Chef Birch inspired by Saskatchewan’s boreal forest

WASKESIU, SK—Take the JW Marriott hotel in Cairo, one of the world’s most densely populated cities. Juxtapose that with Elk Ridge Resort at the edge of Prince Albert National Park in northern Saskatchewan.

Entrance to Elk Ridge Lodge.

Entrance to Elk Ridge Lodge.

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WASKESIU, SK—Take the JW Marriott hotel in Cairo, one of the world’s most densely populated cities. Juxtapose that with Elk Ridge Resort at the edge of Prince Albert National Park in northern Saskatchewan. It’s hard to imagine a bigger contrast, but chef Kevin Birch has worked in both places and hopes to one day create dishes that marry those two experiences.

Birch accepted a position as food and beverage director and executive chef at the resort in Saskatchewan’s boreal forest, 45 minutes north of Prince Albert, in May.  

He had worked in Cairo during 2011-2012, living through Tahrir Square and the Arab Spring. But although those events were part of his Egyptian experience, he says that “Cairo was amazing. I enjoyed walking in the spice markets where Alexander the Great walked.  The Egyptians are a beautiful people.”

Nevertheless, he felt it was time to return to Canada, and when a colleague made him aware of the Elk Ridge opportunity, he contacted Brian Simpson, the resort CEO, for what he felt would be the perfect opportunity.

Birch has worked at resort properties before—he spent five years as sous chef at Banff Springs Hotel in the early 2000s before going to a position as chef at the Calgary Marriott and Telus Convention Centre.

Founded by entrepreneur Arne Petersen in 1993, Elk Ridge Resort is situated in the heart of boreal woodland and surrounded by a championship golf course. Amenities include a spa, a salt-water pool with waterslide, a weight room, and two restaurants.

“Copper Ridge dining room is casual fine dining,” Birch told CLN last month. “I say casual because we want people to relax and enjoy their dining experience in such beautiful surroundings. The emphasis is on upscale Canadian cuisine, highlighting fresh seasonal ingredients.” Copper Ridge has 48 seats. It overlooks a lake, and has  a 30-seat patio which is open whenever the boreal forest weather co-operates.

Walleye’s is a classic Canadian pub attached to Elk Ridge’s club house and pro golf shop.  “It’s a great place to have an ice cold sleeve of beer, watch the [Saskatchewan Rough] Rider’s games with some close friends and share some great food such as our locally caught fresh Walleye fish and chips, a beautiful fresh product right from the surrounding lakes near the resort,” Birch said. Walleye’s has 75 seats.

At Elk Ridge, Birch has the advantage of being director of food and beverage as well as executive chef—which gives him carte blanche when it comes to the menus.  

The summer menu at Copper Ridge focuses on the many products Canada has to offer, ranging from Digby scallops from Nova Scotia to fresh sockeye salmon from BC.  “We get all products here fresh—we try not to bring in anything frozen.  We want our clientele to get a taste of this great country we live in, and perhaps have them experience and enjoy something they may not have had before,” Birch said.

“Part of [the experience] is the surroundings, being in the middle of the great boreal forest is just stunning. Tie that in with fresh local ingredients such as handpicked Saskatoon berries and locally raised bison and a perfect glass of wine. What else could one ask for in a dining experience?”

Signature items at the resort include chef  Birch’s favourite—honey seared Digby Bay scallop and maple cured pork belly with  fresh watercress and local rhubarb chutney—and the aforementioned locally raised bison ribeye with wild mushroom risotto and red currant preserves.

“One of the most important aspects is that the [quality of] service matches the food,” Birch noted.  Front of the house operations are in the hands of maitre d’ Jay Klarenbach, who worked with Birch in Calgary, and followed him to the area—which happens to be his home.

“We want to fit in like a puzzle, with the front and back of the house working simultaneously.”

Diners come from all parts of Canada, although there is also a local contingent from places such as Regina and Saskatoon. Elk Ridge Resort also offers vacation properties—and those people come to the restaurants as well.  In fact the resort recently sold out its Cottages at Elk Ridge vacation community. Thirty nine cottages sold in just 38 days, for a total of $15.6 million in real estate.

As for Egyptian cooking—Birch hasn’t tried it out on the Elk Ridge crowd yet. When he does, he says he’ll try putting Egyptian flavours into familiar foods, for example, local pheasant or game hen stuffed with apricots, dates, spiced with cardamom and cinnamon and encrusted in almonds.

“I’ve lived in Banff and it was similar, minus the mountains,” he said, adding that this kind of environment with nature and natural ingredients is a perfect match for his work as a chef, and it inspires him every day.

“I really think [the area around Elk Ridge Resort] is just on the cusp of something wonderful.  Banff is saturated and guests are looking for something unique.

“My goal is to make Copper Ridge one of Canada’s top 100 restaurants.  I’ve worked at two of them and I know what it takes.”