A culinary collaboration between Yellowknife’s Robin Wasicuna of Wiseguy Foods and Ontario’s Rich Francis, owner of Aboriginal Culinary Concepts, was an overwhelming success despite the vanishing act pulled by Francis at the halfway mark of the two-day event. It could’ve cratered completely but for the strength and commitment of Wasicuna and his team at the Dancing Moose Cafe.
Both men, noted chefs in their own right, competed in Food Network TV shows: Wasicuna placed second on Season 1 Episode 3 of Chopped Canada; Francis came in third place on Top Chef earlier this year.
Besides appearing on Food Network, the men have something else in common: both are of aboriginal heritage and both men love cooking with indigenous, local ingredients. To Wasicuna, who has been dreaming and scheming of ways to hold chef collaboration dinners in Yellowknife, having Francis come back to the NWT, would be a homecoming and a chef dinner series kickoff all in one. Francis is a former resident of Fort MacPherson, NWT, and of Gwich’in heritage on his father’s side.
Wasicuna spends three months working out the details of the event. The weekend of October 31/November 1, 2014 is chosen and tickets for four services over two evenings are soon snapped up. People in the Land of the Midnight Sun, it seems, are quite anxious for a bit of celebrity cooking.
The menu is set: pig’s head salad, ling cod fritters, roasted reindeer, sweet bannock for dessert. Each dish is supplemented with locally raised ingredients–some foraged, some home-grown. Francis requests caribou but with the caribou shortage, reindeer from Inuvik is used in its place.
Paradoxes abound in Yellowknife; the city is rough-hewn yet beautiful, unyielding rocky terrain blanketed by whispy northern lights. Even the people are a living contradiction: tough, yet friendly; weathered, yet refreshingly hospitable, and no better example of that is Robin Wasicuna himself — an imposing man, over six feet tall, barrel-chested, with just enough tattoos and piercings to make you know that messing with him is probably not a good idea.
He is rugged, like the land—maybe too rugged for some people who find themselves denied when asking for variations or substitutions to his food truck fare. He’s fond of the F word, and, he admittedly talks too much smack, too loudly, sometimes. He is also one of the kindest people I’ve met, and an extremely gifted chef. It doesn’t take much convincing for me to say yes to the dinner on Saturday night.
Francis arrives from Ontario and the two chefs go to the local radio station for an on-air interview.
Then it’s prep time at the restaurant. Twitter, Instagram and the town light up. The two services on Friday night go off with out a hitch. It’s a veritable love-fest.
Saturday, though, is a different story.
Rich Francis doesn’t show. He doesn’t leave any message, he doesn’t call, he doesn’t return any of Robin’s emails or texts or phone calls. He disappears, leaving Robin and his staff to carry on with a chef collaboration – or rather, a half collaboration – for which 60 people have paid $85 a ticket.
They say the mettle of a man is revealed in adversity, and there is a moment where I wonder what Robin will do. I hope I know, but I can hardly blame him for wanting to throw in the towel. I see his clenched jaw, the fierceness in his eyes, white knuckles grasping the edge of the counter. I feel his pain borne of months of preparation and his own money spent putting this thing together. The realization of Francis’ absence and the weight of its consequences takes place while diners sit oblivious and hungry just around the corner. I offer everything and anything I can do to help but I can do nothing, so, I turn to leave, and then…I hear him yell, “SERVICE!”, and I know exactly who the celebrity is: the guy knee-deep in reindeer and ling cod and bannock; the guy standing in the kitchen knowing that you never, ever, bail on people who are counting on you.
That night, 60 people receive a flawless service. At the end of the second service, diners are giving him a standing ovation. Well done, Chef; you and your team should be proud.
In recap, the menu:
Amuse bouche ^ warm pig’s head salad with crispy skin, shaved fennel, roasted pumpkin seeds, candied lemon zest and pomegranate vinaigrette
Appetizer ^ ling cod fritters drizzled in a juniper aioli and capered spruce tips
Main ^ black pepper crusted, roasted reindeer with oyster mushrooms, blueberry compote and a brown butter demi glaze
Dessert ^ sugared bannock with chocolate ganache, birch syrup butter and Saskatoon berry compote
Will there be more chef collaborations in Yellowknife? Find out from Robin by following him on Twitter @wiseguyfoods.