Just outside Yellowknife city limits, early evening sunlight filters through smokey air between birch and willow trees. The smoke emanates from a small campfire over which Jared Bihun and Niki Mckenzie have strung two legs of lamb. They’re basting the legs with a birch syrup glaze, slow-roasting them to perfection.
It has taken days—weeks, even—to get to this point in the preparation for tonight’s meal, an intimate, catered affair for just 10 couples. Birch bark has been ground down for flour to make a pastry for dessert; smoked fish has been sourced from Great Slave Lake; fireweed shoots and other local herbs have been foraged; caribou has been turned into a salty, rich rillette, the perfect substrate, Bihun and Mckenzie figure, for a light dusting of grated smoked bison heart.
You won’t find food like this on the menu of any local restaurant, but that’s not for lack of vision. The whole point for Bihun and Mckenzie, and their passion project, 86ykEATS is “to create a truly Northern-style cuisine while incorporating local artisans and products, adding a touch of theatre to a dining experience,” Bihun says. For the time being, however, their method for getting what’s arguably the most creative food in the North is focused not on restaurants but on hosting catered events.
After their dinner party in the woods, Bihun and Mckenzie, chefs with experience in world-class restaurants in four countries between them, sit down for an interview over breakfast at a local eatery. “There’s a lot of burgers up here, there’s a lot of wing nights, there’s a lot of meat and potatoes,” says Mckenzie, a transplanted New Zealander “But once you delve a little bit further, there’s a lot more going on...There are a lot of people doing really interesting things.”
The reason Yellowknife doesn’t see more? A commercial property market that limits many dreams, Mckenzie’s among them. Her wife, Stephanie Vaillancourt, envisions one day starting a brick-and-mortar “fish butchery” that would add value to the catch of local fishers. For now, however, Vaillancourt only sells fish—complete with rosehip ketchup—from a food truck parked outside Canadian Tire.
Labour supply is another issue: It’s so tight that restaurants are notoriously short-staffed. For Mckenzie, that led to an unfortunate dispute with a local restaurant where she worked that cost her the job. Bihun, originally from Ontario, was in the same workplace and experienced his own strife with the management.
Frustrated by their experience, the duo set off to create something special that they couldn’t find anywhere else in Yellowknife. 86ykEATS was the result. For their public debut, Bihun and Mckenzie took over Yellowknife’s famed Snow Castle on Great Slave Lake for a night in March. Forty tickets were available for a nine-course meal that featured cod liver paté, coney belly bacon and birch braised duck leg, much of it locally sourced. Any funds collected solely by donation were donated to Bihun's mother, who is fighting terminal cancer.
But in doing so they ran up against another barrier: a culture of red tape. The welcome wagon wasn’t exactly rolled out when they applied for a permit to serve food at the Snow Castle. “We were asked at one point—which I thought was very funny—‘How are you going to keep things cold?’ Bihun says, laughing. “I’ve never had so much trouble getting a food permit.”
But Bihun and Mckenzie have found shelter from Yellowknife’s economic headwinds with their small-scale yet ambitious and challenging gatherings. And if the evening in the birch camp is any indication, they are also building a loyal following among Yellowknifers who crave more than meat and potatoes.
Correction: The print version of this story mistakenly referred to Niki Mckenzie and Stephanie Vaillancourt as business partners. They are, in fact, married, and Vaillancourt is the sole proprietor of her business operations. Likewise, 86ykEATS is not a business and neither Bihun nor Mckenzie collects any income from the collective’s events.