Chef Etienne Croteau is closing Flavour Trader, the Yellowknife culinary business, after five years of serving international food and flavours.
Croteau said in a Facebook post this week he will now return to Québec. “I am going to continue my life mission to learn to grow organic veggies on my own land, one day, in Québec close to my family,” he wrote.
He later told Cabin Radio he could not sustain his business in Yellowknife during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“There is no return now – it’s obvious,” Croteau said. “It’s hard for so many companies … it’s hard for so many people.”
Flavour Trader began as a downtown Yellowknife store in which Croteau sold spices from around the world and offered cooking classes. The business took up residency in the Prince of Wales Heritage Centre’s café in 2018 and became a popular local event caterer.
“We played a lot,” Croteau said. “We had so much fun for all those years we were there.”
Croteau began exploring the idea of growing his own produce and, in 2018, planned a $100,000 greenhouse in Kam Lake. In 2019, he received a grant to run a food processing kitchen where he would wash and cook vegetables under the name Boreal Flavour.
“It was a dream for me since 2013 that I want to be a grower,” he said. “The Northwest Territories needs to develop its food. We have one road coming here with food. If something happens, we will struggle. It’s happened during Covid.”
However, Croteau said, trying to establish an agricultural economy in Yellowknife is challenging.
“Right now, the land that is on sale by the City of Yellowknife … is not available to rent,” he explained, “and when it is on sale, it doesn’t mean that it is are ready to grow on.
“You need a lot of work and a lot of money to make it flat, destroy the rock, remove the trees, and put soil on the top of it – plus the cost of the land if you buy it or rent it.
“It is really too expensive.”
As a potential solution, Croteau suggested the City of Yellowknife provide a plot of land that producers can share in order to form a growing co-operative.
Progress being made – slowly
The City of Yellowknife has made clear it intends to do more to support local agriculture. Councillors have discussed the sector several times in recent months.
In March, the city announced a partnership with Wilfrid Laurier University to explore a potential community food hub. In April, councillors approved an implementation plan for an existing 10-year food and agriculture strategy.
Croteau, who provided feedback to the city while plans were being drawn up, says progress is coming more slowly than he would like.
“I’m ready to grow, but I figured that Yellowknife was not ready for commercial growing,” he said.
“So many things have to be worked out, and it will probably happen but probably in three years. I can’t wait three years, so I decided I’m going back to Québec and I’m going to learn more about it and have my land over there.”
Both the Flavour Trader storefront and café in the heritage centre are closed. Croteau does not know who will take over the café space.
Croteau is preparing to move back to Québec in three weeks. He said he is excited to be closer to his family but will miss the NWT dearly.
“Yellowknife brought me so much joy, so much learning,” Croteau said. “I came here and I knew nothing. I feel that I’ve grown so much. So much knowledge, a sense of community, and this feeling to be in a little village where everyone knows each other and encourages each other.
“It’s an amazing community where we can do so many things.”