Country Food at Kuugaq Café
A benefit of owning a restaurant is never going hungry—it’s even better if you don’t like to cook. The owners of Kuugaq Café in Cambridge Bay appreciate the perks of staffing their own kitchen. “If the café closed for lunch, we’d starve,” says Amanda Doiron, who runs the restaurant with her husband Stuart Rostant.
Rostant is from Trinidad and when they were planning the café, the couple hired his sister Helen as the chef. The menu changes often but consistent elements are country food, fresh ingredients, and a fusion of Trinidadian and local flavours. Caribou is substituted for chicken in the traditional Trinidadian stew, while muskox pizza and muskox chili (see recipe) are popular dishes.
Grabbing a bite from their own kitchen—open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner—is also a time saver for the couple, who are raising a family and growing the business they started two years ago. They’re expanding their catering business and also run The Ublu Inn, which features five chic and cozy suites above the main floor café. It’s no surprise both the café and inn keep them busy. Cambridge Bay is one of the most northern communities in Canada, but as the hub of the Kitikmeot region, the community sees a lot of travellers—and the new Canadian High Arctic Research Station brings researchers from across the world to Kuugaq’s door. “There are people in and out of town on any given day and they need a place to eat,” says Rostant. “And on the catering side, there are a lot of meetings in town. It’s tough to just sell food and make ends meet. How can we be different? Catering is one thing.”
Maintaining a commitment to using fresh ingredients isn’t always easy in a remote community. “We use what’s available. It hasn’t stopped us from getting creative. We go to the grocery store like anyone else and get what we can get,” Doiron says, adding they source their country food from Kitikmeot Foods. “We have great country food. People love the muskox burger. People come to town and stop in asking what we have because they’d love to try it.”
“Kuugaq” means river in Inuinnaqtun. They chose the name because they envision the café as a communal space for Cambridge Bay, a place where friends can chat over coffee or hear some live music. “In Cambridge Bay, a big activity in the spring is fishing and people will gather at the river,” Doiron says. “It’s always moving. It’s a gathering spot.”
The café is open concept—customers can see into the kitchen from their tables—and features local art and photography on the walls. “We wanted it to feel like you’re in someone’s home. You can go to talk to the chef over the counter,” Doiron says.
The café also doesn’t just serve food and drinks. Local art and clothing are sold, and the space hosts dining events with community not-for-profits. The multifaceted operation is part of running a successful small business in a remote location, adds Doiron. “You can’t just have a space for one purpose,” she says. “It’s more than just a place to eat. It’s part of the community.”
Muskox chili (10 servings)
1 lb ground muskox
2 large onions
4 garlic cloves, minced
3 carrots diced
4 celery stalks, diced
1 1/2 bell peppers
1 1/2 zucchinis
4 tsp chili powder
4 tsp cumin
3 tsp cinnamon
Heat olive oil in a large saucepan. Add onions and sauté until translucent. Add garlic and cook for an additional 2 minutes. Add ground muskox and mix, stirring constantly, breaking up the meat until it’s mostly cooked through. Add all veggies and spices (cinnamon, chili, cumin). Allow to cook for a few minutes, stirring continuously. Add kidney beans, chickpeas, tomato paste and diced tomatoes. Fill 1 1/2—2 empty diced tomato cans with water and add to pot. Add balsamic vinegar, stir one more time, lower heat and simmer (closed lid) for 1 hour. Taste, add salt and black pepper to your preference. Remove from heat and add chopped cilantro.