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Happy Meals, Happy Campers

Happy Meals, Happy Campers

Whether serving soft-ice cream or Christmas turkey, mining camp chefs like Lisa Alexander know their work is what keeps a staff ready for action.
By Jessica Davey-Quantick
Nov 25

The NWT’s diamond mines can be challenging places to work. Having a job that calls for 12-hour shifts on two-week rotations is hard, both mentally and physically. That’s why mine owners and managers embrace one of the industry’s truisms: A well-fed mining camp is a happy mining camp.

That maxim hit home for Lisa Alexander, camp manager for Bouwa Whee Catering at the Diavik mine, in July when the cafeteria’s soft ice-cream machine broke down. There was no way to repair or replace it quickly, and the mine was suddenly faced with a soft ice-cream drought.

People talked about it—a lot. It came up in staff meetings. Discussions were tabled. Morale was on the line.

“It was actually kind of funny because we did hear about it being brought up at toolbox meetings, at safety meetings,” recalls Alexander, who admits she was surprised by the concern. “I know the people love their ice cream but I didn’t realize how much they love their ice cream until our ice cream machine went down... I didn’t realize how many people actually ate it in the morning as well, before going to work.”

Fortunately, a replacement—an improved, custom-built model that dispenses two flavors—arrived at Diavik in October and everything returned to normal. It was a relief for Alexander and her team. Their job, after all, is to help keep people happy when they are far from home and working long hours.

“Food is very important,” she says “It boosts morale. You want people to come back from work, be comfortable and just relax... You want to make it feel like home as well, because [the mine] is home to you. You spend half the year here.”

To achieve that goal, Alexander works with a staff of 18 people, including one chef per rotation. They serve full meals twice a day—breakfast and dinner—for the 550 to 650 people on site at any given time, along with maintaining a sandwich bar for lunches and around-the-clock snack service.

“It’s 24/7,” says Alexander, who worked at Diavik as a chef for Bouwa Whee, a subsidiary of the Yellowknives Dene-owned Det’on Cho Corp., before becoming manager. And almost all the food is made in house, including the pastries. Food orders are flown in twice a week from Yel- Yellowknife, 320 kilometres away. The monthly volumes are huge—17,280 eggs, 400 kilograms of mozzarella cheese, 1,740 kilograms of bananas, 1,500 kilograms of bacon. And 288 litres of ice cream.

From those bulk orders, Alexander and her staff craft menus built around the principles of good nutrition, but they also cater to what the workforce has enjoyed in the past. “Everybody loves their spaghetti night here, then there’s steak night, of course,” Alexander says. “And if we have a holiday like Thanksgiving or Christ-mas we definitely have to have our turkey. They love that.”

Maintaining a generous menu is not cheap, but it’s an expense that can be justified by the boost in morale that comes with good grub—and flowing soft ice cream. “Food just makes you happy at the end of the day or helps you start your day off on the right track,” Alexander says.

A recent favourite from Grace Angel, a salad-maker at the Diavik kitchens:

Strawberry Cheesecake Dip
1 pint strawberries
8oz cream cheese, softened 1/4c plain yogurt
2 Tbsp to 1⁄4 c sugar, depending on preference of sweetness

• pulse strawberries in a food processor until smooth.
• in another bowl, beat together yogurt, cream cheese and sugar in a blender until smooth and creamy like texture. • add pureed strawberries to the cream cheese mix and blend well.
• serve chilled with cinnamon sugar pita chips