Christmas in November: Cooking with Chefs Dale MacKay and Lynn Crawford

The title of this post is a bit of a misnomer, as hands-on cooking with the presenters only seemed to happen incidentally. The focus was on demonstrations, and though in some cases, this was the only way to address a large crowd, in other instances (like with Chef MacKay), they missed an opportunity to offer more tangible learning sessions.

Although I was gunning for Albertan chef Connie DeSousa to win the first season of Top Chef Canada, it wasn’t a surprise that Dale MacKay pulled through in the end. And though his television debut is perhaps still his claim to fame, more recently, his year-old Saskatoon restaurant Ayden placed on EnRoute Magazine’s Best New Restaurants list. I actually didn’t know that Dale had relocated from Vancouver back to his hometown, but its great to hear other “back to the Prairies” stories – Toronto and Vancouver doesn’t have it all!

Unlike some of the other presenters, Dale focused on preparing a single dish of spinach & ricotta ravioli with brown butter sage sauce. This meant he could more thoroughly share his guidelines on fresh pasta dough, forming ravioli, and assembling the final plate.

Chef Dale MacKay

Dale preparing fresh pasta

If I walked away with anything at all from the session, it was how making fresh pasta isn’t all that difficult at all. He recommended making up batches to freeze in smaller single portion servings for quick emergency meals that would take twenty minutes to thaw (enough time to throw together a sauce) and three minutes to cook.

Some of Dale’s pro tips:

  • The gauge if you have the right thickness of pasta for tortellini, pass your hand underneath the dough – if you can see your fingernails, stop rolling.
  • To force the ricotta filling into the end of your piping tube, grasp the top and swing around the bag, rodeo style!
  • Make sure to force all of the air out of the half-moon pasta shapes, to ensure the filling stays in place during cooking.
  • Only use fresh herbs for the sauce – dried herbs will burn. As a bonus, the fried sage can be used as a garnish on the final product.
  • To filter out the brown butter sauce, use a coffee filter – its easier and cheaper than cheesecloth.
  • Toss your cooked pasta together with the sauce in a bowl instead of in the pan – it is gentler on the pasta!

Dale was no doubt one of the more low-key presenters, but his technical knowledge and skills were obvious. At times, I did find that he made assumptions about the audience’s level of understanding, but he was always open to questions and was one of the few presenters to build in a hands-on opportunity to assist (in this instance, with pasta folding). Given his detail-driven nature, it would have lent itself well to workshop-style delivery so attendees could feel the thickness of the pasta, and practice the shaping on an individual basis.

Chef Dale MacKay

Gastropost Alberta Community Manager Brittney Le Blanc (centre) learns how to fold tortellini

After the demonstration, we had the chance to taste the final dish (Dale had brought a total of nine hundred frozen tortellini prepared in the Ayden kitchen along with him to Jasper). The pasta was simple but delicious.

Christmas in November

Spinach & ricotta ravioli with brown butter sage sauce

Dale was gracious enough to pose for a photo at the end of the session. I wish him continued success with Ayden! It’s also worth noting that Chef MacKay will be back in Edmonton in March, as one of the guest chefs at Edmonton’s newest food festival, Northern Lands.

Sharon with Chef Dale MacKay

With Dale (and no, the backdrop isn’t photoshopped!)

From Chef MacKay’s focused session, we transitioned to the other end of the spectrum. Having been invited to Christmas in November with Gastropost, we were also given the chance to attend a VIP session with Chef Lynn Crawford. Billed as the “headliner” of the event, most in the crowd that afternoon seemed to be fans eager for a chance to see Lynn live in person. As a result, I’m not sure the majority of the group minded that it was entertainment, not learning, that dominated the hour.

Chef Lynn Crawford

Cocktail hour with Lynn Crawford

Lynn was an energetic host, and played Pharrell’s “Happy” to lighten the mood. She also invited several audience members to assist her with the demonstration, including the preparation of a modified version of her Pitchin’ In cocktail, a combination of apple and lime juices, rum, carrot puree served in a brown butter-rimmed glass. I wasn’t sure about the carrot, but it seemed to add more colour than flavour.

Christmas in November

Pitchin’ In cocktails

The assembly of her fried chicken with lemon thyme honey (a popular dish at her Toronto restaurant, Ruby Watchco) was scattered, to say the least, and most of the actual cooking took place outside of the room and away from our prying eyes inside the Jasper Park Lodge kitchens. To their credit – we did each end up with a plate of the finished product, with a side of cornbread and slaw to boot.

I will say that Lynn did remarkably well in taking things in stride – when another class paraded into our room, music blaring, without missing a beat, she invited them all to stay for fried chicken. Given the group had just finished up their champagne tasting, she also seized the opportunity to show us a new skill she had gained that week – how to sabre a champagne bottle.

Chef Lynn Crawford

Off with the cork

It was all in good fun, but I will admit, it was a little too much of a whirlwind for me.

Mack and I had a bit of time to change before attending another session just before dinner – they definitely pack it in at Christmas in November!

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