Renowned chef puts Saskatchewan on the map using local food

Grains, lentils, asparagus, carrots, beets, potatoes, and, most notably, mushrooms. Saskatchewan has some of the best mushrooms in the world.

When Dale MacKay’s son Ayden was around ten-years-old, the renowned chef took a step back to build the future he wanted for them.

At this point in his career, he’d worked as a chef in the most glamorous locations in the world. Born and raised in Saskatoon, he quit school on his 15th birthday and moved to Vancouver. 

“I became an adult at that point,” MacKay told The Flatlander in a phone interview. “I just wanted to get to a big city. I wanted to see the world. I just wanted to start working.”

MacKay started as a fry cook in Vancouver, and by the early 2000s, he was working alongside Gordon Ramsay in London, England, at Claridge’s. 

Over the next few years, MacKay would work at Ramsay’s restaurants in Tokyo, Rome, and New York City, before returning to Vancouver towards the end of the decade. It was here that MacKay started to have the realization that would bring him back to Saskatoon. 

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“I always knew early on that I wanted to return to Saskatchewan at some point. I just really wanted my son to have the upbringing that I had. Being from Saskatchewan and having my upbringing, it gave me the confidence to travel the globe and do what I’ve done in my life. I wanted my son to have that feeling where he could jump on his bike and go to school or down to the river.”

Eleven years later, Ayden is now 21, and MacKay owns two restaurants in Saskatoon and one in Regina, plus he recently appeared as a contestant in his third cooking competition. After previously winning the debut season of Top Chef Canada back in 2011, he lasted until the third week of this year’s Top Chef: World All-Stars, which combined winners and finalists from across the globe.


“I’m competitive,” admits MacKay when asked what attracted him to these shows. “With everything, but mostly myself. I’m always pushing myself. I always watched Top Chef. When the Canadian version started, I knew I had to do it. I wanted to show the world what I’d learned and what I could do. Winning it really changed my life.”

When it came to appearing on Top Chef: World All-Stars, MacKay insists that it was all about the experience of competing and learning from incredible chefs from around the world. Other contestants included France’s Samuel Albert, USA’s Dawn Burrell, Lebanon’s Charbel Hayek, Thailand’s Phattanant “May” Thongthong, and eleven other renowned chefs. 

“I had nothing to lose and everything to gain,” continues MacKay. “Especially because I was approached halfway through the pandemic. I had five restaurants that were running at six per cent capacity. It wasn’t a creative or passionate time. We were just trying to survive. It was a gift to be able to be able to participate.”

Being on Top Chef: World All-Stars also allowed MacKay to show that, while Saskatoon and Saskatchewan might not be the most notorious destination for foodies, there are still plenty of great spots to eat. Three of these are MacKay’s restaurants, Avenue in Regina, Little Grouse on the Prairie, and F&B Restaurant. 

“I like to think that we’ve made a big, big impact on Saskatchewan and Saskatoon food. There were always a lot of independent restaurants here. We thought they were a little similar. There was no concept. We feel like we’ve brought that. We’ve been recognized in magazines. The goal was to put Saskatchewan on the map, using local ingredients.”

These ingredients include grains, lentils, asparagus, carrots, beets, potatoes, and, most notably, mushrooms. “People don’t realize that Saskatchewan has some of the best mushrooms in the world. Same with asparagus. We try to use as much fish as possible. Lots of lake fish.”

MacKay hasn’t just provided Saskatoon with some of the most desirable restaurants in North America. He’s also helped people growing vegetables as a hobby become full-time farmers. “We take all of their vegetables, no matter what they are. We’ll just change the menu to fit. That’s our mentality. Which I don’t think was being done. It’s definitely being done now. But that’s what we wanted to do, and we have accomplished it so far.”

Dale Mackay plating a caesar salad at his Avenue Restaurant in Regina. PHOTO SUPPLIED.

MacKay brought all of the knowledge and experience he acquired working around the world to each of his restaurants. However, one aspect that he left behind was the aggressive and competitive kitchen environments in which he honed his skills. 

“Coming from Saskatchewan, people are humble, polite, thoughtful. At times, working with Gordon Ramsay, I lost that. When I first joined him, it was a super aggressive and competitive kitchen. You had to be like that to hold your own. There were times where I was like, ‘You’re turning into an asshole.’ Thankfully the kitchens, like society, have changed so much over the years.”

MacKay appreciates that training and working under this intense pressure made him a “much better and more successful chef.” But he quickly adds the caveat, “It’s a very lonely place. It’s not a really happy place. Owning these kitchens, I am definitely more encouraging. Although I make sure there’s a discipline to everything, too. It’s a tough balance to find. The chefs have to be self-motivated, too. As a chef, it’s totally up to you how well you do.”

When it comes to his ambitions, MacKay notes he has no plans to open up any more restaurants in the immediate future, especially as they’re still feeling the ramifications of the pandemic. 

Over the years, one way MacKay brought the community together is with Prairie Feast, an event that celebrates Saskatchewan food and culture. “We have tons of guest chefs from all over the world. Plus ballet dancers, opera singers, and stuff like that.”

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This helped bring attention to Saskatoon because MacKay is the first to admit the city is hardly a tourist hub. “We don’t really have tourism here. Let’s be honest, it’s mostly business tourism and people who are here for corporate things and conventions. It’s still an amazing place that’s similar to Vancouver. But [the restaurants] capitalize on the business side of things, which is coming back pretty slowly.”

While MacKay is focused on cementing Saskatoon’s place on the culinary map, one person who won’t be helping him in the kitchen is Ayden. Many years ago, his son decided he didn’t want to be a chef. “Hospitality is not where he wants to be. Restaurants aren’t like a law firm. They don’t need to pass down generations. He’s going to travel around Europe instead.” So the apple hasn’t fallen too far from the tree.

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