Q&A with Robin Wasicuna: “It doesn’t matter what you’re producing if you’re putting out a good product”

Robin Wasicuna is at a crossroads. Earlier this year, the Yellowknife-based chef closed down his brick-and-mortar restaurant, the Twin Pines Diner, to open his second food truck. His first became Yellowknife’s sole go-to for burgers made with freshly ground meat, homemade accoutrements and proper buns, an approach that sparked some friendly, productive competition with other restaurants and earned him an appearance on Chopped Canada. His second truck, open during the summer, served tacos — another niche Wasicuna believes was going unfilled in Yellowknife.

But with three decades in the kitchen, Wasicuna is thinking of the next steps in his career and about getting off of the line. He’s also excited for the ‘Knife: despite the bitter winter cold, and summers where the sun barely goes down, young chefs are taking advantage of the region’s unique local flora — fireweed, cattail shoots, wild northern herbs — and creating a food scene unlike anything in the country.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity

CRFN: Tell me about your cooking background and culinary training?

Robin Wasicuna: When I would stay home sick from school, I would watch Wok with Yan, The Urban Peasant and other great Canadian cooking shows. I ended up going to Holland College in P.E.I. — I was at Summerside, at the smaller campus, simply because I couldn’t afford to go to the [Culinary Institute of Canada] at the time. I can’t say I was the most inspired the first few years, that’s for sure. I spent a lot of time just working in pubs because in Nova Scotia there’s pubs everywhere.

In ’94, I moved out to Alberta and got a cooking job in Edmonton, and I met my mentor there, a really close friend of mine named Jiro Oishii. We were working Von’s Steakhouse and Oyster Bar. Everything was made from scratch. We cut everything, and we did all our own stuff in house. It was so different from the pubs I was used to working in, and it inspired me in a lot of ways to see what food could really be.

“I learned that food does not have to be stuffy, white-table-cloth to be good”

Most importantly, I learned that food does not have to be stuffy, white-table-cloth to be good. Jiro and I would go around the city and eat at different places. We’d hit up a Korean joint one day, then an Indian joint another day. These were little hole-in-the-wall, mom-and-pop places. We’d go do a burger someplace at a cheap little greasy spoon, and we started realizing — Jiro showed me that good food is good food. It doesn’t matter what you’re producing if you’re putting out a good product.

In 2004, I made the move to Yellowknife. I had lived here as a child before moving to Nova Scotia, so I came back and fell in love with the place. I met a beautiful lady, bought a house, got married, and we started the Wiseguy Food Trailer in 2012 or 2013.

We started our first food trailer simply based on the fact there was no place in town to get a good burger. Every place in town was serving frozen patties, and it was disheartening, so we made the choice to do fresh-ground, homemade toppings and all the condiments made from scratch. The first year was okay, then the second year came along around the same time that Chopped Canada called, and then of course business just kind of took off after that.

After Chopped Canada, we were able to make a leap into a brick-and-mortar place, so we took that chance, and in 2015, we opened Twin Pines Diner, and we had a good four year run. We just at the end of May closed our doors. Now we’re onto another food truck.

Do you have an idea for what that’ll look like?

Yeah, we’re going to be doing tacos. There’s no Mexican food available in town. We’d do Saturday nights at the diner, sort of a special event night. We’d pick whatever inspired me that week to do something, and we’d put on a four-course meal, or five-course meal, and so whenever we’d do Mexican, it was always incredibly popular and always sold out within a couple of hours, so this just seemed like that next move for us.

You’ve cooked at pubs, steakhouses, diners, food trucks and had even cooked at an event for Trudeau before he was the Prime Minister. How does that diverse set of experiences influence you as a chef?

When I got started, the pub thing was just out of necessity. I learned a lot, but you don’t ever really learn from fully-trained chefs in those pubs, especially back in the early ’90s. I didn’t fall into — I hate using the word elitism, but that sort of only-using-the-best-ingredients and this-and-that. I got into that [later] because of the upscale steakhouse. What upset me, though, was my team couldn’t afford to eat the food they were cooking, and that was really frustrating for me as a chef, because you’d have to save up five paycheques just to go out to a meal at a restaurant and enjoy yourself. The appeal of my early pub days started coming back to me, and with all that newfound information from my mentor Jiro — it didn’t have to be elitist to be good.

I grew up on canned peas, mac and cheese and spam — whatever my mom could afford. My love of cheap food and processed food it still there in a lot of ways. At the diner we made our own sort of Cheez Whiz that we would put into squeeze bottles. That high-brow, low-brow combination has always been a big part of what we do, and I stick by that. That’s pretty much my style of cooking. It was developed by moving in and out of both of these worlds.

Yellowknife gets extremely cold in the winter, and in the summer it can get 20 hours of sunlight per day. Do those extremes affect your business?

Definitely. In the winter, when we had the diner open, we were a ten-minute walk outside of the downtown core. When it’s 40 below, and there are other restaurants that are a four-minute walk away, as opposed to a 10-minute hike down the hill, it makes a big difference. People aren’t going to make that trek.

“What upset me, though, was my team couldn’t afford to eat the food they were cooking”

When the summer hits, your business almost disappears. We’ve been stuck inside all winter for eight months, so as soon as the sun hits, people can put on shorts and they’re outside as much as possible. So many people here go to their cabins, or their RVs, or they’re at home BBQing and hang out. That’s why we’re returning to our roots and opening a food truck again. It gives us that ability to be out where the people are.

What does local cooking look like in Yellowknife?

We have a lot of spruce trees, so spruce tips are prevalent [in the summer]. There’s a tonne of wild roses here, fireweed, cattail; there’s a tonne of wild herbs and berries around. We’re kind of hands-off on wild game up here — we’re not allowed to use it [in restaurants], but I’m working with a few departments in the government, and I’m hoping that we can maybe start to change that a little more.

What’s the food scene like in Yellowknife? What did it used to look like? Where it is now? And where do you hope it goes?

When we started our first food truck in 2012, it was a frozen burger town. Within a year, restaurants were at least buying ground beef and making their own patties. Almost every single restaurant in town switched to that, and I was so happy to see that. A little bit of friendly competition really helps create that culinary scene. That was our number one goal with Twin Pines Diner.

Now we have a couple of kids in town, one of which did a stage at Blue Hill Farms with Dan Barber. Him and a friend of mine are really pushing local. They’re more of the tweezer set — very fancy, very soignée. They’re taking birch bark and making a flour out of it. These guys are just going full bore with that whole thing, and that’s great. If these guys can take it to another level, I’d be so happy.

“When I make my next move, we can put that into play and really create something special in Yellowknife.”

We’ve also got a brew pub that opened up a couple years ago, and they’ve got some great culinary talent working there. We have a fantastic Korean restaurant in town. We have an Ethiopian and a Somali restaurant in town. There’s a place open in a museum now with a young chef who’s really getting into his groove and really pushing things and starting to blossom as a chef. I’m so happy we were able to be such a big part in creating this, because we didn’t want to be the only ones in town.

With all these places coming along, we get to go to other friends’ restaurants, and there are other chefs coming from all over the country to work at these places. It’s really starting to grow from when everybody was buying from Sysco or Gordon Foods, and quite literally all serving the same food, to where they are now because we have a couple of kids who are banging out super soignée bush food and going hard on it. When I make my next move, we can put that into play and really create something special in Yellowknife.

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