As part of the Canada 150 celebrations happening this year, we’ll be exploring Canadian food from coast to coast all year long. In our Canada’s Chefs series, Tiffany Mayer will be profiling Canadian Chefs from every province, embracing Canadian cuisine. This month she interviews Chef Ayla Smith who is forging a distinctive culinary scene true to the Yukon at Woodcutter's Kitchen in Whitehorse.
Chef Ayla Smith of Woodcutter's Kitchen could easily rewrite the old adage about teaching someone to fish so they can feed themselves for life.
In Smith’s version of the proverb, there’d likely be the addendum that knowing how to net the day’s catch can inspire a person to do great things in the kitchen.
After all, that’s what happened the first time Smith, a born and raised Yukoner, landed her first trout at the age of seven. Her father helped reel it in. Her brother showed her how to clean it. Smith showed them all the magic she could work with it — and just about every other lake fish she’d go on to catch living in Canada’s north.
“That was the first time I was like, ‘I’m going to do this the rest of my life,’ ” Smith, 25, recalled. “I was able to go to my mom’s garden, and I picked the green beans I ate with it, and picked my own salad. The whole experience, from then on it was ‘You want to be proud of what you’re eating.’ It was so good and felt so good to do it all myself.”
Smith is still a boss with a fishing rod in hand. At 25, she’s also in charge at Woodcutter’s Kitchen, the culinary counterpart to Woodcutter’s Blanket, a Whitehorse cocktail bar housed in an old prospector’s log cabin and run by Smith’s partner, James.
With menus that have included bison burgers, local smoked salmon, elk in a blanket — a northern spin on pig in a blanket — collaborations with fellow local chef Troy King, and ingredients from Whitehorse purveyors, Smith has been busy trying to forge a distinctive culinary scene true to place in the Yukon.
That hasn’t been easy in a region where populist and sometimes generic menus rule. They’re bills of fare that resemble those found in restaurants elsewhere in North America, filled with beef burgers, pasta, pizza and pulled pork while offering little sense of northern cuisine.
“Unfortunately in the Yukon, there’s not much of a culinary scene. It’s mind-blowing to me as a young chef,” Smith said. “I feel like we’re on the brink of something good to come and that’s why I’m doing what I’m doing.”
Still, Smith does cook in Canada’s subarctic. And while it’s the home of 24-hour daylight in late June, it’s also a place where growing seasons can feel like they don’t last nearly as long. Fresh produce is at a premium, and like it or not, often needs to be imported.
Smith has an edge in that respect, though. Growing up in Whitehorse, she knows its seasonal idiosyncrasies and how best to procure ingredients. She also has a list of local suppliers literally built up over a lifetime.
Much of the meat she ate growing up was raised by her mom’s farmer friend who raised her own turkey and ruined Smith for store-bought birds.
Where some others in her industry phone it in to Sysco, Smith has continued to forge relationships with farmers as a professional chef and push herself as chef at Woodcutter’s Kitchen.
“A lot of people haven’t tapped into that resource. I was raised in it,” Smith said. “You have to be able to push yourself to go outside your comfort zone to be a chef here. To serve local food, you can make it happen but you have to push yourself. It’s beneficial for everyone. Right now, we have an unchallenged culinary scene here. It’s a huge hotel and tourist industry here, and not a lot of things for locals to enjoy, so it’s starting from the ground up.”
Still, not everyone is convinced of the merits of using local to create a food culture and brand that’s more obviously Yukon.
“The challenge of the clientele, they don’t want to spend money on good food. They want burgers and pasta,” Smith lamented. “If you try to do something different, they tell you you’re hoity-toity or too fancy. It’s been a challenge.”
But Smith is used to those as a woman in a professional kitchen, particularly in a place with an air of hyper-masculinity that was cast during the days of prospectors and trappers and still hangs over the Yukon landscape.
Smith has clocked 11 years in male-dominated kitchens between Whitehorse and Victoria, B.C. The work, at times, was that much harder for her as a woman.
“I’ve been, unfortunately, very sexually harassed. I’ve been told by so many men that I’ll only get anywhere in the industry because I have a pretty face. There’s a lot of male ego in this town. They’re always going to put me down and I think I’m going to have to deal with that unfortunately. Then I have someone like Chef Troy (King of Inn on the Lake) who restores my faith.”
While the haters do their thing, though, Smith’s love of cooking prevails in all she does.
“I love food. It’s not about feeding people but giving someone an experience,” she said. “I feel like everyone comes together over food. It makes me feel good.”
That idea of food as a source of comfort and love isn’t an idealistic chef’s message track or tired cliché. It’s how Smith was raised.
Her parents, both ex-pats from southern Canada, split when Smith was young. Money was tight but lessons in cooking and the power of food were abundant. Smith’s mom used off-cuts of meat to save money and ensure she always had dinner on the table for her children.
“We struggled a long time and my mom always made sure there was meat on the table every night. It would be beef stroganoff or pork in dill sauce but it showed it doesn’t matter what you cook with. If it’s cooked with love, you can turn an obscure cut of meat into something, and that’s stayed with me.”
Dinners at her dad’s meant Smith could play. She called them “experimentation nights” filled with random ingredients thrown together simply to see what would happen.
“Food was happy times in my life. It was when we all sat down and bonded around a meal.”
Never once wavering in her decision to become a chef after that fateful trout catch, Smith cooked competitively in high school and medaled. She worked with chef instructors from Yukon College, “cooking the same thing over and over again just to make it perfect.” She still does that today when creating new dishes and menus at Woodcutter’s Kitchen.
After high school, she cut her teeth further in a truck stop kitchen, doing everything from serving and washing dishes to flipping burgers.
Next stop was culinary school in Victoria, but after a year in a teaching kitchen, Smith decided the best learning opportunities were to be had elsewhere. “I felt it was more valuable working with people in the industry, and learning from them, cooking with them and eating with them,” she recalled.
She landed a job in a bistro kitchen where she absorbed everything she could from the well-travelled head chef, who brought worldly perspective to his Victoria galley. Smith discovered she loved making desserts, and learned the art of delicate French and Swiss pastries made with local ingredients. It was the first time she’d used seasonal food professionally.
Relying on local ingredients was the expectation in Victoria. In Whitehorse, it was cause for culture shock when she returned after three years on Vancouver Island. Life behind the burner and her own ideas about what food should be seemed polar opposites in the north.
“I came here and it was ‘You have to order from Sysco’ or go to the Superstore and buy bruised lettuce,” Smith recalled. “We cooked good food but my heart wasn’t in it. It was cooking to feed someone. It was cooking for turnover. I thought that was all there was here.”
Smith found herself at a proverbial crossroads when her son Grayson was born in 2016. She wanted to stay in the Yukon but she didn’t know if she wanted to cook until presented with the opportunity earlier this year to establish Woodcutter’s Blanket as more than a watering hole.
There was no kitchen in the building, but there was a room in the basement. And it would be all Smith’s to do with whatever she wanted.
“I renovated this concrete vault into a kitchen. I work in a concrete box. I have two hot plates and a toaster oven, and I’ve never been happier in the kitchen.”
There’s no room for a dishwasher but Smith has been so successful at beckoning the hungry with menus that push boundaries she’s had to hire another cook.
Yes, she’s served burgers at Woodcutter’s Kitchen, but the buns were from a local bakery and the meat was bison. Tapping into the lessons about stretching a dollar that were instilled as a child, Smith found a way to incorporate carrot peels in a Woodcutter’s Kitchen salad. The dressing was made with the juice of oranges that had been zested in the bar and were destined for the garbage. She also makes her own aioli, and ketchup to use up tomatoes that never found a place atop one of her burgers.
People are becoming more receptive to Smith’s efforts and it’s only making her hungrier as a chef.
“If I tried to do this eight years ago, they would have shut me down immediately,” she said. “Now people are coming around. There’s a great group of local chefs here showing people we have a lot to offer in the Yukon. People are just starting to change their minds. I picked a good time to start doing what I’m doing. If I do something different and it inspires another restaurant to do something different, that’s what I want to do. It’s like food evolution and I want to be part of it.”
Canada’s Chefs is written by Tiffany Mayer, a freelance journalist and author of Niagara Food: A Flavourful History of the Peninsula’s Bounty (History Press, 2014). She blogs about food and farming at Grub by Eating Niagara. You can also listen to her newly launched food podcast, Grub.