In the Kitchen with Dale MacKay of Ayden Kitchen & Bar


Volume 47, Issue 11

[dropcap size=big]N[/dropcap]ot everyone’s childhood reads like a Norman Rockwell painting. Dale MacKay’s passion for food wasn’t sparked by nostalgic memories of rolling fresh pasta with his grandmother but rather through his desire to experience the real world. Driven by worldly interests, the co-chef and co-owner of Ayden Kitchen & Bar in Saskatoon, quit school at age 14 and started working.

A year later, eager to carve his own path, the Saskatoon native moved to Vancouver, where his brothers lived, and washed dishes at various chains. When a cook didn’t show up to work one day, he joined the line and started preparing everything from chicken fingers to french fries to calamari, eventually working his way through several restaurants in Vancouver and Whistler. After watching Boiling Point, a documentary about Gordon Ramsay, the then 20-year-old boarded a plane to London, England and landed at the Michelin-rated chef’s namesake restaurant at Royal Hospital Road determined to land a job.

While protocol suggests booking a stage, MacKay wasted no time. “I thought it would be better to just show up and let them see me and how bad I wanted to work there,” he says. He was hired as commis chef the day after his trial, and, over the next six years, MacKay worked his way up to the position of head chef, honing his skills across Ramsay’s empire in London, Tokyo and New York City.

But memories of home drew MacKay back to Canada, where he worked as executive chef at Daniel Boulud’s Lumière in Vancouver before he rose to stardom, winning the first season of Top Chef Canada in 2011. MacKay opened Ensemble restaurant in Vancouver shortly after, but 18 months later he closed shop. He returned to Saskatoon to open the 110-seat Ayden Kitchen & Bar with partners, Nathan Guggenheimer and Christopher Cho. “Vancouver is very competitive,” he admits. “It’s hard to make a profit. Being a young entrepreneur, there’s no point working for eight per cent when I can work for 30 per cent and have a better quality of life.”

Open since November 2013, Ayden melds MacKay’s pedagogy in refined French cuisine with his love of rustic, unpretentious food. The two most popular dishes illustrate this dichotomy. The ahi tuna tartare with Asian dressing, cucumber, shaved black truffle and sesame cracker ($15) is an elegant starter, while the buttermilk fried chicken with spicy maple glaze, aged cheddar, bacon waffle, spaghetti squash and crème fraiche ($27) is comfort food. “I don’t play around with stupid foams and powders and silly things that are more of an ego trip,” he says. “It should just be about the food, and it should be about the guest. We’re not trying to impress you with crazy things or trying to be pretentious. We’re just trying to make things taste good.”

Considering the restaurant, named after MacKay’s beloved son, does about 150 covers during the week and up to 300 on weekends, it’s clear the chef’s vision is a success. Ayden Kitchen & Bar was recently rated the number 10 best restaurant in Canada by and one of the top 10 restaurants in Canada by the readers of EnRoute magazine — notable accolades helping to boost Saskatoon’s foodie status.

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