Chef Interview: Murray McDonald

Fogo Island Inn, Fogo Island, NFLL


Living and cooking in one of Canada’s most remote locations -- an island off the northeast coast of Newfoundland -- and being able to garner national attention for your food is no easy feat. But Chef Murray McDonald and his take on East Coast cuisine saw the restaurant at the Fogo Island Inn land on enRoute magazine’s Top 10 Best New Restaurant lists last year.

Before returning home to Newfoundland, Chef Murray’s journey saw him travel the world, cooking at stops from Bermuda to China, New Zealand and Mexico. Here, the itinerant chef dishes to Calgary food writer and blogger Dan Clapson on everything from yelling in the kitchen to how the hell he wound up cooking at home in Newfoundland again.


Where did you hone your cooking skills?

I've been everywhere! Originally from Newfoundland - born and raised...I was one of those poor kids from Newfoundland that wanted to go see the world, so one day I just decided that I would do it. No mommy or daddy was gonna pay for me to see the world and I wanted to see what the world was all about. Friends of the family was like, ‘hey, if you go to culinary school, then you could travel while cooking’.


And off you went to discover the world?

Yeah. I worked in Canada for a while - PEI, Ontario - then I left Canada and worked in Bermuda, Cook Islands, Caymans, New Zealand, and Mexico. In late 2009, I moved back to Vancouver, helped with a hotel there just before the Olympics and that was crazy! I've done everything from independent restaurants, wineries, country clubs, boutique hotels, large scale hotels... anywhere from 700 covers for lunch to just 30 covers for dinner. You name it, I've done it.


Fogo Island is a pretty random spot. How did you decide to head back East to work in a place this remote?

There was another Newfoundlander working in the hotel in Vancouver. We'd chat every once and awhile and he was like, ‘Hey, did you hear? Someone is building a boutique hotel on Fogo Island. My mom saw it on the news!’ and I thought, ‘Who the hell would build anything on Fogo Island?’ But, I went home, looked it up and found out that it was actually happening... it seemed interesting.

I was looking at this generic info page with an email, so I thought I'd shoot them an email, say I was a Newfoundlander, that I'd traveled the world cooking, and was kind of looking to move home, heard about this, here's my resume...I sent it off and then four to six hours later they called me. Everything in life happens for a reason!


Were you sick of working in a big city or something?

Well, I have a wife and two kids. When you start to have a family, your life changes a bit and I think you miss a little bit about what you had growing up. I loved Vancouver and the city, but I was working for a big hotel corporation and they were just killin' my soul, man! Just turning into a number-crushing paper pusher is pretty much what happens [in a place like that]. I was inches away from giving up cooking.


Yeah, I almost moved to Fort Mac [home to Canada’s oilsands mining industry]. I was about a week away from moving up here and driving heavy haulers instead. I thought, if I'm going to be miserable, I may as well make some good money at it - laughs. But, my wife talked me out of it and told me that I wouldn't be happy and then, all of sudden, this opportunity popped up. Now, I've been here for two years and kind of rediscovered Newfoundland cuisine. I’m having a blast and people are really digging what we're doing. Here, I make sure all of the dishes relate back to Newfoundland in some way shape or form.


I’m going to go out on a limb and assume it’s hard to source ingredients on Fogo Island since it’s pretty much as far east as you can get in this country?

Holy shit man, you don't know how hard it is to have a restaurant in rural Newfoundland. Most of my day is spent trying to source things, working with local farmers. I've been here for two years, so I have good relationships with a lot of farmers on Fogo Island and on the mainland, so they're working with me. Helping me with greenhouses, growing things for me, root cellars to store things over the winter.


I have a lot of newfie friends and they all seem to love salt beef, definitely an interesting ingredient. Is that something that pops up on your menu a lot?

Oh yeah, we use it on the menu. It's not like your main piece of meat. We do pea soup, split pea, salt beef and a doughboy - sort of like a simple dumpling. We do a traditional sailing dish too with cabbage and salt beef. It’s actually one of the integral flavours of Newfoundland cuisine, so it ends up in a lot of things here.


Is sourcing staff as tough as sourcing local ingredients?

Right now on the island, there's about 2,500 people. We hire a lot of local staff and we train them how to cook. We had 10 local candidates for culinary and we put them through our own 25 week culinary program to teach them how to cook. We also had to bring in a few cooks from different parts of Canada. At first, opening the restaurant and trying to find people was interesting, for sure. At the moment, not so bad. More people are interested after they see you do something good.


Since being on the enRoute best new restaurants list, you travel a lot now. Is there a dish that you’re sick of seeing on restaurant menus?

Tuna tataki. For the love of God people, get over the albacore tuna and do something else. That's one of those dishes, especially in Vancouver when I lived there, where it seemed like every, single restaurant I went into had Tuna Tataki on the menu. There are more things out there in the world. I used to work in the Pacific Islands and, trust me, they have a lot more on the go than that dish - laughs. That used to drive me crazy in Vancouver.


Is there anything that frustrates you about the food scene in Eastern Canada?

The only thing that drives me nuts in Newfoundland right now is that there's a lot of chain restaurants moving in. In droves. The last thing we need in Newfoundland is a bunch of big chain restaurants moving here and serving people crap food. We're cooking great Newfoundland food and that's what we need. We need people here supporting the local farmers and what not, not the big restaurants ordering things from a giant factory that are shipped over here in plastic bags. It really gets me going.


What do you think of chefs who choose to work for large restaurant groups like that?

To each their own. It's a rough business, everyone has to make a living. I have nothing personally against those chefs that choose to work for chains like that. Everyone has got to do my own thing...If you can make a living in the culinary world, no matter what you're doing, I wish everyone the best. It's not what I would choose, but no hard feelings for those people on that side of things.


Chefs and food bloggers have a love/hate sort of relationship. Well, maybe more hate I guess. Do you see a lot of that online media on Fogo Island?

No, not really. Mainly here, we're in our own little world. I deal with the guests that come in, talk to them about the food, get their feedback, appreciation or things they feel are not really for them. It's nice to be in our own little world, which is a good thing and a bad thing I guess all at the same time.


Have you been to a ‘big hype’ restaurant lately in your travels that was kind of a let down?

You're trying to get me to talk smack are you? Ha, ha, ha. Naw, I'm not going to say anything like that. It's a hard business, not many people make it, so if a chef's out there, making a living at it and getting some hype, I'll wish all the best to him or her!


All right, well what do you do in a restaurant when you have a dish that’s not very good or not prepared properly?

I usually don't say anything and then don't go back. I'm one of those people. Although, the last couple of years, people will know who I am, which still blows my mind slightly, but there's no point in me being an asshole or anything.

But, I was in Toronto at a restaurant a few months back and I got served something rotten. I'm not gonna say who and I'm not gonna say what, but I went and told the guy, "Hey, you know this thing, there's something not quite right going on there." Industry self-respect, don't want to get anyone sick or anything, but he got really pissed at me. So, I was like, “Ok, all the best!”


Is there one ingredient you don’t really like to eat or cook with?

I don't care much for albacore tuna, it's flavourless. I know it's sustainable and all of that, but it don't really float my boat. Another one I don't really like, I don't use it out here anyway because they're too far away, are B.C. Spot Prawns.


Really? Who doesn’t love spot prawns?

Yeah, I don't know...something about them...I mean, there's nothing wrong with them but they don't really float my boat for the amount of money you pay for them and all the hype that they get. I also don't use foie gras or truffles or anything like that. I'm over here working with the humble turnip, seeing what I can do to elevate that, I'm on that side of things over here.


What’s something that pisses you off when you’re working in a kitchen?

Cocky jackasses. It's a tough business, you work long hours and spend a lot of time together. In my kitchen, it's all collaborative. The last thing you need [in a kitchen] are people running around screaming and yelling all day long and degrading people. If someone comes into my kitchen and is yelling and screaming, I'll literally pick them up and throw them out. It's not my thing man. Industry is hard enough as it is and those people? You don't need 'em. That whole yelling and screaming thing is really dying out now anyway and I'm really happy it is.

Learn more about the Fogo Island Inn.