Chef Dale MacKay: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became a Chef

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Don’t fake it till you make it. Be the real deal. Know your craft inside and out. You won’t always have the answers or knowledge, but it’s your job to keep learning to find them.

As part of our series about the lessons from influential ‘TasteMakers’, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Chef Dale MacKay.

Canada’s first Top Chef winner, and multi-award winning culinary artist, Chef Dale MacKay had been a protégé to world renowned Chef Gordon Ramsay at his restaurants in Tokyo, London and New York and was Executive Chef at Lumière in Vancouver, BC. Managed by world renowned Chef Daniel Boulud.

Dale MacKay was born in Saskatchewan, Canada, and, like most great chefs, knew at an early age that he was destined for the kitchen. Before working under Chef Gordon Ramsay & Chef Daniel Boulud, Dale spent time as a private chef in Rome, in BC’s Queen Charlotte Islands at the elite West Coast Fishing Club.

After winning Top Chef Canada Dale had formed a team to move back to his hometown of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan in 2013 to open up Ayden Kitchen and Bar, named after his son Ayden. Ayden Kitchen and Bar has accumulated numerous prestigious awards. Since then, Dale has opened up four more restaurants: A modern Italian restaurant called Little Grouse on the Prairie; A non-traditional Korean & Japanese restaurant focusing on ramen, sushi, and izakaya style cuisine called Sticks and Stones; Avenue Restaurant, which focuses on global cuisine using world flavors with a heavy French influence on the menu; and DOJO Ramen, which focuses on Japanese and Korean Food.

Thank you for joining us Dale. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

My story is a lot less romantic than many other chefs! I didn’t have an Italian grandma who passed down family recipes and taught me the way. There was very little food culture growing up. Very meat and potatoes. I don’t think I tried a mango tell I was 19 years old. I dropped out of school at the age of 14 years old and moved across the country on my own. I started washing dishes and eventually, working my way to a fry cook at a chain restaurant. From there, I fell in love with food and being a chef in general and since then, I have dedicated the last 27 years of my life to food and hospitality in over 6 countries.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

For 6 months I had planned and developed two menus, one traditional and one vegan for 2,500 people for the Canadian music awards, The Junos. After months of testing, tastings and meetings…. it was time. We prepped for 4 days leading up, doing very intricate vegetable garnishes and thousands of canapes. I was standing in the kitchen about to start cutting the first of 2500 portions of fruit terrine when my phone started going off none stop. It was March 15th, 2020. The city, province and country were to be shut down and the awards would not be happening. In my wildest thoughts I would have never imaged this being possible. Truly a feeling or situation that hopefully will never happen again. The extreme upside was that the food was donated to people in need and shelters.

Is there a person that made a profound impact on your life? Can you share a story?

I have been very lucky to have had some very amazing mentors in my life. Gordon Ramsay being one of them. When I was 19 I saw a documentary on Gordon trying to get 3 Michelin stars by the time he was 33. To become the youngest ever. It was the most intense kitchen I had ever seen, he was the most focused and driven person I had ever seen. It was like being around a lion. So, I applied for a working visa to England and 4 weeks later I was standing outside his restaurant asking for a job.

The very first time I met him, I called him chef. He always wanted to be called Gordon……I replied “Yes Chef” and he said you call me chef one more time and you will be cooking staff food for the next month. I said “yes Gordon” he replied nice meeting you and locked deep in my eyes with a stiff handshake…and I said “great to meet you too Chef.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now?

Yes, I feel like we are always working on new things or at the very least always changing and making what we do better. We have a new Restaurant concept coming in early 2023. It will bring together everything we love about traveling and eating around the world!

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world? Are you working on any meaningful or exciting nonprofit projects?

I work closely with Dyslexia Canada as an ambassador. Doing speaking events, school visits and mentoring the youth. Helping them guide through life with dyslexia and educating the public about Dyslexia based on my experiences.

I am a founding member of a foundation that mentors at-risk youth. The foundation now has 28 chapters. Being open, vulnerable, and willing to have hard conversations is something I have had to learn and feel like it allowed me to really connect with people in an impactful way.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I have a few people in my life that I wouldn’t be where I am or who I am without them. I met Yvette 14 years ago. She was an accountant at a restaurant group I was the chef at.

We became close friends over the years of working together. I have never met someone who is so generous with their time and with the fountain of knowledge she had given me. If she didn’t know the answer to a question I had, I could guarantee by the next day she would have more info and understanding of it then I had needed or even wanted. She works chef hours but as an accountant. When I left to open my first restaurant, she spent hours and days with me. Through the hardest times of my life, she has been there for me, literally saving my financial life and teaching me along the way. She is a close friend to this day and still over seeks our restaurant groups books with her stepmother as our bookkeeper. I wouldn’t be where I am without her.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I’m still working on it! I’m only 43! Mostly, I try to be kinder and a better person every day. I do my best to convince everyone around me to do the same. Giving people the opportunity to better themselves is rewarding and something I strive for every day.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

Don’t fake it till you make it. Be the real deal. Know your craft inside and out. You won’t always have the answers or knowledge, but it’s your job to keep learning to find them. When I was a young cook there was a sous chef that liked to talk a big game about all the many things, he was great at. Butchering fish being one of them. Normally the fish would come into the restaurant off the bone and would just need to be cut into portions. One day on a Friday 5 salmon showed up whole. A couple other young cooks and I were very excited as we had never seen a whole fish being broken down and wanted to learn how to do it. I could clearing see the dread on the sous chef’s face. We gathered around him to see and learned. It was very quickly realized he had no experience or understanding what he was doing. He proceeded to ruin 2 whole fish. The head chef eventually walked by and saw what was happening and put an end to it. He sent us away and laid into the sous-chef. Not for not knowing how to clean the fish, but for not being humble enough to admit it or ask to be taught how. It’s a situation I told myself I would never let myself be in. Weather in the kitchen or in life.

Surround yourself with the best people. In and out of work. But also know when to cut the wrong people out. I once had a very talented chef work with me for many years. I mentored him very closely, how to be the best chef and person possible. I gave more of myself to him than any other person. I had to sit down and realise he was affecting all the other great people around me. I had clouded my own judgement over the years trying to better him. When in the end it was making other relationships harder and much less successful.

In kitchens things move fast and you need to be decisive. But sometimes decisions don’t need to be made right away. It best to take some time or a night to let things process when ever possible. It will often surprise yourself how a bit of time and thought will go a long way. I once lost a very large catering account over just this. I let my own ego and hard head get the best of me and made a phone call that would have never happened if I would have given myself a night to think things through.

I would consider being a chef or the hospitality industry a passion driven job. Passion and ambition have been maybe my strongest attributes in my carrier. It’s what gets me out of bed each morning! But ambition can also cloud your judgement at time and make you feel like you have all the answers. It’s important to be able to hear other people and advice. I have learnt this the hard way a few times in my carrier.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

People will remember your example, not your advice” My mom has been the biggest influencer in my life. I didn’t really start to realize how much until I became an adult and a single father to my son, Ayden. My mother showed integrity, respect, relentlessness every day. I have never seen someone so willing to get their hands dirty at home and work. As a kid I found it somewhat annoying at the time hahaha. I early on realised she ingrained me with all the same values without me even realizing it. I have taken that and always tried to do the same with my staff and I’m proud to same I see the same in my son Ayden

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Dave Chapelle! For soo many reasons. He is the GOAT of stand up and that’s just a small part of him. He has shown such character, intellect, class, grace, and integrity through his whole life. He is a self-made from nothing but hard work and passion. He left the business and 100M dollars when he was at the very top of the game. All because of his values and integrity. Came back 10 years later and built him self back up by honing his craft again from the ground up playing small clubs and just doing what he loved. It would be the funniest and most insightful meal I could image.

Thank you so much for these insights. This was very inspirational!

Chef Dale MacKay: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became a Chef was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.