Check out our interview with the first Top Chef Canada winner, Gordon Ramsay’s right-hand at his Michelin-starred restaurants and AAA Five Diamond Award winning Chef Dale MacKay who is gearing up for a huge 2023 with a major project on the horizon.
Originally from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, MacKay’s culinary career began as a fry cook in Vancouver, B.C. He then moved to London, England, where he began working at Gordon Ramsay’s Claridge’s, followed by stints in other Michelin-starred Ramsay restaurants in London, Tokyo, and New York City. He eventually returned to Vancouver to become the executive chef at Daniel Boulud’s Lumière restaurant, where the restaurant was awarded the AAA Five Diamond Award under his direction.
After winning Top Chef Canada and starting his own Vancouver restaurant, MacKay returned to his hometown, where he founded the Grassroots Restaurant Group with Christopher Cho and Nathan Guggenheimer. With this group, he’s opened restaurants in Western Canada, including: Avenue, Ayden Kitchen & Bar, Dojo, Little Grouse on the Prairie and Sticks and Stones.
Follow Dale @chefdalemackay
Hi Dale, please tell us little about you?
I’m a dad, a brother, a good friend, and speaking for my mom… maybe the best son ever. I love to work hard and have a good ability to focus on goals and what I want in life. Health and fitness have become a huge part of my life as I have got older. I love my friends and family more each day and my passion for food still grows each year.
Describe yourself in 3 words?
Passionate, Driven, Funny
How did you get started as a Chef?
I wish I had a fancy backstory like I grew up cooking with my Italian grandmother like other chefs, but really, I found food and the kitchen like lots of cooks: I dropped out of school at age 14 and needed to work. So, I washed dishes in a chain restaurant until one day they put me on the line when someone didn’t show up to work. I knew that day as I dropped those chicken fingers in the deep fryer…it was for life.
How would you describe your cooking style?
I focused heavily on technique in my years of training in fine dining. I was always drawn to French food for this reason. I love to use flavors from around the word but often will use French technique to show case them. These days I would say “refined rustic” is what I do, I mean if that is a thing.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
From a business standpoint. Its simple “The numbers don’t lie”. If the numbers and cost don’t work, your business doesn’t work no matter how passion or hard working you are. Besides that. Lead by example will never fail you.
Who is your role model?
I have had some great mentors in my life like Chef Gordon Ramsay, Chef Daniel Boulud… But it’s more a man named Vaughn Wyant- a friend and mentor in my hometown. He is self-built businessperson and has reached great success financially and socially. He chooses to invest his time in people around him, giving opportunity to others to be successful, investing time and money to his city and community all while working as hard as he was when he started out. Vaughn is a true lead-by-example role model.
Tell us about the feeling to be the first Top Chef Canada winner?
Maybe the best feeling in my life. Having the opportunity to show my son and the world what I have worked so hard to become. All the hard work, missing out on some many holidays and events to work and be the best I could be. It was a huge sense of relief that I had accomplished one of my wildest dreams on national TV. It changed mine and my son’s life forever.
How was the process for casting and what was the feeling when you got accepted?
I don’t know if I had ever wanted something so bad. I had to do a video application and then a cook off against the clock in person for the producers. I was very confident in my skills to say the least! But you never really know what they are looking for. I remember picking my son up from school and telling him on our walk home. We both were so excited! I remember cooking clams and chorizo for dinner that night and Ayden saying that I should make it on the show.
What was the most challenging part of the show?
Part of the reason Top Chef is so difficult is that you rarely ever just get to cook what you like. You must play to the challenges given to you and be smart to survive. I was so focused on fine dining and very formal food; at times I had to drop my ego and focus on what’s most important… flavor. It changed me as a chef.
And about getting the AAA Five Diamond Award? That’s amazing!
I have been lucky to have such amazing staff and guest over the years to receive some great awards.
How was working with one of the most popular chefs in the world like Chef Gordon Ramsay?
When I started with Gordon, he only had one restaurant at the time. It was rated 1st in the world. I moved to London, England when I just turn 20 from Vancouver after seeing a documentary called “Boiling Point” It was possibly the most intense, competitive, and aggressive kitchen in the world. I LOVED every minute of it…. between all the yelling and crying when I got home at night haha.
Was he a good mentor?
Gordon was not what you would call a nurturing mentor. There was not only a long process to prove yourself, but it was also never ending and always on going. I learnt so much about pure focus, relentless detitanation, never making an excuse or leaving things to chance. Its very army like. It was exactly what I needed.
Now tell us about the Grassroots Restaurant Group and how is working with Christopher Cho?
I hired Christopher Cho as a food runner 16 years ago. We have been close since the day we met. He is my biggest supporter to this day. He moved his whole life to a place he had never been to (Saskatoon). He runs the front and I run the back. As I write this, we are together in Mexico City on an eating and drinking trip for inspiration and to get some time to hang out together outside of work. It’s rare to find partners like us in the hospitality industry.
What is different from your restaurants Avenue, Ayden Kitchen & Bar, Dojo, Little Grouse on the Prairie and Sticks and Stones to other ones in Canada or the US?
Ayden is our flag-ship restaurant and is named after my son Ayden. Avenue and Ayden are a mix of French and world flavors. Little Grouse is all about freshly made pasta and sharing food together. Dojo and Sticks and Stones are Korean and Japanese inspired. All our restaurants, whether its French or Japanese, we prioritize not only using local vegetables, but also local meat, fish, dairy. We make everything in house and proud to say we do.
How do you keep finding the passion to continue growing and if you still have a project or dream in your bucket list?
I’m very content at the moment! There are definitely some bucket list events I still plan to do.
Do you have any tips for parents to cook with kids or for a small party with friends?
Go simple! Instead of doing 6 things ok, just focus on making 3 things very well. Buy good ingredients and let them do most the work. For kids, let them feel like they have a say in the menu and what you are eating. It always makes them feel like that are a bigger part in dinner.
Have you ever been asked to cook anything crazy or very different?
I cooked pancakes for 3000 people for a drive through fundraiser during the pandemic. Do you know how long it takes to make that many pancakes….I do.
Do you have any regrets professionally?
No regrets at all when it comes to cooking and food! From a business standpoint, for sure. I think very entrepreneur would have some regrets. But it’s part of life and business. Learn from your mistakes and do everything possible not to make them again.
If you weren’t a chef, or in the food business, what would you be?
I have a strong need to build things from the ground up. I think I would have still been an entrepreneur. Maybe in marketing!
If you are a book, what would be the title of the book and why?
“Shut up and listen”
If you could prepare only one meal, what would it be?
A perfect grilled cheese!
What is next for Chef Dale MacKay in 2023?
Hoping to do as many collaborative dinners and events as possible. It’s what I enjoy the most. I’m also a triathlete and have a ton of personal goals to reach before I get to old and slow!
How would your best friend describe you?
He said “Rockstar” when I asked and I’m ok with it.
Where do you see yourself and your career in 5 years from now?
Continuing to push our restaurants and ourselves to try new things and keep changing. I get bored easy! Need to keep changing and growing. Oh, and also spending most winters in warmer places.
If you could cook a meal for anyone, who would it be and what would you cook?
Sean Evens From “Hot one’s” He has interviewed everyone I could put on this list. Would love to hear some of his stories. I’d cook clam chowder and bisques- the furthest thing from spicy.
What is the best restaurant that no one’s ever heard of?
My mom’s house…its always open and has never run out of milk in 43 years. Great chicken salad sandwiches!
What is your favorite healthy food?
I eat yogurt and berry EVERY morning with a splash of Maple syrup on top.
And your favorite cheat food?
Kit-Kats, Sour Patch Kids
If you could meet someone living or dead, who would it be and why?
Dave Chapelle! For so many reasons. He is the GOAT of stand up and that’s just a small part of him. He has shown such character, intellect, class, grace, and integrity through his whole life. He is a self-made from nothing but hard work and passion. He left the business and 100M dollars when he was at the very top of the game. All because of his values and integrity. Came back 10 years later and built himself back up by honing his craft again from the ground up playing small clubs and just doing what he loved.
What do you like to watch on tv?
I watch a ton of comedy. If I can be laughing, I would rather be!
Any future plans you want to share with us?
I will be working on a cookbook very soon! It will be focused on home cooking.
Idea of a perfect Sunday?
Waking up at my cabin, going for a long early morning run on the trails. Big breakfast, many games of cribbage and cuddling with my girlfriend and dog on the couch watching a funny movie. Eating snacks and fried chicken for dinner.
Do you support any charity?
I work closely with Dyslexia Canada as an ambassador. Doing speaking events, school visits and mentoring the youth, helping them guide through life with dyslexia and educating the public about Dyslexia based on my experiences.
I am also a founding member of a foundation that mentors at risk youth. The foundation now has 28 chapters. Being open, vulnerable, and willing to have hard conversations is something I have had to learn and feel like it is a allowed me to really connect with people in an impactful way.
What do you think of social media?
I think it’s a great tool for someone that wants to share what they do and promote the business. It’s a great way to express yourself but can also kill authenticity and take focus off what’s real and important if you are not careful!
Where can we follow you?
@chefdalemackay on Instagram