Dempster’s Smorgasbord

May 5, 2014 § Leave a comment

“To the nines” is not a phrase I generally associate with any aspect of Arctic travel, but Rick Dempster uses it several times throughout our conversation. It’s how he describes the quality of his ingredients: fresh fruits and vegetables, pork and beef tenderloins, locally-sourced fish and meats. It’s how he describes his safety measures (his kitchens are certified to NASA standards) and the attention to detail in his presentation (if you’ve ever marveled at First Air and Canadian North’s use of faux stainless steel cutlery, that’s Dempster). In fact, the next airplane you board may well be the best restaurant in the Arctic. That’s especially notable for two reasons: one, because the North is the only place left in Canada where you can still get a free, hot meal on your flight. And two, because Dempster, the man behind it all, isn’t even a trained chef.

Dempter’s business, YK Inflight Service, operates out of a building on Franklin Avenue, which, as one lifelong Yellowknifer once put it to me, “I thought was abandoned.” Aside from a cargo truck decaled with the kitchen’s lackluster logo, the building doesn’t just seem inactive; it looks condemned. But Dempster prefers to work incognito: YK Inflight Service began as a side project operating out of the kitchen of his main job managing a couple of franchise steakhouses, Mr. Mikes. Mr. Mikes North, located in a Yellowknife underground strip mall, was having trouble retaining its managers, so Dempster flew up to assess the problem. It’s a familiar Northern story: he stayed nine years.

“One day,” he remembers, “the father of one of the kids that worked for me came in for a coffee. It was the general manager of what was then NWT Air. He asked me if I’d be interested in doing a bit of food for the airline. At that time it was just a small regional” – 50 to 60 sandwiches and coffee per day – “so I said, ‘Sure.’” Within three weeks the airline bought a jet, and quickly added on a couple more. So Dempster moved his catering side unit to the stand-alone building, “and added on and added on and added on.”

First Air acquired NWT Air in 1997 and Canadian North contracted YK Inflight Service in 2001. Both airlines preferred Dempster’s services to their southern caterers, so they asked him to open a small kitchen in Edmonton. That grew into an 18,000-square-foot, 25-employee facility at the Edmonton International Airport that services all flights to the Alberta oilsands in addition to the North. On busy days, working from 25 different recipes, the Yellowknife and Edmonton kitchens make a combined 4,500 to 6,500 meals.

Opulence was the stated goal from day one. Bob Engel, NWT Air’s then-owner, “was very picky,” says Dempster. “He did everything right up to the nines: Royal Doulton china, which was $40 a place setting. Everything was china, right down to the teacup and saucer, and real wine glasses. Everything was free.” The basement commissary baked its own brownies and carrot cake and roasted its own potatoes; cooks opted for bone-in ham’s legs and slow-roasted hips of beef over deli meat, which is “too watery,” loaded with salt and preservatives – “just crap.”

It was a steep learning curve for Dempster, whose only work experience before Mr. Mikes was as a bank teller at CIBC. For one thing, airplane food is tasteless – “it’s a scientific fact,” he says. “Food tastes different at sea level than it does at 30,000 feet. The higher you go, the less your taste buds work. You may have heard over the years that airline food is bland. Well, that’s true. We have to account for that.” At the same time, “in the North especially, there’s a big issue with a lot of salt in people’s diets, so we have to accommodate for that too.”

In addition to balancing health and taste considerations, there are vast lifestyle divides between Dempster and many of his customers. “I tried to stay away from canned peaches,” he said, “but then I realized that canned peaches, in the North, are almost, if not more, popular than real peaches. Fresh fruit isn’t readily available in the Arctic. It’s the same thing with canned milk. Northerners prefer canned milk to fresh milk … I can’t always trust my own tastes.” For customer feedback, he relies mostly on comment cards. Canadian flight attendant Irene Voaklander says she met Dempster when she served him his own food on an Edmonton-to-Yellowknife flight. She was struck by his interest in customers’ thoughts on the recipes.

He gained renown in the south as well as the North – so much that at one point, two managers who came to work for him from Skychef (the catering service that used to cook for many southern airlines) told him that Canadian Airlines was using his menus, unbeknownst to him. “I was more complimented than annoyed,” Dempster says. “They had top-notch chefs down there, and they were using our tiny, little Northern carriers’ menus! So I was quite pleased.”

The height of Dempster’s smorgasbord was sometime around 2007, when Canadian North launched its “Aurora Class” campaign – basically a marketing strategy that catered to tourists looking to travel the North in style. Head office asked the Edmonton kitchen to develop some upscale recipes, and that resulted in a few major flops: Dempster’s assistant and Red Seal chef Robert Church remembers rooting through the used trays from the days’ flights to find mountains of uneaten duck cannelloni, quinoa and curried couscous. “And that kind of thing just doesn’t go over in the North,” says Church. “Northerners want meat and potatoes, and we’re a mom-and-pop kind of cuisine, a really high-quality diner. The ‘vealstuffed- something’ had to go right away.”

It went, but not only because the crowds didn’t like it. In 2008 a financial trifecta hit the Northern airline industry that caused some scaling back and almost threatened food service entirely. The global recession, coupled with beefed-up security requirements (including an annual $70,000 food safety inspection for YK Inflight Service alone) caused southern airlines to cut freebies. Hot meal service disappeared almost overnight. And when those southern airlines started to break into the Northern market (Westjet began flying to Yellowknife in 2009), First Air and Canadian North had to cheapen their flights to compete. The Royal Doultons were the first to go – “Tons of it, literally, to the dump!” Dempster gasps.

Still, his kitchens aren’t cutting any culinary corners, despite the new constraints. They only recently cut cantaloupe, a “difficult melon,” from the menu, due to its salmonella-harbouring characteristics. (It required seven temperature checks before it even went into bowls.)

And Canadian North manager of onboard product Joyce Hansen maintains that in-flight meals were never in any danger of disappearing. “It’s part of the branding of our product,” she says. “Customers expect it, we’re the only ones still doing it, and in terms of food, we’re compared to legacy airlines [like] Wardair.” Plus, she adds, get rid of the bannock and tea service on the 444 run to Norman Wells and “people would notice.”

Hansen doesn’t mention two major reasons Northern airlines can still afford hot meal service: the airplanes are older, usually bought used (smaller, classic models are better suited to the gravel airstrips of smaller communities), and those older planes are roomier, often equipped with standalone galleys for meal preparation. Still, says Dempster, “First Air has newer aircraft coming in that are fitted with galleys, same with Canadian North.” He agrees with Hansen: hot meals are staying put.

And he goes further: he decries the U.S. and southern Canadian move to barebones service. “Meals on average add about eight or nine dollars to the price of the ticket.” (Canadian North’s Aurora Class-era kosher special was actually $29 per plate). “It’s very little when you think about it. And for Air Canada, which had crappy meals, it cost only four dollars. So you think, what did they really gain by getting rid of them? It’s a false economy, I think.” He adds, “It’ll be interesting to see how things shake out in the next 10 years or so regarding meal service … In the North, though, you’re going to see the meals used as a marketing tool.”

And why not? In-flight meals are one of the North’s few exclusive luxuries. As Church says, “It’s a little bit different in the North, a little bit more rugged and it takes a little bit more energy as a passenger to make those flights on an ATR prop job out of Yellowknife … When you’re flying east-west, you can have your 57 channels of movies and TV and all that stuff, and if you get hungry, you can buy an onboard deli sandwich wrapped in plastic. Not so in the North. In the North, the food is the entertainment.”

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