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How a Newfoundlander Became a Champion for Indigenous Food in BC

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Life in Osoyoos has brought a smile to Murray McDonald, who has reimagined the cuisine at Spirit Ridge Resort. (Nic Amaya photo for Vacay.ca)

The epiphany that sparked his dramatic decision to depart as chef of Canada’s premier luxury property took place for Murray McDonald on the edge of the land on which he was raised, doing the work he undertook to celebrate the only heritage he knew.

It was while foraging for ingredients for his dishes at the Fogo Island Inn that McDonald stood upright to stare into the North Atlantic — a body of water whose waves perpetually slap Newfoundland with salt, ocean and motivation. He recalls watching the sea and allowing a thought to slam into him like a hit of adrenaline. “Yes,” he told himself, “I am cooking Indigenous food.”

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Executive chef Murray McDonald will often do double duty as server, presenting diners at The Bear, The Fish, The Root and The Berry with his take on Indigenous flavours. (Nic Amaya photo for Vacay.ca)

McDonald was on an outing with his apprentice, a Mi’kmaq chef from Prince Edward Island, when this eureka moment changed his life’s purpose. They were gathering botanicals and plant flowers that would showcase Newfoundland to visitors from around the world. But it turns out they were also finding a deeper link to McDonald’s past. His maternal ancestors were Inuit from neighbouring Labrador and he had Métis bloodlines on his father’s side but never explored his Indigenous heritage until adulthood.

“My grandmother didn’t want to talk about being Indigenous, because it just wasn’t something to be in rural Newfoundland at the time we were growing up. And because of her wishes my family wasn’t allowed to look into it until after she died. We traced our family back to Battle Harbour in Labrador and it stops there with my great-great-grandmother,” McDonald says. The Canadian government suppressed Indigenous identity and culture for much of the 20th century, leading to lost lineage for many people in the country. “For me, it feels like part of my heritage was stolen away from me. I should have been raised and taught this stuff, but I wasn’t. I want to learn about this part of me, and the best way I think to do that is through the food.”


McDonald has spent the last three years studying Indigenous cuisine and culture, collaborating with the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada to grow awareness of the nation’s various communities and their culinary traditions. Now, inspired by his epiphany on the Rock, McDonald finds himself as the new executive chef at the leading Indigenous-focused property in Canada, Spirit Ridge Resort — Unbound Collection by Hyatt. Spirit Ridge has been attracting visitors for years to its resort that includes a spa and golf course, as well as easy access to the NK’Mip Cellars wine-tasting room and the NK’Mip Desert Cultural Centre. Spirit Ridge’s food program has always been dependable, now it is spectacular.

McDonald arrived in April with the ambition to bring greater awareness to Indigenous cuisine while collaborating with the Osoyoos Indian Band (OIB) and their expanding tourism initiatives. McDonald’s vision complements NK’Mip Cellars. The winery owned by the OIB and Arterra Wines Canada has earned international notoriety for its collection of wines. Winemakers Randy Picton and Justin Hall have quickly become advocates for McDonald and the skills he brings to the South Okanagan Valley.

“Next door has always been trying to go with the theme about the land and that we’re Native, but it has never really hit the mark,” Hall says of the Spirit Ridge restaurant. “Murray has brought in something that is truly a little more from the land and you can taste it in the cooking.”

Discover More: Indigenous Language Thrives

Rebranded with a name that refers to the legend of the Four Food Chiefs of the Okanagan Nation, The Bear, The Fish, The Root and The Berry puts on a plate McDonald’s contemporary version of Indigenous recipes. He emphasizes the use of ingredients that pre-date contact with Europeans. So there’s no added sugar or gluten in the dishes. You’ll find bison instead of beef, menu items highlighting foraged ingredients like sumac and sage, and varieties of bannock, the flatbread that sustained Indigenous people across Canada for centuries.

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Murray McDonald has been delighted by the amount of fresh produce available in the Okanagan Valley. He takes advantage of the ingredients in dishes at The Bear, The Fish, The Root and The Berry. (Nic Amaya photo for Vacay.ca)

“If you look at all the ways people are eating now — with the different superfoods and fad diets — Indigenous food has always been this, people just never realized it. I think it’s why Indigenous culinary is coming around and having a renaissance.” McDonald opines. “People are finally catching on that these Indigenous guys have been doing it for so long and we didn’t even know it.”

The restaurant makeover excites Hall, who is eager for the first series of wine-paired fall dinners at NK’Mip Cellars and The Bear, The Fish, The Root and The Berry. “The things I love about the industry are getting together, getting away from technology, enjoying the experience. That’s what food and wine is about. And that’s why I like Murray so much. He makes really good food, and I try to make some good wine to go with it.”

Along with changing the name of the restaurant, McDonald has hired Indigenous pastry chef Tammy Maki, who relocated from Ontario to bring a distinct flair to desserts in the Okanagan Valley. Maki says she was compelled to make the move west because of McDonald’s passion and her own search for fulfillment. She was taken from her birth family in the 1960s and adopted by Catholic parents who were compassionate enough to make her aware of her culture.

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NK’Mip Cellars features wines that are excellent for pairing with food, including Dreamcatcher, a blend of three white grapes. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

“Still, you always feel there is something missing. As much as I felt and I feel they are my family, there was always something missing, always,” she says about the anguish caused by being robbed of her ancestral connection. “But coming here kind of helps complete who I am as a person, and definitely helps me be more Indigenous. So, I feel this place is awesome. It’s magical.”

It’s also spiritual, according to its other newcomer.

“As soon as you come up here I find you get a feeling,” McDonald says of his first drive on Rancher Creek Road that leads visitors from Highway 3 in Osoyoos to Spirit Ridge. “There’s something going on here that’s more than just the land. The only other place I got that was in Newfoundland on Fogo. And one of the old ladies there told me, ‘This is where kind spirits go to rest.’ So I think that’s what’s going on here. At Spirit Ridge, kind spirits come here to rest.”

MORE ABOUT VISITING SOUTH OKANAGAN

Where to Stay: Spirit Ridge Resort, Unbound Collection by Hyatt.
Location: 1200 Rancher Creek Road, Osoyoos, BC (see map below).
Website: spiritridge.hyatt.com. Telephone: 250-495-5445.
Room Rates: A search on the property’s booking engine returned a nightly rate of $199 for a September weekend. In addition, the property is offering 100 resort credits when a guest books three nights or more.

2019 FOOD & WINE EXPERIENCES IN SOUTH OKANAGAN

Upcoming fall culinary events in Oliver and Osoyoos include:

Cask and Keg: On October 5 at Oliver Community Park, the region celebrates breweries, distilleries and cideries.

Garlic Festival at Hester Creek: A culinary feast will be held on October 5 at this Italy-inspired winery with many accolades to its name.

Crush Party at Oliver Twist: Join the annual harvest party, taking place on October 5, at this fun-loving property.

Festival of the Grape: The annual wine stomp is filled with laughter and cheer, and takes place on October 6 this year.

Note: This article is the second in an expanded content series focusing on travel to Osoyoos and the Oliver. It was created in partnership with Destination BC, the Osoyoos Indian Band, Arterra Wines Canada, Spirit Ridge Resort – Unbound Collection by Hyatt, Destination Osoyoos, and the Oliver Tourism Association. Read the first entry on the language of the Silyx people here.

 

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Adrian is the editor of Vacay.ca and his articles are frequently syndicated by the Huffington Post and appear in the Globe & Mail. He makes regular appearances on CTV News, TSN Radio and CJSF Radio, talking about travel, sports, creative writing and journalism. A former editor at the Toronto Star and New York Newsday, Adrian has won numerous awards for his travel writing and fiction, and has visited more than 30 countries. He is also a judge for the World’s 50 Best Restaurants and spearheaded the Vacay.ca Top 50 Restaurants in Canada list that debuted in April 2012.