When Yellowknife residents were told to leave their homes on August 16, Niki Mckenzie, chef and owner of Fishy People, had a gut feeling she should stay.
Mckenzie said she knew she wouldn’t be a drain on resources because she lives off-grid and had an escape plan if things turned for the worst.
But mostly, she had a hunch that nobody had thought of feeding the crews that were staying behind to protect the city – people working to build fire breaks, firefighters, RCMP and other essential workers.
Shortly after the evacuation order went out, Mckenzie went to her kitchen, put a post on Facebook and started cooking big meals.
“By lunchtime on the first day, I had almost 100 customers,” she said. “By evening, I had just shy of 200 out of my little kitchen.”
In the early days of the evacuation, Mckenzie said it was just her and Rich McIntosh, who co-owns Sundog Trading Post and helped with organization.
In the next few days, the team started to grow, with people dropping by to see if they could help.
One of those was Franziska Ulbricht, who runs Madeline Lake Market Garden and Lowbush Artworks on the Ingraham Trail. Ulbricht and her family had decided to stay behind and camp in Old Town, close to the water. She was walking her dogs on the morning of August 19 when she passed Fishy People, noticing the door was open.
“I just walked in by chance and offered my help,” she said.
Two more people showed up that morning, according to Ulbricht, and another two joined in the afternoon.
“The first few days were pretty chaotic, because it involved a lot of getting organized,” Ulbricht said, adding that officials did not appear to have a plan for how to feed essential workers. (Cabin Radio reached out to the City of Yellowknife for comment, but did not receive a response before publication. At the time of the request, the city was scrambling to coordinate evacuees’ return.)
In the Fishy People kitchen, Mckenzie and a team of volunteers prepared sandwich lunches and cooked dinners, then packed up most of them for delivery. The team managed to feed roughly 200 people daily.
Ulbricht said volunteers came from all walks of life – “accountants, teachers, gardeners, moms, dads, massage therapists, world travellers, you name it,” she wrote in an email to Cabin Radio. “Only one food-safe certificate, but a whole lot of common sense, resourcefulness and caring.”
Jacob Kass, who usually works as a bookkeeper, showed up to help a day after Ulbricht.
“I’m not actually much of a cook,” he said, adding he mostly helped to chop vegetables and pack meals, labelling them with their various destinations.
One day, he said, he cut up 200 lb of potatoes. Another day, he chopped four milk crates of tomatoes to make a salad and, with some guidance from another chef involved in the operation, seasoned and dressed it.
Mckenzie said the team used up all the food in her restaurant, as well as all the food at the Sundog Trading Post and Black Knight pub.
Bureaucratic, logistical challenges
Then things started to get confusing, according to Mckenzie.
“I don’t know how people heard about me or what happened, but a guy showed up in the evening on the third day,” she said.
Mckenzie said she doesn’t know if the person was a representative of the city or the GNWT, but he had been placed in charge of food logistics. Basically, she said, he told her he and colleagues were taking over operations and organizing things.
“It was a whole lot of bureaucracy that I didn’t understand.”
The food logistics person, whose identity Cabin Radio was not able to discern, told Mckenzie the number of people needing to be fed would be bumped from roughly 200 to 330.
Someone also made the decision to move the operation from Fishy People to the Nova Hotel, which Mckenzie said was poorly handled.
“They came in quite late at night and told me they were taking all my stuff, but didn’t really tell me anything more than that,” she said.
Now, Mckenzie had to work out of an unfamiliar kitchen with unfamiliar equipment. She also said the Nova Hotel kitchen needed cleaning and was not set up for her crew’s needs, so they had to gut and re-organize it, all while still rolling out meals.
From the Nova Hotel kitchen, the team fed roughly 300 people breakfast, lunch, dinner and a snack every day. On top of takeaway meals, they also served a buffet-style breakfast and dinner.
Organizational changes were not the only challenge. With supply chains disrupted and the bulk of Yellowknife businesses closed, finding food to cook with wasn’t simple.
Mckenzie said the food logistics person managed to open the grocery store, which allowed the team to buy food. People who run Yellowknife’s wholesalers were flown back to open their doors to the operation.
Still, within a few days, Mckenzie said there was no fresh produce left for sale. Instead, the team drew on local produce, organizing people to harvest veggies from personal gardens – which Mckenzie called a “garden grab.”
“One guy alone was bringing me 25 zucchinis a day just from his personal garden and a couple of his neighbours,” she said.
Market gardens in the area pitched in. Produce was harvested from Bush Order Provisions, Madeline Lake Market Garden and Northern Roots. Bush Order Provisions started baking bread once all the bread in town began going stale, according to Mckenzie. When the team ran low on protein supplies, they asked fishers still in town to set up nets.
“It was amazing,” Mckenzie said. “One day, I made pad thai out of all local ingredients, and all of our salads were super fresh.”
Yellowknife’s restaurants helped out. Mckenzie said NWT Brewing Co gave her pots and containers; Sundog gave her all the dairy from its fridge. The Black Knight dropped off all its produce and helped organize the garden grab.
Scraps from the kitchen weren’t wasted. They were sorted into buckets of chicken food, compost and dog food that some people took home, according to Ulbricht.
Elisabeth Pillichshammer, who joined the kitchen crew about a week in, fed trimmings from chicken, pork and beef to the sled dogs she was taking care of.
“The dogs got four or five feedings out of it,” she said.
A strong team
If it’s not already obvious, Mckenzie and her crew weren’t cutting corners or making the kind of quick, easy meals you might expect given the circumstances.
They made the likes of lasagna, locally sourced salads, pork tenderloin stuffed with mushrooms and walnuts, and charred carrots topped with yoghurt dressing and herbs. Boxed meals even contained edible flowers.
“I had one fireman come up to me and tell me that my cassoulet changed his life,” Mckenzie said.
Mckenzie wanted to cook nourishing, healthy food, she said, and to do that, she had to start from scratch.
Cooking from scratch takes time, though, so Mckenzie didn’t get much sleep. At one point, she said she worked 41 hours in two days.
Mckenzie said the crew of volunteers – there were roughly 15 at the height of the operation – really helped her get through the work and overcome hurdles that arose.
“My volunteer team was really, really strong,” she said. Although many volunteers had little, if any, experience working in a commercial kitchen, Mckenzie said people found their strengths and became more organized and efficient.
(At some point, the volunteers were given the opportunity to be added to the list of essential workers and added to payroll. Some took up that offer, others didn’t.)
Ulbricht said the energy among the group was positive – people chatted with each other and laughed. Despite the stressful situation, she said the atmosphere became purposeful, inclusive and relaxed.
There were moments of tension when the city (or GNWT) took charge of the operation, Ulbricht noted.
According to Kass, there was bound to be some friction between the grassroots endeavour and the way governments operate.
For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, Ulbricht said the team’s work was ended on August 29. She said the city informed them they would no longer be catering at the Nova Hotel, and the hotel’s staff would be taking the kitchen back to continue the work.
But as it turned out, no hotel kitchen staff had returned to Yellowknife, she said, so the Salvation Army moved in to feed the roughly 150 people remaining.
Ulbricht and others who spoke with Cabin Radio stressed they wanted to focus on the positives: meeting new people, forging friendships and making the best of a hard time.
Reflecting on the past few weeks, Mckenzie said: “It’s been really weird and crazy and busy and stressful and uplifting.”
She said she felt lucky and honoured to have worked with such a team.
“Everyone was kind, everyone was calm, everyone was very organized,” she said, adding people weren’t working for glory or a paycheque but rather because they felt their community needed them.
She said the experience shows who northerners are as people.
Above all, though, the one thing that stands out to Mckenzie over the past few weeks is the food.
At her restaurant, Mckenzie said she focuses on food security and sustainability in the North, striving to source ingredients locally. But the bounty of local foods she witnessed over the past few weeks surpassed even her expectations.
The team created roughly 1,000 meals a day out of almost exclusively local food, she said.