How far would you go for a meal? Across town? Across the street? What if you could watch a wild polar bear outside the restaurant window – would you travel further? I did …
Dining wasn’t top of mind when I headed north to Churchill to see polar bears waiting for Hudson’s Bay to freeze, but I discovered one of Canada’s coolest restaurants (literally and figuratively).
In one of the region’s most remote areas and where bears are likely to wander each fall, Frontiers North moves into place their Tundra Buggy Lodge (a ‘train’ of specially constructed industrial trailers perched atop humongous tires).
This self-contained lodge has 40 bunk beds, six toilets, a lounge, and Dan’s Diner.
Guests spend the day combing the rocky landscape in a Tundra Buggy; at sunset they return to this high-end wilderness hostel. Happy hour gets very happy when a fluffy white bruin strolls by, perhaps attracted by the smell of fish cooking.
Orchestrating the yummy smells coming from the kitchen is chef Jared Fossen. Three years ago he was working at a northern fishing lodge when he was offered a job at a Japanese ski resort and a position at the Tundra Buggy Lodge. Japan never stood a chance.
Now, Fossen who’s been cooking since he was 18 years old, whips up gourmet cuisine, unexpected perhaps as it is served north of 58 degrees latitude in a temporary wilderness camp. With an interest in fine arts, Fossen draws inspiration “from a single word, a dream, my surroundings, my cravings that day.”
Food prep is similar to southern restaurants with a barbeque on an outside deck (high enough to be out of a bear’s reach), a smoker, and an industrial oven. But Fossen and his team keep their wild neighbors in mind, “We don’t throw meat around or dump blood on the ground to bait the bears. But they will come close if they are around and there’s something in the smoker or on the barbeque.”
Perhaps that explained the three white bears roaming near the restaurant while I debated whether to eat my food hot or go outside to get a good picture. Fortunately I was able to shoot off a few pictures during the salad course so I could give the meal the attention it deserved.
Food for the lodge is flown from Winnipeg to Churchill. Fossen can order what he wants but “I just have to be conscious of the fact it’s coming from a truck to a hangar to a plane to a truck to a buggy to the lodge. Fragile produce doesn’t fair well.”
Colour me confused as I gazed at a leafy green salad, the lettuce as crisp and unbruised as anything I’ve seen fresh from the garden. The mystery was solved when I discovered there is a salad garden in Churchill.
In October 2017 a barge floated up a shipping container (also called a sea can) equipped with hydroponic gardening equipment. The shipping container was moved to Churchill Northern Studies Centre and into a fenced compound to keep gardeners safe.
The sea can garden – called Growcer – was developed by an Ottawa/Iqaluit company addressing food security for Canada’s north. Growcer can be operated year-round in extreme cold and 250 to 400 pieces of vegetation (heads of lettuce, kale, spinach, and herbs) are grown each week and sold at an affordable price. The produce brand is “Rocket Greens”, named with a historical nod to the rocket range that was once in the area.
Growcer has found a fan in Fossen, “Rocket Greens come in once a week. They are an amazing product to work with.”
Fossen, clad in a lumberjack checked black and red shirt, an earring glinting in the trailer’s overhead lights added garnishes to the plates of arctic char, his brown hair tucked under a wool toque and his brow drawn in concentration.
With polar bear photos on my memory card, I tucked into the main course. The smoked Arctic char was tasty, cooked to perfection and perched atop sautéed green beans and potato salad chili aioli. The elegance of the dessert with a fancy chocolate swirl across banana crème pie made me forget I was wearing two layers of fleece and long johns, and dining in a trailer.
Frontiers North is capitalizing on the popularity of Dan’s Diner and adding it to their northern lights viewing in March with Dan’s Diner Remote Culinary Experience. The dining buggy will be moved to a location where guests can enjoy aurora viewing after a great meal. With the polar bears out on the ice, it will be safe to venture off the buggy.
Fossen is ready for the new venture; “Working out here on the lodge for the last three seasons has been the biggest asset for the upcoming Dan’s Diner dinner project. I already have an understanding of the facility I’ll be working in, my surroundings, possible problems with shipping and any other problems that can arise. It can be very fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants sometimes and if you can’t adapt, you will fail. If you don’t have it (adaptability), you’ll definitely acquire it by the end of our first season.”
I felt guilty as I ladled the last of my chocolate into my mouth while a hungry, kelp-stained polar bear rested a few meters away. He lifted his head and his black nose sniffed the wind, checking for other bears and cold weather. His last good meal had been four months earlier. His first seal of the season was a few days away but we would both find fine dining in Churchill.
If you go:
Frontiers North Adventures offers polar bear watching tours and northern lights excursions in Churchill.
Try Dan’s Diner Getaway package to experience a pop-up restaurant north of 58 degrees latitude.
Enjoy Rocket Greens grown in a sea can.