This is what Murray McDonald’s morning commute looks like.
Originally from Deer Lake, Newfoundland, Murray worked in Vancouver, New Zealand, the Cook Islands, the Caribbean and Mexico before landing the role of executive chef at Fogo Island Inn.
The inn is a newly built property, perched on stilts by the sea, where guests might see whales breaching or icebergs floating by, as they look out their bedroom windows.
To help create a sense of place, Murray incorporates island ingredients into the dishes he serves here. On the way to work, he stops to forage plants such as sorrel, wild celery and caribou moss, which he’ll grind up for pesto or use whole as garnishes.
“I was overwhelmed by how pretty it is here, when I first arrived,” says Murray. “Each part of the island is slightly different. At Joe Batt’s Arm, where I live, it’s like the tundra, with all the green patches and herbs sticking out of the rocks. You feel like you’re on Mars, at nighttime, walking across the mossy rocks in the moonshine.”
Murray picks up most of his fresh fruits and veggies from local farmers, like Winston Osmond, an oil painter, who also gardens and raises quails, chicks and ducks. “He grows a lot of greens and baby lettuces; I’ll buy his kohlrabi tips, Chinese cabbage, basil, dill and arugula,” says the chef. Murray’s go-to fisherman, Alf Coffin, is also a green-thumbed gardener–and a mean harmonica player too. “He lets me go pick what I need from his garden: kale, Swiss chard, turnips, onions…
The chef doesn’t just get shellfish and cod from local fishers, he asks for the seaweed pulled up in their traps and nets too, which he’ll use in his entrées. “People spread it in their gardens as fertilizer here, so if you say you’re actually eating it, they look at you like you have ten heads,” says Murray, laughing.
“The biggest challenge on a small island is sourcing ingredients, so we just make everything ourselves from scratch. We make the menu small and change it up a lot; it gets your imagination going more,” says Murray. Other than the beef, which is shipped in from Prince Edward Island, everything on the inn’s menu is from Fogo island or just across the water, around Gander.
This eat-the-island philosophy gets the kitchen staff out of the kitchen a few hours every day. Recently Murray, his manager, Jacob Luksic, and his assistant manager, Bryan Pollet, went out together and picked 200 lb of wild mussels from the chilly waters of the North Atlantic. “They were big, beautiful and tasty, but you had to watch your teeth because of the pearls,” says the chef. “My hands were sore the next day, and they looked like a 90-year-old man’s”
The chef’s life in an urban centre usually means long hours away from home, so Murray enjoys having more time with family now. “They really like it here too,” he says. “My wife is Chinese, so coming to a small Newfoundland island was something different for her. And my kids love to go to the family resource centre, and go on play dates by the water and for ice cream.”
The friendly island vibe is one of the big perks of Murray’s new job. “The team here is amazing. It’s like working in a big family every day.”
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Try Chef Murray’s Forager’s Sauce recipe from the August 2013 issue of Reader’s Digest–a tart and fruity match for Arctic char.