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September/October 2011 | by Twyla Campbell

Some things you can never predict, like flash floods or winning the lottery — or being asked to cook for the Royal Couple. But that’s exactly what happened in late May when two northern teenagers were asked to go to Ottawa to “cook a special dinner.” No details of whom they’d be cooking for or where the meal would take place were revealed. All Krista Gardiner of Hay River, Northwest Territories, and Thomas Ford of Iqaluit, Nunavut, knew was that they were being offered a trip to the big city for a special event. It was an offer neither could refuse.

Thomas Ford recalls the day he received a telephone call from Steven Cooper, a former resident of Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, and now Partner at a law firm in Sherwood Park, Alberta.

“He asked if I was interested in cooking with a high profile chef for a week,” says Ford who enthusiastically accepted Cooper’s offer. It wasn’t until a week later that Ford was told the guests of honour were none other than the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. “I was extremely happy to be given this amazing opportunity,” he says, “But I was told I couldn’t say anything to anyone about it until it was time, and that was really hard!”

Krista Gardiner had the same reaction. When she was finally able to tell her friends that she was going to cook for Kate and William, no one believed her. “All they said was ‘yeah right!’ But I couldn’t get the smile off my face.”

Steve Cooper had, for some time, known about the details of the Royal dinner, billed as the Celebration of Youth Reception. The event was to celebrate the achievements of young Canadians, 120 all told, and all near the ages of Kate and William. The guests would share an evening with the Royals while enjoying food cooked by students experienced (or interested) in the Culinary Arts. In April, Cooper received event led to several other northern food dinners, including one in Edmonton and one at the esteemed James Beard House in New York City. Charest sent the grocery list to Cooper who immediately called First Air, the Nunavut Development Corporation and Kitikmeot Foods. a phone call from the Governor General’s Chef, Louis Charest, asking him to help find food for the menu and students to help prepare it.

Cooper’s relationship with the Governor General’s Chef stems back to November of 2010 when he and Charest prepared an Arctic-themed dining event in Toronto. That event led to several other northern food dinners, including one in Edmonton and one at the esteemed James Beard House in New York City.

Charest sent the grocery list to Cooper who immediately called First Air, the Nunavut Development Corporation and Kitikmeot Foods.

“We had amazing cooperation from everyone,” says Cooper recalling how, two days before the event, Iqaluit resident Paul Kaludjak was awakened at 4 a.m. with a request to check his nets for Char. “We needed contingency plans in place,” says Cooper, knowing any interruptions could threaten supply. Along with the Char, the grocery list included musk ox from Victoria Island, kelp from Cape Dorset and Iqaluit, shrimp from Baffin Fisheries Coalition, and sea urchin from Qikiqtarjuaq. The logistics of gathering and shipping unfrozen food proved challenging even to Cooper. “This meal was different. Chef Charest was requesting that everything be fresh, not frozen. Timing was critical.”

The most difficult item to secure would be sea urchin from Qikiqtarjuaq, a Nunavut community Cooper visited a month prior to Charest’s email request. While there, Cooper was introduced to Charlie Alikatuqtuq, one of only two certified divers in the Arctic. “It was imperative that the sea urchin arrived alive,” says Cooper who stayed in contact with Alikatuqtuq for days preceding the dinner. “Charlie knew how important this was, and he really came through for us.” With the help of staff at Qikiqtarjuaq’s Northern Store and First Air, the sea urchin arrived without incident. “Chef Charest was very happy with the product,” Cooper says, adding that a note Alikatuqtuq included to the Royal Couple was a charming touch. “He wrote that he hoped they enjoyed the urchin and that they could get more from him if they wanted.”

Three days before the Royal Reception, Gardiner joined Cooper and his wife in Edmonton. Ford made his way from Iqaluit and the four connected in Ottawa June 28. The next day the group arrived at Rideau Hall where they met 20 more culinary students selected from across the country. At the front of the class stood Chef Charest and his team of established, mentoring chefs.

“When I entered the kitchen, I felt nervous and yet I felt like I was part of something big,” confides Ford. “This was a real chance to challenge myself.”

Gardiner also felt the pressure and admits to feeling overwhelmed. “I didn’t want to mess up!”

Chef John-Carlo Felicella, Manager of Team Canada’s Junior Culinary squad, patiently cleaned the sea urchin. The delicate roe would later partner with Davis Strait shrimp on a wild rice cracker. One station over, José Moniz, past Executive Chef to Jean Chrétien, filleted the Arctic Char destined for a Carpaccio dish. He handed the pieces to Ford who patiently plucked any tiny, wayward bones from the Char’s silky flesh.

Meanwhile, in the garden of Rideau Hall, Gardiner identified and sorted edible flowers and collected basil leaves to be used in a pastry dish. At first, painting the individual basil leaves with egg white then dipping them in sugar seemed like fun, but after three hours, that fun was fading. “I had no idea how much work it would be,” she says of her time spent in the kitchen.

Aching backs and tired feet were setting in for many of the young chefs but that mood changed as soon as the plates were finished and taken to the waiting guests.

Compliments for the food soon made their way back to the kitchen but the best news of the evening came in the form of a request from the Royal Couple: they wished to meet the culinary team.

Kate spoke to Gardiner first. “She asked me about school, what I cooked for them and where I’m from. We spoke for quite a while,” beams Gardiner who says the biggest surprise was finding out how down-to-earth Kate and William are. Ford agrees, adding that the Royals were very curious about the northern products, and that Kate enjoys seafood. Ford’s pride in Nunavut’s products is evident in his smile.

Both Ford and Gardiner are still in shock at being asked to participate in an event of such stature. For Ford, the whole experience has him considering a future in the culinary arts. “The idea of not sitting at a desk and always working on something different is very attractive.” Gardiner says that someday she sees herself appearing in the Food Network’s, Top Chef Canada.

When you shoot for the stars, you never know where you may land, or just whom you might meet along the way.