The Yukon Gold potato, arguably the most popular variety of potato in North American kitchens, is quietly celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Today, this versatile and much-loved Canadian vegetable variety enjoys immense popularity among top chefs, foodies and food editors alike. Rachael Ray often includes it in her recipes, Queen Elizabeth II regularly requests it at her table and just this past February, renowned celebrity chef, Wolfgang Puck, served 1,500 Yukon Gold potatoes topped with Caspian caviar at the 88th annual Oscars.
The Yukon Gold features prominently on the menu at the Toronto-based CN Tower’s 360 Restaurant. John Morris, executive chef at the tower’s famous eatery, has a particular fondness for the ingredient’s versatility and includes it in a variety of preparations — from mashed to fried. “One of the things that’s awesome about Yukon Gold potatoes is you can do almost anything with them,” he says. While some potatoes are only suitable for certain applications, with the right skill-set Morris says a cook can utilize the Yukon Gold in a diverse range of dishes. The 360 Restaurant uses the Yukon Gold exclusively for its side of mashed potatoes; its twice-fried hand-cut frites, served with sea salt and truffle aioli; and in its thick-cut fries, cooked in duck fat and served with sea salt and fresh thyme ($9 each)
McCain Foods, based in Florenceville-Bristol, N.B., also endorses the Yukon Gold potato, using it in its 7/16” Skin On Straight Cut fries which, according to McCain Foods marketing director, Greg Boyer, helps give the product a consistent, year-round creamy taste and home-style appearance. “Yukon Gold was bred in Canada and is one of a very few varieties of potatoes known by name to consumers in North America. That’s one key reason for the variety’s use in specific products we make,” he says. “As a proudly Canadian business, McCain has used the Canadian-bred Yukon Gold potato for years in our products. It’s a great variety and, in our experience, we have seen its mass appeal with foodservice operators, chefs and Canadian consumers.”
South of the border, former White House chef and author of Dining at the White House, John Moeller, served the Canadian spud to three First Families. “By and large, it’s a very nice potato. I like the creamy, butteriness of it,” says Moeller. “There is eye appeal, too, with the tint of yellow that, when you now look at it next to a white potato, [the white potato] doesn’t look quite as pleasing. So aesthetically, it has its qualities too.”
The cross-breeding process, which would ultimately give birth to the Yukon Gold potato as we know it, first began in 1959 by the late agricultural breeder Gary Johnston and his graduate team at the University of Guelph in Ontario. “He was a brilliant potato scientist who created this rock-star potato, which had a profound impact on the North-American food culture,” explains Alexander York, a Yukon Gold potato archivist and son of Hans von Sivers, a laboratory technician who worked with Johnston’s team for 20 years. “It’s a very complicated process, crossing potato varieties. My father was always amazed at Gary’s ability to put these complicated puzzles together.”
Now a culinary staple, the Yukon Gold is the outcome of six laborious years and 66 crossings. Johnston initially named his creation “Yukon” after the Yukon River, but a close friend, Charlie Bishop, suggested adding “Gold” to its name. “‘Yukon Gold’ is such a brilliant name and I don’t think it would have been successful without that name,” York argues. “It just touched an emotional button.”
Although perfected in 1966, it wasn’t until 1980 that the Yukon Gold entered the Canadian food market. Internationally, the potato made headlines in 1997 when Hillary Clinton falsely claimed everything on the menu at a White House dinner — including the Yukon Golds — was American. The New York Times promptly pointed out the mistake and in doing so, catapulted the product into international recognition.
Despite what York repeatedly describes as Yukon Gold’s “Hollywood status,” most Canadians outside of the culinary world still remain unfamiliar with its origin. So, the next time you use the golden tubers on your menu, remember to share Johnston’s story with your staff and diners and bring some colour to the topic of potatoes.
Volume 45, Number 5
Written By Eric Alister