Chef Dale MacKay in the kitchen of his restaurant, Ayden.

Chef Dale MacKay in the kitchen of his restaurant, Ayden. Credit: Julia Pelish/

This year Savour Stratford Perth County Culinary Festival has moved forward a couple of months to take advantage of the glorious summer weather, with celebrations taking place on July 19th and 20th.

On Sunday the 20th of July at 10.30 on the Toronto Star Culinary Stage, Chef Dale MacKay of Saskatchewan’s Ayden restaurant will be showcasing Saskatchewan Walleye in a special Chef demo. The Top Chef Canada winner will also be pairing up with Maison Publique’s Derek Dammann on the Saturday morning for the GE Café Chefs Series.

Good Food Revolution: Stratford is a very special place for all of us here at Good Food Revolution. What makes Stratford such a special place for you?

Dale MacKay: To be honest I am hoping Stratford will become a special place for me. This will be my first time visiting. I have heard amazing things from my friends like Carl Heinrich from Richmond Station. Unfortunately I haven’t had the opportunity to be there and be a part of the festival, but that is why I am so excited to be a part of it and I am sure it will become a special place for me.

GFR: And what will you be doing at Savour Stratford this year?

DM: I will be doing a few different things. A demo for people to come watch and understand what I do in Saskatchewan and then I will be doing a collaborative lunch with my good friend Derek Dammann from Maison Publique. We will be representing our own provinces (Saskatchewan and Quebec), but at the same time representing all the amazing products of Stratford and Perth County. We will also be given the opportunity to judge the canapé at the Sunday Grand Tasting. That’s why this festival is so exciting for us because we will get to spread our wings and do a few different things.

GFR: Will you be utilising any of the bounty of local Perth County ingredients during your presentation? Do you have a favourite local and seasonal ingredient?

DM: I am going to be representing Saskatchewan and Ontario and my demo will consist of bounty from both provinces. I am going to focus my dessert for the Ge Café Chef Series lunch around strawberries because from what I have heard there are some amazing strawberries local to Stratford and area. I have also heard of Perth County’s fertile farmland and I am looking forward to working with the plentiful fresh product.

GFR: How is the dining scene in Saskatoon, and how does it compare to the many other places you have worked?

DM: Saskatoon has a young dining scene. There has always been a lot of restaurants here, but many seem to be upping their game. Restaurateurs are beginning to understand the importance of opening with a strong concept. This has contributed the quality of restaurants over the last few years. With a concentrated young demographic occupying the city things have changed a lot. With all this opportunity and growth my team and I want to set the bar for everyone. I have nothing but good things to say about Saskatoon’s culinary scene. People are very enthusiastic about good food and it has become a cool city. I think we will see a lot of national recognition over the next couple years.

GFR: And when you speak about local in Saskatoon, what kind of ingredients are we speaking of?

DM: There is so much agriculture ranging from mustard seeds, to lentils and some of the best flowers globally. Obviously in the summer time we have amazing raspberries and strawberries. Our hot summers allow us to offer the best garden vegetables from carrots to asparagus. The only real difference is that our winter season here is a little bit harder and longer, but it doesn’t seem to effect our summer growing season.

GFR:Tell us a little about Saskatchewan Walleye and your favourite preparations of it?

DM: Walleye is such a delicious and clean fish I don’t like to do too much to it. I believe pan-frying is the best way to prepare this fish, ensuring the skin is crispy, beautiful and delicious.

GFR: Did you always want to be a Chef? Never an Astronaut or a Pirate? Or a Lumberjack? I’m thinking about that sizeable beard you were sporting around the time of Terroir…

DM: I always thought it would be nice to have a romantic story about to tell about being Italian and making pasta with my grandma, however that is not the case at all. I quit school when I was 15 and I started washing dishes in a burger place called Red Robin. One day somebody didn’t show up for work and I got thrown on the line and I literally knew that day that I was always going to be a chef. I talk to chefs all the time who need pep talks, however I have not once in my entire career thought I shouldn’t be a chef. I consider myself one of the lucky ones.

GFR: Who were the most important influences in your career as a chef?

DM: I have been lucky to have some fantastic mentors. I had the opportunity to work with Gordon Ramsay and Josh Emett for a number of years who taught me to be a real chef, a chef chef. Daniel Boulud was a great mentor as a restaurateur and hospitality guru, teaching me the finer points of running a restaurant. I have had a number of great business influences who have shared insight into the business side of things. All encompassing I would say my biggest influences are Josh Emett, Gordon Ramsay and Daniel Boulud.

GFR: How was it working with my fellow Scotsman Gordon Ramsay? and what did you learn through working with such a fellow? Is he really that explosively temperamental?

DM: Yes, it is very similar to how it appears on tv. I worked with Gordon when he only had one restaurant and before he was really famous. I actually moved to England two and half weeks after viewing his documentary Boiling Point to specifically work for him. It was beyond intense, comparable to Hell’s Kitchen only real and less flamboyant. It was very aggressive and you would cry a lot when you went home. I don’t know if everyone did, but I did.

It was literally 15-16 hours a day of physical and mental abuse. But if you want to be the best in the world you are going to have to go through that at some point. I loved it and I knew Gordon would never give me shit for no reason, but when he did give me shit it last a long time and was very difficult to deal with. It was generally constructive to make you a better chef and a better person. I think discipline is one of the key ingredients to making a good chef and if you don’t have it you will never be good. It’s all about diligence and respecting yourself.

GFR: And then of course there is your Top Chef Canada experience… looking back at those times please tell us about the highs and lows of being part of such a show? I guessing that so many folks much recognise you from the show? Do you have groupies?

DM: I loved doing the show. For me the whole thing was a high. To get to go on national television and show your country and the world that you are as good as you believe you are. In this industry you have to jump at every opportunity, sacrificing a lot. Being on the show was proof that all this sacrifice was worth it.

In regards to the lows I am sure there are times I could have been a little more gracious. I am sure if I were to watch the series now I would probably cringe a few times, but I don’t regret anything. I don’t usually ever regret anything. So I am happy with the way it came out and regardless of what people thought of me I hope they respected the food that was produced.

GFR: Do you feel that Food Television gives a rather warped view of how restaurants actually work?

DM: I think the first two seasons were great, but the last two seasons specifically on Top Chef  I don’t think were very good representations of Canadian chefs, but I think the Food Network is a great thing no matter what. It gets people interested in food, talking about food and going into restaurants. It gets people cooking and trying new things. I have nothing but good things to say about the Network and what they have done.

GFR: On the show I seem to remember you being painted as having quite the temper yourself? Was this an accurate portrayal of the real Dale Mackay, or was that all simply the “magic” of television?

DM: Most people who meet me from the show think I am a very serious person, which is not true. It’s actually quite the opposite. I am very sarcastic and relaxed, but when it comes to food, business and service I am super serious. It’s game time. When you are in the middle of service and it is time to turn it up, defines a good versus a great chef. I definitely yell sometimes and that has changed over the years, but it goes back to the discipline and self-respect. A lot of the time when I am mad, specifically on the show its probably more I am disappointed in myself.

GFR: For people that haven’t had the opportunity to try your food before, can you describe a dish that you think reflects what your restaurant Ayden is all about? What characteristics and ingredients distinguish your cuisine?

DM: The menu at Ayden Kitchen and Bar is a little different than what I have done in the past. I do a lot of collaborating, making the menu a lot more casual than I have ever done. There are a lot more rustic dishes that still reflect today’s style. Even our more casual items are elevated. I would say my personal style is quite light and refreshing. A dish I did last week was a lime aioli with compressed watermelon, cilantro, watermelon radishes and tuna tossed in a little miso dressing, topped with lemon grass and horseradish. Not a crazy amount of flavor, but all very unique components that compliment each other well. I love putting together ingredients that you don’t necessarily see every day.

GFR:Which dish or ingredients would we NEVER find on a menu of yours? Your pet peeve(s)?

DM: I am not a huge fan of salmon, probably because I have had to work with it so often over the years. I am not a fan of anything gimmicky specifically poutine. I don’t not like seeing it on menus and I wish people would just stop with it.

GFR: Stratford has always been one of my favourite culinary and cultural destinations. As well as presenting your session at Savour Stratford what else do you hope to do with your time there?

DM: I am looking forward to the opportunity to meet the local producers and tour some of the farms. Stratford obviously has a great culinary scene, however I am excited to explore the artisanal aspects of the community. I am looking to explore all aspects, not just the food side of things.

GFR: Thank you for your time Dale, we look forward to seeing you in Stratford!

DM: Cheers!

Jamie DrummondEdinburgh-born/Toronto-based Sommelier, consultant, writer, judge, and educator Jamie Drummond is the Director of Programs/Editor of Good Food Revolution
… And next time he’ll introduce himself properly, Dale.