No Rice, No Good

January 16, 2016 § Leave a comment

The best Chinese restaurant in the Sahtu could pass for an oil camp from the outside. In the parking lot in late February, truckers fresh off the winter road sleep in their cabs, engines idling. The restaurant is just a room in a branch of nine camp trailers that make up the Sahtu Dene Inn (around Norman Wells, the hotel and restaurant go by their former name, the Mackenzie). The dining room has no door, just a tangerine tartan rug and a beaded blue curtain leading inside. On the other side of that curtain there’s a whole other world going on.

At a table along the left wall, a pudgy boy hiccups into the crook of his mother’s arm, a wonton floating in the soup bowl in front of him. The walls to his left and right are fake brick, draped with plastic ivy and maple leaves. In front and behind, it’s a French chalet: smeared stucco crossed with beams painted dark brown to resemble oak wood. The boy stares shyly at a stuffed wolverine, cupped in the antler of a moose. Several hundred pounds of taxidermy stare back.

“No pictures!” says the owner as my companion pulls out her camera. “No interviews!” she says at the sight of my notepad. “No!” she shakes her head at a man attempting to order a char stir-fry without rice. “No rice, no good!”

When the Mackenzie was established in 1983, it was intended as a camp for industrial workers. Original owner Jerry Loomis bought the trailers from Imperial Oil, who’d been in the area since 1937, and was building a set of artificial drilling islands in the Mackenzie River. Loomis owned a transportation company, gas station and a vehicle rental service and needed a place to house his employees.

But when oil prices collapsed in 1986, Loomis shifted his attention to tourism. He bought the pricey tartan rug in Edmonton—$40-45 a yard—and imported a kitchen of French chefs. “We had six outfitters working out of the hotel, and, at $20-30,000 a shot, we were catering to the Ted Turners, the big game hunters. [Former NWT premier] Steve Kakfwi wouldn’t stay anyplace else.” Lobsters and chateaubriand were shipped up by the planeload. Trophies—sheep and moose heads, pelts and weapons—collected on the walls.

In 2000, oil prices rose again and wilderness tourism declined. The Mackenzie was outdated anyway. Loomis sold the hotel and restaurant to Jane Han, then Norman Wells’ only Chinese resident. Han kept the steaks on the menu but added her own creations, including a couple of local fish dishes and produce from Loomis’ greenhouse. She stuck with the décor and added some wolf skins to the walls, some porcelain tea sets and red lanterns in the corners. The restaurant became a favourite for Sahtu Dene travelling through Norman Wells to see family or do some shopping.

Last year, the hotel portion of the Mackenzie was sold to the Sahtu Dene council and the restaurant went to Han’s brother-in-law. Vietnamese dishes got added into the mix and the dining room got a new name: Sam’s Café.

This year, a sign appeared on the cash register: “Unfortunately, due to an increase in gas prices of 138% we will have to raise our food prices by 5%.” The tables are selectively dressed, as if someone ran out of energy halfway through. The thermostat reads 12 degrees but I can’t tell if the room is cold or the thermostat’s just broken. A little alcove in the back right of the dining room is shut down with the lights off.

Later, over the phone, Sahtu Dene Council spokesman Brian Davidson confirms it: “Imperial Oil is shutting off the natural gas in Norman Wells this year, and it just won’t be practical to convert [the Mackenzie] from natural gas to oil.” Davidson says the council plans to move the trailers off the lot and build a whole new hotel and restaurant in their place. “That old girl,” he says, “is in her last days.”

The owner comes back to clear our empty plates and to bark at the man who wanted his stir-fry without rice: “Eat your vegetables!” Everybody laughs. With the bill, she brings fortune cookies. My neighbour’s reads: “Something on wheels will be a fun investment.” Mine: “You will bring sunshine into someone’s day.”

This story was originally published in Up Here magazine, with an illustration by Jonathan Wright. Read that version here.

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