The maverick chef
Chef Jamie MacAulay. Photo: Bruce Murray/VisionFire
Adventures out West and a long culinary journey equip Jamie MacAulay to celebrate Nova Scotia’s culinary heritage
Signs of the Nuevo Scotia are impossible to miss at Drift. The restaurant, part of the Muir Hotel in downtown Halifax, boasts a menu reinventing classic Nova Scotian fare. Chef de cuisine Jamie MacAulay brings elegance and refinement to staples like hodge podge and rappie pie.
But tucked into the corner of Drift restaurant on a Monday afternoon, MacAulay and I are talking about the cuisine of the American South. Chefs have transformed once-maligned dishes, like okra soup and shrimp and grits, with vision and a strong sense of place.
The Drift menu reminds me of a recent trip to Dixie. It’s a menu upending the status quo but remaining true to its heritage. If you want the world to know you exist in the culinary world, you have to look at where you come from and what you have. Then, you have to strip it back, refine it, and present it in a contemporary way. Unapologetically.
“We have everything we need right here,” says MacAulay. “The dishes, culinary traditions, ingredients, terroir. The saltwater bounty. We need to stand proudly and shout about it.”
It’s hard to imagine the soft-spoken, calm MacAulay raising his voice, but his food is making plenty of noise.
Drift is feeding a story, and there are elements of this beautiful, wild place peppered throughout. From the rugged coastline sculpture hanging over the chic bar, the curved shiplap ceiling giving the appearance of a ship’s hull, raw elements of fluted granite, wood, and leather juxtapose the muted tones of the seascape palette.
When developing the menu alongside Anthony Walsh (corporate executive chef of Oliver & Bonacini Hospitality), MacAulay turned to recipes inherently familiar from childhood.
“Like many Nova Scotians, I grew up eating boiled dinners — still the ultimate comfort food for me,” MacAulay says. “Mom is from Cape Breton, Dad is from Shelburne, and they met in Dartmouth, so it’s this kind of weird collision and melding of recipes from coast to coast.”
He’s spent hours discussing regional food with his parents. “It’s been this incredible experience delving into food memories,” he adds. “When I said I was putting hodge podge on the menu, they looked at me appalled and said, ‘You’re not going to make it with Carnation milk, are you?’”
Hodge podge did make it onto the menu, made with cream, haddock, scallops, mussels, wax beans, leeks, and potatoes with a light aromatic celeriac broth. Rappie pie received the nod, too, with its slow-simmered chicken served alongside chow-chow and root slaw. There’s also tuna sashimi with pops of bright orange sea buckthorn and a mushroom tart with dulse yogurt. And seared Sustainable Blue salmon with Nova Scotia oyster dressing. Every dish feels like the collective elements are hand-picked to showcase growers, farmers, fishers, and wild edibles.
Persistence and dedication are what first caught Walsh’s attention when looking for a chef who could delve into Nova Scotia’s heritage and take it to a new level. “I think his 36-hour eggs are a great example of how he pushes his new Nova Scotia cuisine,” says Walsh.
MacAulay marinates the soft-boiled eggs in soy and mirin, curing the yolk to a jelly centre, and serves them on the lobster fish cake.
Sustainable Blue salmon and bacon dashi is another flavour bomb. “It features identifiable ingredients that are being given new personalities,” Walsh explains. “And, while engineering the classic rappie, he drilled down with his team to get that quintessential, cozy eating experience, now a cornerstone on the Drift menu.”
Coordinating a locally focused menu is a logistical challenge. “I have Fred (FD Wildfoods) standing at my backdoor at 8 a.m. with two boxes of wild mushrooms,” MacAulay says. “Then, at 10, I will have my Hakurei turnips arriving from Abundant Acres or the Blue salmon delivered from Afishiando. It all takes coordination to get things running smoothly, but it’s all worth it.”
Twenty years ago, MacAulay was set to become a graphic designer, skills he still thinks serve him well as a chef. But in 1999, he decided it was time to seek a different path out west, chase the snow, find a mentor, and buy a motorcycle. Whistler, Alberta checked all the boxes.
“I had cooked my whole life, and I think I always knew it was something I would do,” he recalls. “So, when I arrived in Whistler, I asked friends who the best chef was, and it was a resounding, Bernard Cassavant.”
Cassavant had turned the resort town into a culinary destination, first as executive chef at Chateau Whistler and later Chef Bernard’s Bistro. “I walked into his restaurant one day and asked him for a job, and astoundingly, he said yes,” laughs MacAulay.
And so began his culinary education and apprenticeship. He soaked up the recipes like a sponge, watched and listened to the cooks, learned French techniques, and found a mentor who would affirm his passion.
But a severe motorcycle accident cut his adventure short. With two broken arms and a slew of serious injuries, he headed home to Halifax. “It became a defining moment in my life,” says MacAulay. “A chef with two broken arms is useless, and I was in and out of the hospital. So, while I was waiting to heal, I enrolled in Culinary School at NSCC and basically started over.”
He spent the next several years immersed in the Halifax culinary scene. He worked as a sous chef for Chef Dennis Johnson at Fid, he ran the Learning Kitchen for Feed Nova Scotia (a few of the students are now in the Drift kitchen), and opened two restaurants, Water & Bone, and later Coda Ramen.
“Jamie’s a bit of a maverick,” Walsh says. “He pivots from more traditional European kitchens to the very specific Japanese discipline of ramen. That spirit, combined with the opportunity to dive deep into his heritage, made him seem like a no-brainer to me for this role at Drift.”
MacAulay’s collective experiences have meshed at Drift.
“I trained in French culinary style, where we have these big, bold flavours, and we roast bones to create dark, rich stocks that underlie so many dishes,” he says. “But when I opened Coda Ramen, and I started to delve into the art of Japanese broths, it taught me that stocks shouldn’t mask other flavours. And because they’re mostly vegetable-based, they’re much lighter and brighter and add nuances and depth to a dish.”
As MacAulay and his team seek new ways to incorporate Nova Scotia onto the plate, experimentation in the Drift kitchen never stops.
“Not everything works out. I’ve been trying to re-create Lunenburg pudding (blood sausage),” laughs MacAulay. “It was meant to have the texture of haggis, to incorporate into a cassoulet. But I haven’t been able to get the texture right, so it’s a work in progress.” There is also a clam fricot in the works, sea truffles in sauces, beach peas in salads, and that classic boiled dinner from childhood might appear.
Our conversation ends the way it so often does with chefs: talking about music and what’s for dinner. “I have a two- and four-year-old, and I’m just trying to get them to eat real food, so roast chicken and green beans is supper tonight,” he says. He holds up his Spotify playlist for me. The song on rotation is “Gunslinger” by Tommy Guerrero — perfectly fitting for this maverick chef.