When Steve and I put on our first northern food dinner party ten years ago, we never thought it would turn into anything much. We just wanted friends to come over and taste some caribou and musk ox we had brought from Nunavut. Since then, we’ve held seven more of our Northern Food Nights—or NFNs as they’ve come to be called—over the years. NFN 8 was held just this past weekend.
When we started out in 2006, we did all the cooking ourselves. Our table was laden with musk ox, caribou, shrimp, and Arctic Char (prepared a variety of ways: smoked, raw, and in dried form called pipsi). We also included bonus foods; not necessarily northern items, but unique and usually new-to-the-market consumables like alpaca, yak, Oysterman Oysters, and unique wines and spirits.
The number of people wanting to attend our dinner increased from 35 to 50 over the next three years and in 2007, 08 and 09, we enlisted the help of friends and members of our Slow Food convivium to prep for the event.
In 2010, we met Chef Louis Charest through our friend Paul Finkelstein, a culinary teacher in Stratford, Ontario. The legendary underground dinner event called Charlie’s Burgers was interested in having us put on an Arctic feast, and Louis, according to Paul, would be the perfect chef to head the task. He was right. We met Louis at Rideau Hall and gave him a 30-minute spiel about our northern food nights. He was in. He drafted a menu, Paul presented it to ‘Charlie’, and the event was posted. People rushed to snap up $235 tickets to the Arctic Diplomatic Incident Dinner in Toronto to feast on creations like Qikitarjuaq bouillabaise, walrus mac ‘n cheese with igunaq (fermented walrus meat) ‘bacon’ bits, and smoked whale meat on bannock.
With that success under our belts, we invited Louis to take over the cooking reins for NFN 5 in 2011 to be held at a restaurant in Edmonton. I was very proud of what Steve and I cooked up for our NFNs in the past—dishes like mu shu musk ox, sweet curry caribou and whitefish caviar on quail eggs, but at Bistro La Persaud, Louis Charest created dishes that took our dinner party to a new level. The dishes were creative (Kentucky-fried blubber) and refined (Char Carpaccio with Scotch Bonnet Dip).
The purpose of NFN 5 was twofold: 1) it allowed more people to participate and 2) it acted as a practice round for Louis and Paul who would cook similar dishes at the James Beard House in New York the following month. Northern Food Night at Bistro La Persaud was flawless. The Arctic Forage Dinner in NYC was unlike any dinner held in Beard’s historic Greenwich Village brownstone. The people attending that dinner were blown away.
In 2012, we brought the party back to our house and invited Arctic Kingdom Chef, Matt Binkley, to join Louis in our kitchen. Those two, along with our young northern friend, Thomas Rogers Ford fed 50 people for NFN 6.
It was the year of whale tataki, Ungava Gin and a very late night (or early morning in the case of Matt who flew to the Caribbean to cook for David Copperfield).
Crazy work schedules put NFN 7 on hold until 2015, but it was worth the wait. Joshna Maharaj (Chef, Speaker, Author, Food Advocate), Robin Wasicuna (Twin Pine Diner and WiseGuy Foods in Yellowknife), and Dilan Draper (then at Avec in Calgary, now in Victoria) joined Louis in our kitchen. The bonus items in 2015 were black bear meat, and Black Cow Vodka (a United Kingdom vodka made entirely from cow’s milk).
As Executive Chef at Rideau hall, Chef Charest routinely cooks for royalty and high-ranking officials from around the world. Because of that, he must be intimately familiar with the traditions and foods of other cultures. For NFN 7, he tapped into his Korean culinary knowledge base and created a fantastic polar bear ganjang (polar bear in soy sauce, apples, ginger, chilies). He paid homage closer to home and Canada’s Acadian culture in his ptarmigan rappie pie. More global influence was seen in the walrus masala, a standout dish from Joshna Maharaj; Dilan cooked up a cauldron of caribou pot au feu (because why not?) and everybody raved about Robin’s black bear meatballs. About 20 one-of-a-kind dishes were on the menu that day and it was then that we realized that these dishes were being created for the first time in history. Nowhere else in the world have the words, “Please pass the walrus masala” ever been spoken.
Last weekend, we had 53 people in our house for NFN 8.
Joshna came back to join Louis in the kitchen, along with Paul Finkelstein and Steve Stacey from Stratford, and two local chefs, Alexei Boldireff and Cory Rakowski.
Creativity reigned again with dishes like narhwal mac & cheese and caribou kimchi jjiggae (Louis); polar bear masala (Joshna); Thai green curry walrus, and bowhead brioche (Alexei), and caribou and black bear meat pie from Cory.
Bonus items this year were from northern Saskatchewan’s Prairie Infusion: 1) dried chaga mushrooms that Joshna used in her chocolate truffles, 2) sea buckthorn syrup presented alongside spelt shortbread and ice cream made with 3) cheese ice cream (courtesy of our friend, Janne, who flew from Sweden again to attend his second NFN). That cheese, by the way, is Vasterbottensost, made in the town of Burträsk less than 300km from the Arctic Circle, and is undoubtedly the world’s most northerly made cheese and, therefore, a perfect ingredient for our dinner party.
The proteins we use are gifted to us by Inuit hunters and friends living north of the 60th parallel. This is the ‘country food’ that will feed these people and their families throughout the year and each year they generously send us portions of whatever they have hunted, caught and fished. Without them, our Northern Food Nights could not happen, and we are always honoured that they share their food with us.
I love introducing northern foods to our southern friends, but what also warms my heart is seeing the connections made between our guests: friendships established and new business connections made, all over the sharing of food. That’s a wonderful thing. And also, Bloggess Extraordinaire, Karlynn Johnston, has made it her thing to bake cookies at midnight, and everyone is just fine with that—especially Man About Town/Mr. Fab Food Writer, Dan Clapson.
The little dinner party that started in 2006 with Steve and I doing all the cooking, now sees a brigade of esteemed Canadian chefs in our kitchen roasting, braising, grilling, poaching, and stir-frying hunks of polar bear, whale, caribou, seal and other northern proteins. These chefs transform the meats from rustic hunks to exquisite creations with names like Pipsi Bacalhau (NFN 8), Gin Cured Char Tartare (NFN 6), and Sea Cucumber on Cayenne Croquette (NFN 5).
Already looking forward to NFN 9!
[Cover photo: ‘Kentucky-fried Blubber (KFB) by Louis Charest. Photo courtesy of Mira Zaki]