what to cook. I wouldn’t dare impose.”
Mckenzie is inspired by the North, by “the abundance that is hidden in plain sight.” Some of that abundance is right at her doorstep. The whitefish, lake trout, inconnu, northern pike and burbot, among other species swimming in the cold waters of Great Slave Lake, form the backbone of her restaurant’s menu. Vinegars, fermented birch syrup and honey, kimchi, salt-fermented anchovies, mustards, or pickled garden vegetables also all show up regularly. Her “seacuterie” platter is like a chef’s manifesto, featuring home-pickled garden vegetables and smoked fish, prosciutto pepperoni, pastrami, chorizo — all made from less-popular lake progeny, like coney, sucker and trout.
For Mckenzie, the most beautiful dish is always “the next one,” served family style in her cozy restaurant. The harvest of land and water, transformed into delicacies.