By Adrian Brijbassi
Vacay.ca Managing Editor
The epiphany that sparked his dramatic decision to depart as chef of Canada’s premier luxury property took place for Murray McDonald on the edge of the land on which he was raised, doing the work he undertook to celebrate the only heritage he knew.
It was while foraging for ingredients for his dishes at the Fogo Island Inn that McDonald stood upright to stare into the North Atlantic – a body of water whose waves perpetually slap Newfoundland with salt, ocean and motivation. He recalls watching the sea and allowing a thought to slam into him like a hit of adrenaline. “Yes,” he told himself, “I am cooking Indigenous food.”
McDonald was on an outing with his apprentice, a Mi’kmaq chef, when this eureka moment changed his life’s purpose. They thought they were just gathering botanicals and plant flowers. But it turns out they were also finding a deeper link to McDonald’s past. His maternal ancestors were Inuit from Labrador and he had Métis bloodlines on his father’s side but never explored his Indigenous heritage until adulthood. The Canadian government suppressed Indigenous identity and culture for much of the 20th century, leading to lost lineage for many people.
“For me, it feels like part of my heritage was stolen away from me. I should have been raised and taught this stuff, but I wasn’t. I want to learn about this part of me, and the best way I think to do that is through the food,” McDonald says.
He has spent the last three years studying Indigenous cuisine and culture, collaborating with the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada to grow awareness of culinary traditions. Now, McDonald finds himself as the new executive chef at the leading Indigenous-focused property in Canada, Spirit Ridge Resort — Unbound Collection by Hyatt.
McDonald arrived in April to work with the Osoyoos Indian Band (OIB) and their expanding tourism initiatives. His vision complements NK’Mip Cellars. The winery owned by the OIB and Arterra Wines Canada has earned international renown for its collection of wines. Winemakers Randy Picton and Justin Hall have quickly become advocates for McDonald and the skills he brings to the South Okanagan Valley.
“Next door has always been trying to go with the theme about the land and that we’re Native, but it has never really hit the mark,” Hall says of the Spirit Ridge restaurant. “Murray has brought in something that is truly a little more from the land and you can taste it in the cooking.”
The restaurant has been rebranded with a name that refers to the legend of the Four Food Chiefs of the Okanagan Nation. The Bear, The Fish, The Root and The Berry puts on a plate McDonald’s contemporary version of Indigenous recipes. He emphasizes the use of ingredients that pre-date contact with Europeans, and excludes gluten and added sugar. You’ll find bison instead of beef, menu items highlighting foraged ingredients like sumac and sage, and varieties of bannock, the flatbread that sustained Indigenous people across Canada for centuries.
“If you look at all the ways people are eating now – with the different superfoods and fad diets — Indigenous food has always been this, people just never realized it. I think it’s why Indigenous culinary is coming around and having a renaissance.” McDonald opines. “People are finally catching on that these Indigenous guys have been doing it for so long and we didn’t even know it.”
The restaurant makeover excites Hall, who is eager for the first series of wine-paired fall dinners at NK’Mip Cellars and The Bear, The Fish, The Root and The Berry. “The things I love about the industry are getting together, getting away from technology, enjoying the experience. That’s what food and wine is about. And that’s why I like Murray so much. He makes really good food, and I try to make some good wine to go with it.”