It goes without saying that Dale MacKay and his team at Grassroots Restaurant Group have been instrumental in the Saskatchewan food scene, but I’ll say it again. When MacKay and his business partner Christopher Cho opened their first Saskatoon restaurant in 2013, Ayden Kitchen & Bar, they ignited the fire that has grown into a light on the provincial culinary scene—and since have continued to help it grow.
Originally from Saskatoon, MacKay has fond memories of his time growing up. At 15, he moved to Vancouver, where he started in the industry as a fry cook. Five years later, he moved to England to work for Michelin star chef Gordon Ramsay and then spent several years overseeing some of Ramsay’s restaurants in Tokyo and New York. He moved back to Vancouver to work with Michelin star chef Daniel Boulud. In 2011, MacKay also won the inaugural season of Top Chef Canada, which he is perhaps best known for.
After that, MacKay decided the timing was right to move back to Saskatoon. He says it was always the plan to open a restaurant in his hometown, and although his ultimate goal was to put Saskatchewan on the culinary map, he also wanted a different lifestyle for himself and his son.
“I wanted [my son] to have a similar upbringing to me—I loved growing up in Saskatoon,” he says. “I also didn’t want to be one of those people who has two cellphones and who is travelling 200 days out of the year. I wanted more of a normal life, and to come back and show the city what I had learned while I was away.”
Since opening Ayden (named after MacKay’s son), the Grassroots’ restaurant realm has grown to include four other restaurants—two more in Saskatoon, and two in Regina. Its newest, Dojo Ramen, opened in the fall of 2021 in downtown Regina and features Korean and Japanese street food. It’s Grassroots’ second restaurant serving Korean and Japanese dishes, the first being the well-loved Sticks and Stones in downtown Saskatoon.
“Christopher [Cho] is Korean, and I lived in Japan for years and then studied in Korea too, so it’s influenced by his background and my travels,” MacKay says. “We wanted [Dojo Ramen] to be fun and not too formal, somewhere where you could go for lunch and also go to drink sake at 9 p.m. It’s food that I love to cook and that people love to eat.”
The menu includes steam buns, ramen (four types), and sushi, along with a strong bar program, which is where Cho really shines. As an experienced mixologist, Cho’s influence on Grassroots’ handcrafted bar programs has been unmistakeable and has also helped shape the Saskatchewan cocktail scene.
“If you look at bar programs here 10 years ago versus now, today every restaurant has a bar program and is making proper cocktails,” MacKay says. “We make cordials and use local ingredients for syrups—that’s something we’re really proud of. It’s a huge part of all of our restaurants, and they each have their own identity with that too.”
Exceptional food and drink are the heartbeat of Grassroots, and one thing that’s been important to MacKay and Cho from the beginning is ensuring their menus are built upon ingredients sourced locally. They work with many farmers and growers across Saskatchewan and spend plenty of time making their own jams, chutneys, pickles, and more, which appear on all their restaurant menus (at Dojo Ramen, their house-made kimchi is even available to go).
When asked what comes next after Dojo Ramen, MacKay says he’s content with where they’re at between the two cities but that he’s excited about where Saskatchewan’s culinary scene is heading.
“I think it’s interesting to think about where we were 10 years ago as a province in terms of the dining scene to where we are now. It’s a pretty large jump. A regular meal out 10 years ago versus now is very different,” he said. “For me now, it’s just about cooking really good food that people enjoy—making the staff happy, the cooks happy, and doing what we enjoy doing in a good atmosphere. And I think that translates out to the guests.”
For more on dining and culture in Saskatoon, see our archives.
Images by Bob Deutscher.