‘Best restaurant north of 60’: How mining companies use gourmet food, suite-style rooms to attract new recruits

Katrina Clarke | September 7, 2014 | National Post

mine-food-cooking

Photo courtesy Musselwhite Mine

Prosciutto-wrapped asparagus, lemon pepper-dusted sea bass and beef tenderloin marinated in garlic, ginger and scallions are just a few of the delicacies Executive Chef Allan Bedard serves up nightly.

But the customers delighting in his meals aren’t foodies in downtown Toronto. They are hungry miners, up to 500 of them, eager to devour a meal after working a 12-hour shift underground.

“We have people who come to site, they don’t know what a mango is… They try to eat them like apples,” says Mr. Bedard, boasting that he rapidly expands both the palates and the waistlines of miners.

Gone are the days of cheap hot dogs, wilted vegetables and Spam. As mining companies compete to recruit and retain top workers, miners at fly-in fly-out mine sites in northern Canada are increasingly getting treated to gourmet-style food. Food costs at some mine sites can reach upwards of $20 million annually.

“We have the best restaurant north of 60,” says Dale Coffin, director of corporate communications with Agnico Eagle Mines Ltd. The “restaurant” is located at Agnico Eagle’s Meadowbank mine in Nunavut’s Kivalliq region, 170 kilometres south of the Arctic Circle.

The mine is a fly-in fly-out operation, with 50% of workers coming from Quebec and 30%from Nunavut. Most workers work a two-on, two-off shift, spending two weeks on site and then getting a two week break.

Meadowbank Mine/Agnico Eagle Mines

Meadowbank Mine/Agnico Eagle Mines The Meadowbank mine is an open-pit gold mine in the Kivalliq region of Nunavut. It is located 2,600 kilometres northwest of Toronto.

Conditions can be tough. Workers are separated from family, temperatures can dip to minus 70 C with the wind-chill, winter days are dark and alcohol is banned. For some, food is the only comfort.

Handout/ Musselwhite Mine

Handout/ Musselwhite MineHoney, lemon and lavender Halibut over roasted tomatoes and buttered green beans at Musselwhite Mine. 

“It’s a key to maintaining stability within the workforce,” says Mr. Coffin. “If you don’t have a very good camp facility and food is not great, word spreads fast.”

Lionel Li, a 2014 UBC mining engineering grad, recently spent eight months working in a co-op placement at Musselwhite Mine in northern Ontario. He was separated from his fiancé, who was living in Vancouver, and ended up working over both Christmas and New Years.

“[Food] is definitely not a replacement by any means but it does help,” he says. “The pleasure of eating some decent food… makes up for it slightly, the fact you might be missing a holiday at home.”

Handout/ Musselwhite Mine

Handout/ Musselwhite MineBeef ribs with a five spice rub and a garlic butter drizzle on a jicama and Asian flavoured slaw at Musselwhite Mine.

Mr. Li, 29, says the fly-in fly-out lifestyle is best suited for single people. He knows some miners who travel every two weeks. It would be hard to be away from a young family for half the year, he says.

But as Canada’s mining sector grows, demand for mine workers in rural areas is also increasing. A 2012 Mining Association of Canada report predicted the industry will need 100,000 more workers in the next decade.

Mining companies know they have to step up their game if they want to attract the best new miners.

Handout/ Musselwhite Mine

Handout/ Musselwhite MineCajun spiced shrimp served with a onion, tomato and pea blend and sauced with and oyster hoisin glaze at Musselwhite Mine. 

“They all say we have great food, really comfortable accommodations and all that,” says Oliver Carusone, 22, a fourth year student at the Robert M. Buchan Department of Mining at Queen’s University. “I feel that as there is more development in remote locations, the companies setting up these operations do make a point to make it seem more luxurious. So it’s not like you’re living in a tent or a trailer.”

Along with improved accommodations – many rooms are now suite-style, instead of dorms – food quality and variety has also improved.

Handout/ Musselwhite Mine

Handout/ Musselwhite MineSirloin steak in a garlic and coffee rub served with a fennel and citrus braised cabbage, topped with sous vide soft poached eggs at Musselwhite Mine.

“The trend has been toward fresh, away from frozen, pre-prepared stuff, away from greasy, french fry stuff. People are much more interested in healthy options,” said Dave O’Connor, managing director of Outland Camps, a catering and remote workforce company.

In 2014, his company serviced 60 remote camp sites for various industries throughout Canada. Mr. O’Connor said demand for catering services has increased over the past decade.

Mining companies often outsource food services. Companies like Outland Camps understand the logistical challenges of flying in fresh produce and hiring staff to work at remote sites, Mr. O’Connor says.

He has also seen a shift toward higher end food at mine sites. Sites also now offer more “exotic” varies of international food and traditional Aboriginal country food. Ten years ago, “it was strictly meat and potatoes,” he says.

Food budgets vary but in Alberta’s oil sands, companies pull out all the stops to attract workers who are spoiled with job opportunities, he says. Some workers even switch jobs based on food.

“The sky’s the limit. It’ll be as good as any Toronto high end restaurant,” he says, declining to share the amount his highest budget client spends on food. “But then there are lots of other ones where it’s a much more basic offering.”

Companies with tighter budgets limit food variety and might cut back on expensive packaged items like cans of pop, he says. Others limit indulgent meals to special occasions.

Handout/ Meadowbank Mine

Handout/ Meadowbank MineMiners eat at Goldcorp’s Meadowbank Mine

“With employees on site for 14 days at a time, we have to make sure the food is very good to keep up morale, but we don’t want to give the impression that it’s filet mignon and crab legs every night,” says Tom Ormsby, director of external and corporate affairs at De Beers Canada, which has diamond mines in the Northwest Territories and Ontario.

And of course, tastes vary.

“We can go through tones of bologna, white bread and ketchup and then the next night you’ll go through a couple hundred pounds of tenderloin that’s wrapped in prosciutto and slow roasted,” says Mr. Bedard, executive chef at Goldcorp’s Musselwhite Mine in northern Ontario. “It really goes the full spectrum.”

Handout/ Musselwhite Mine

Handout/ Musselwhite MineGoldcorp’s Musslewhite Mine, an underground gold mine located around 500 km north of Thunder Bay, Ont. 

Many workers at the mine come from rural first nations communities where fresh food is expensive and hard to come by, says Mr. Bedard, who is hired by Windigo Catering, owned by Windigo First Nations. Some people aren’t used to eating vegetables, he says.

“People have never had cherries that haven’t come out of a jar,” he says, adding that french fries are a staple at most meals and the older miners favour meat and potatoes.

But that doesn’t discourage Mr. Bedard, who says he serves “gourmet comfort food.”

When he realized some miners were turned off because they didn’t recognize words on the menu, he played around with descriptions. Sauerbraten became “buttermilk braised beef” and curry became “spice rubbed lamb with a sweet, coconut milk sauce.”

When Mr. Bedard does make more “pedestrian” staple foods, he fancies them up. He makes macaroni and cheese from scratch and throws in applewood-smoked bacon and gouda and tops the dish with crumbled potato chips.

“The only cardinal rule we seem to have is on Tuesdays they get prime rib or rib eye [steaks],” he says.

We can go through tones of bologna, white bread and ketchup and then the next night you’ll go through a couple hundred pounds of tenderloin that’s wrapped in prosciutto

Mr. Bedard also has access to “toys” that make chefs at high-end Toronto restaurants jealous, he says. His kitchen boasts a sous-vide machine, all the rage in the culinary world, and $60,000 ovens.

“It gets excessive,” he says.

He prides himself on the “gluttonous” meals he creates at holidays. This past Christmas he put together an 11-foot cheese board and served lobster tails, bison tenderloin and 20-ounce prime rib steaks on the bone.

While miners may curse Mr. Bedard for their weight gain and discreetly tell him his culinary skills far exceed that of their spouses, he values the impact his food has on workers.

“Sometimes we all have that moment where you take that [food] and you bite into it. You don’t really forget about things but you’re just more focused on that warm nurturing sensation,” he says. “For a lot of people, food is home.”

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About Katrina Clarke

Katrina Clarke is a Toronto- and Vancouver-based freelance reporter. Her work appears in the National Post, the Toronto Star, CBC Life and J-Source. Reach her at katrina.clarke24@gmail.com or on Twitter at @KatrinaAClarke.
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