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 Mylène Lachance, who turns "country food" into haute cuisine in Canada's North at The Frob Kitchen & Eatery in Iqaluit, Nunavut.
Here’s the scoop on eating seal: it tastes nothing like chicken.
“Seal, polar bear, walrus, these guys, it’s more of a fishy meat taste,” says Mylène Lachance, executive chef at Iqaluit’s Frobisher Inn and Conference Centre. “It’s meat that tastes like fish. The seal meat has a texture like liver.”
And it lends itself well to sashimi. It also turns out that Japanese spin on a dietary staple of Canada’s Inuit isn’t that different than the traditional way of eating seal in Canada’s North: raw and thinly sliced.
Lachance is skilled at turning “country food” into haute cuisine at The Frob Kitchen & Eatery, the inn’s restaurant and one of the few dining spots in Nunavut’s capital city. Muskox meatballs and caribou short loin have also held places of prominence on her menus, while maktaaq — the blubber of beluga, bowhead whales, or narwhal — gets plated for special occasions.
They’re tastes of the Arctic that southern tourists actively seek out. In fact, vacation plans often hinge on their availability, with visitors ensuring they’ll be able to eat what are rarities south of 60 before they’ll book a room at The Frob’s adjoining hotel.
Problem is, these quintessentially northern foods won’t survive the upcoming revisions Lachance is planning for her menu. Such archetypal ingredients are harder to come by, especially in the quantities Lachance needs to sate the curiosity of those taking a seat in The Frob’s simple dining room with scenes of Inuit life on the walls.
Where once rack of muskox with blueberry gastrique and caribou stew ruled, more populist pizza, beef burgers, and Quebec-raised duck and lamb dominate.
Even the Arctic char that’s the foundation of The Frob’s signature gravlax is harder to come by in a town whose name means "place of many fish."
“It’s not available,” Lachance says. “It’s warmer, the season’s changing. The caribou come out at different times now. Three or four years ago, the muskox were very sick on the land and no one knew why.”
Such are the challenges of cooking in Canada’s most northern capital city, set on the 63rd parallel. It’s not quite the Arctic circle but Iqaluit is only accessible by plane and ship. That means most of what goes into Lachance’s culinary creations comes to her kitchen by way of a cargo plane from Quebec.
And if the weather’s bad, or there are mechanical issues, Lachance is forced to dig a little deeper.
“If the cargo doesn’t show up, you have to work with what you have,” she says.
Still, this Gaspé, Quebec-born culinarian wouldn’t have it any other way. She excels under the pressure of working in a kitchen with uncertainty as its muse.
“I’m passionate about cooking. I’ve always been,” Lachance says. “Even with all the challenges with staff (being hard to find), with the cargo, I guess I like trouble. But I do well around it. I always organize myself around it.”
Truth is, Lachance is a natural in a kitchen and, therefore, at dealing with the proverbial curveballs it throws at a person.
Her grandfather was a chef. Her grandmother and mom were both prolific cooks. They put up beets and tomatoes in the fall and made tourtière together in winter.
“I’ve been raised in a cooking world,” Lachance explains. “They all taught me to cook. I was fond of going to my grandma’s and making bread and eating sweet cakes. That’s what I remember from my childhood. We were always cooking.”
But high grades in school steered her away from the kitchen and into studying science before she abandoned that for law school. There was no question she had the mind for both but she realized her heart wasn’t in either.
Lachance struggled as a young woman to find a career path that would lead her to both personal and professional satisfaction. Some soul-searching was in order, and she returned from university to do it in a Gaspé restaurant kitchen during the summer of 2003.
The answer she so desperately sought made itself known when a culinary arts instructor from Centre de formation professionnel C.-E. Pouliot de Gaspé came into the restaurant and eventually asked her to consider cooking school.
She applied, got accepted, and hit her stride.
“I got into cooking school, I did lots of cooking competitions. It was a reboot for me. I was living again.”
And working star-studded gigs. Lachance took her toque blanche to Jacques Villeneuve’s Newtown restaurant in Montreal. She also worked in the kitchen at Céline Dion’s Le Mirage Golf Club just outside the city, and served as personal chef to Canada’s biggest musical export and her family.
Lachance recalls fondly how she would sometimes share the kitchen with “Maman Dion,” doing up family favourites with the matriarch for Christmas parties and other shindigs hosted by the chanteuse.
From there, she cut her teeth in the kitchens of the tony Fairmont Resorts chain. Lachance headed west to the Chateau Lake Louise in Alberta where she spent six years working to become sous chef.
Lachance won’t say whether that was a long time or not for such an achievement. She will tell you it wasn’t easy as a woman watching from behind the burner as others rose through the ranks faster and perhaps with less diligence in the kitchen.
“I worked hard, and a lot. As much as women cook at home, it’s still hard in 2017 for women to work to a high rank in the kitchen,” Lachance explains. “It felt that I had to prove myself a lot more than everyone else. I was working so hard because I wanted to prove I was capable … . I had people working with me going up faster than I was. I’ve seen it. I was there.”
Lachance was beckoned north after a brief stint at Mont-Tremblant where she butted heads with union reps. The hands-on hash slinger couldn’t stand being an “office chef” and continued to clock long hours in the kitchen rather than doing the administrative work that membership preferred her to handle.
In 2011, a former colleague from Lake Louise offered her the sous role at The Frob, then named The Gallery. Three years later, the kitchen was hers entirely. Ditto for the title of executive chef.
Lachance has the freedom to do what she wants, she says. She has a chef’s table with room for 10 in her kitchen where she puts her stamp on the food she cooks using Asian flavours. The five tastes of Chinese or Viet-Thai cooking — salty, spicy, sweet, sour, and bitter — never cease to inspire.
She keeps a small stash of muskox and caribou in the freezer, reserved now for the special occasions she caters, like the recent swearing in of the legislative assembly. And unlike her previous post in Mont-Tremblant, Lachance has the full support of her colleagues and employers.
“If you want something, they’re going to get it for you,” she says. “I enjoy it a lot. I have free range to do what I want. I have access to the product I want.”
Lachance, 39, figured she’d put in a few years in Iqaluit, then head south again to open her own restaurant. Life, of course, had other plans when she met a teacher and had her son, Charles-Edward, four.
She’s since rejigged her plans for her own place in part because good help in the kitchen has become just as scarce as those country foods she once cooked regularly.
“There’s not that many cooks anymore,” Lachance laments. “What’s amazed me and kind of driven me bonkers, there’s so many people going to cooking school and they think they come out being chefs. These shows, Master Chef, on TV, they make it look so easy. They think they know everything and they don’t. [Life in the kitchen] it’s unpredictable. You’re always reacting to stuff around you. You cannot predict everything.”
Especially the future. Lachance figures she’ll eventually return to la Belle Province. She wants Charles-Edward learning French more intensively, and she dreams of cooking at private parties in people’s homes. Spending more time in her own is also part of the plan.
“In Quebec, [cooking in people’s homes] really, really popular right now,” Lachance says. “I would be able to be with my son a little more. As it is, I work a lot of hours. You get home and your kid is in bed already. It’s hard. It’s hard for a woman to be a chef, really.”
As long as her name is on The Frob’s menu, however, Lachance refuses to hand over her kitchen to someone else so she can make it home to say good night.
“I have friends who have restaurants and someone else cooks for them,” she says. “Good for them, but it’s not for me.”
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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.