Dale MacKay, the Season 1 winner of Top Chef Canada, will be among the 16 standout chefs from around the world who will compete in the latest edition of the international program. Dubbed “The Best In the Globe”, the series is slated to premiere on March 9, with episodes set in London, England followed by a grand finale in Paris. The show’s 20th season is called its “World All Stars” edition and MacKay is Canada’s lone representative in the program helmed by his mentor, Gordon Ramsay.
Spanning 29 years, MacKay’s career has taken him from hometown of Saskatoon, across the planet as Ramsay’s right-hand man at his Michelin-starred restaurants, to Vancouver as executive chef at Lumière and back home, earning accolades everywhere he went. We caught up with him as he prepares for the attention the latest Top Chef program is sure to bring his way.
Vacay.ca: How did you feel when you learned you had been chosen from a hoarde of other winners to compete in the first international Top Chef challenge?
Dale MacKay: Ecstatic! Super pumped! It’s a great honour. I’m proud to be representing Canada and the prairies. The time was perfect after the lull of Covid. It’s an opportunity to be passionate about new things.
Vacay.ca: What will the competition involve?
MacKay: It comes down to two challenges: a quick fix and the elimination challenge. For the elimination challenge you have to shop for all the ingredients. You rarely get to cook what you want to. It comes down to an instant decision.
Vacay.ca: How did you get your start in the world of cooking?
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MacKay: I fell into it. I quit school when I was 14, moved from Saskatoon to Vancouver and got a job washing dishes. When I was 17 or 18, someone didn’t show up for work and they put me on the line. I knew instinctively then that I wanted to be a chef. I figured if I applied myself, I could succeed. I worked in several restaurants on the west coast. When I was 20 and working in Whistler I saw Boiling Point, the Gordon Ramsay miniseries. He was the most intense person I had ever seen and I knew I wanted to work for him. I went to London, knocked on his door and landed a job.
Vacay.ca: What was it like working for Gordon Ramsay?
MacKay: The most intense 15-hour days you could imagine. You were on the defensive all the time. For sure you were going to get yelled at. It was difficult, but I loved it. And eventually I didn’t. I returned to Vancouver because I was unhappy, exhausted, and wanted to return to my family.
Vacay.ca: What was the difference between Gordon Ramsay’s kitchen in London and the one in Tokyo?
MacKay: There was a lot of swearing and foul language in London. Swearing was not acceptable in Japan. It was a gentler atmosphere that I really enjoyed.
Vacay.ca: In Vancouver you worked at Lumière, which under your direction was awarded the AAA Five Diamond Award. Did your kitchen resemble Ramsay’s?
MacKay: I kept up the standards because when you are competing at a fine-dining level, you have to have a lot of discipline. But not necessarily the screaming. Today I am much happier cooking more casual food.
Vacay.ca: Then you returned to you Saskatoon. Tell us about the restaurants you opened there.
MacKay: In 2013, I opened Ayden Kitchen & Bar, named after my son. Two years later we opened Little Grouse on the Prairie and then Dojo and Sticks and Stones. All have an open kitchen and a tasting bar.
Vacay.ca: You have received a ton of awards and accolades. What is the biggest thrill of your career so far?
MacKay: The Top Chef in Canada was a huge thrill because I was a young guy trying to do fine dining. It was an awesome experience and a big deal to be on national TV coming into people’s homes week after week. It wasn’t just a one-off. I have people coming into my restaurant today who watched the show as kids.
Vacay.ca: From whom do you draw inspiration?
MacKay: I’m pretty self-motivated but my staff continues to inspire me.
Vacay.ca: Do you have any advice for someone who wants to make cooking a profession?
MacKay: Don’t jump into culinary school. First, go and spend a month in a kitchen and see what it’s like. Set yourself up for what you think you want to get into. I can pay you and teach you all you need to know about making a hollandaise sauce before you spend $40,000 on culinary school.
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Vacay.ca: Do you have a favourite Canadian travel destination?
MacKay: St. John’s, Newfoundland is one of my favourites and I go there any chance I get. I love the people. They are so friendly and their accents make you feel you could be in Ireland. I get a super calm feeling there. I also love Haida Gwaii. I think it is one of the most beautiful places on earth.
Vacay.ca: What could visitors to Ayden Kitchen and Bar expect if they went for dinner?
MacKay: A rustic, refined, casual atmosphere. We focus on local products. It’s about the flavours. There are only a couple of months in the year when we can’t buy local. We do a lot of preserving.
Vacay.ca: With five restaurants in two cities, how much of your time is spent at the stove compared to corporate management?
MacKay: That has changed over the years. It’s about 50/50 now. I have a head chef in each of the restaurants. I spend time in the kitchen, motivating the staff and a lot of time dealing with farmers who grow specifically for us. Whatever they grow, we will buy and switch our menus to what is fresh.
Vacay.ca: How would you like to be remembered?
MacKay: As a leader who inspires others, but more than anything else, as a good person.
Vacay.ca: We will be watching on March 9, cheering you on.
MacKay: Thanks. However it turns out, it is an incredible honour to be a participant and it will be a great experience.