Yellowknife’s Copperhouse restaurant sacked its head chef as several other staff walked out and two more were fired and arrested on charges related to theft.

Chef Niki Mckenzie says she was moved into a leadership role she did not want, worked 16-hour days sometimes sleeping in a hammock above the kitchen at night, and was terminated last Friday on grounds she characterized as “unfounded and unproven.”

Mckenzie, from New Zealand, said losing her job placed her Canadian status in jeopardy and may force her to leave the country, against her wishes, in a matter of days.

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“I’m shocked,” Mckenzie told Cabin Radio this week.

“As it stands now,” she wrote in an earlier email, “I have no idea what status I have in Canada.”

‘A bad taste’

The restaurant’s owners say Mckenzie’s claims are unfair and her sacking was related to a breakdown in trust.

Copperhouse closed at short notice last weekend as management worked to replace lost staff, reopening on Wednesday this week (the establishment is ordinarily closed on Mondays and Tuesdays).

Two sources with knowledge of events said at least 10 staff had walked out in the wake of Mckenzie’s firing. The restaurant contested this figure, saying: “Five people are not with the organization because of the situation.”

Mckenzie was dismissed with immediate effect, receiving no severance pay.

In an email to staff, Copperhouse said two other employees were fired on August 17 and charged with theft of food, alcohol, and cash. By email to Cabin Radio, RCMP acknowledged attending an incident of similar description. The allegations have not been proven in court.

“We can’t have a successful business if we have a negative work environment,” Copperhouse owners told staff in the email, dated Saturday, August 18.

“That sort of energy seeps its way into the food, leaving a bad taste in our guests’ mouths. If we’re running a successful business, everyone employed at Copperhouse will see the benefit.”

Restaurant ‘being bullied’

Speaking to Cabin Radio, Mark Henry – one of the restaurant’s ownership group – said Mckenzie and senior management “had a breakdown in relationship.”

Henry expressed sadness at Friday’s events and acknowledged Mckenzie put in long hours, saying she was “devoted to culinary excellence, a fantastic chef, and an incredibly hard worker.”

Copperhouse’s letter terminating Mckenzie’s employment – supplied to Cabin Radio by Mckenzie –states she was fired for breaching confidentiality by sharing employee wages among her team; “communicating negatively about the company to parties inside and outside the organization;” being disrespectful to other staff; making false statements to staff; failing to act in the best interests of the organization; and “theft of beer” through failing to pay for drinks consumed in the building’s lounge.

Mckenzie said the claims were untrue.

“We’ve pulled the trigger on this without a clear picture on how to replace Niki,” said Henry. “We’ve made a decision to put ourselves behind the 8-ball without a clear game plan. That gives you an indication of the severity of what we are dealing with.

“In our industry, the chef holds a lot of power. They are the gateway to putting food on the table. In our situation, we were being bullied using that power – essentially going rogue and operating the kitchen to her terms, that had very little to do with profitability in mind.

“There was a significant breakdown in communication and a refusal to have reasonable conversations on working a very young business towards profitability.”

‘Unsupported’

Mckenzie was promoted to the position of head chef just days before Copperhouse held its grand opening in April, she said. According to two former staff members, the previous head chef was dismissed after failing to show up for work.

Before that, Mckenzie wrote in an email, “I turned down the head chef position several times, citing inexperience and reluctance to take on a more administrative role.”

Copperhouse and Mckenzie agree she took on the head chef’s job reluctantly.

“The mantle of head chef was forced upon me, making me take on all the responsibility I had repeatedly stated that I did not want, wasn’t experienced enough for, and was not qualified to do,” she wrote. “Nothing was done.”

Mckenzie said she “was working 16-hour days, six days a week, in a severely understaffed and undertrained kitchen” as the weeks progressed.

“It got to the point where I was sleeping upstairs in a hammock three nights a week, just so I wouldn’t drop from exhaustion on the 45-minute walk back to my house,” she continued.

“During this time I had no head chef, no sous chef, no chefs de partie, no baker, no butcher, no kitchen manager. I was overworked, incredibly stressed, and completely unsupported.”

Copperhouse denied staffing and training levels were inappropriate and asserted that while Mckenzie did work occasional 16-hour days, they were not a regular occurrence.

Henry said Mckenzie appeared to have embraced the position of head chef after her initial reluctance. “She said she wanted to take this on,” he said.

Niki Mckenzie is pictured inside Cabin Radio’s Studio 2 in August 2018. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio

Copperhouse, which officially opened in April, has pledged to offer an upmarket, impressive dining experience to Yellowknife residents. In an earlier interview, owners said they rejected plans to open a franchise in favour of “something really special – an experience you can’t find anywhere else.”

For all its internal difficulties, reviews suggest the restaurant has largely been a hit with its clientele. Copperhouse holds a 4.6/5 score on Facebook, counting reviews from 56 people, and a 4/5 score on TripAdvisor, where three-quarters of reviewers rated their experience excellent or very good.

However, last Friday’s events highlight the restaurant’s struggle to deliver on its promise while balancing the demands of profitability and adequate staffing.

Mckenzie said the kitchen functioned with six to eight chefs on duty during her time at the restaurant. She estimated 15 chefs would have been more appropriate for the restaurant’s ambitions.

“That kind of goes to the crux of it,” responded Henry. “She wanted to operate an award-winning restaurant, like we all would love to, but those restaurants are typically not profitable and she didn’t care an ounce about that.”

Mckenzie said her efforts to rein in costs and boost profits, like requesting a food cost calculator (which ensures recipes are cost-effective), were ignored.

“‘What kind of restaurant do you want to be?’ I asked that so often,” she said.

‘Back to work’

Working under three different general managers (one of them acting) during her time at Copperhouse, Mckenzie claimed she was only belatedly issued a contract and was let down regarding her immigration paperwork.

Mckenzie’s status is directly tied to her employment at Copperhouse. She claims the restaurant made little attempt to secure her immigration status and file the correct documents in a timely manner. The restaurant’s owners deny this.

“I repeatedly asked for any information about my case, but never received any answer or confirmation,” wrote Mckenzie.

Henry responded to Cabin Radio: “We’re not going to maintain a relationship just for her status. I know the paperwork was filed on time.”

Mckenzie said her future is now uncertain. She has been working with immigration consultants this week to understand her options and, she added, faces a race against time to temporarily extend her status in Canada by filing paperwork before a deadline.

Copperhouse, which has returned to its usual business hours but with a temporarily limited menu, posted to its Facebook page on Tuesday: “We are happy, relieved, and pretty excited to be back to work.”