Sprinting Towards Fall Flavours

Chef Irwin MacKinnon prepares to get really busy as September’s month-long food festival approaches

If there’s one thing Islanders like almost as much as food, it’s a good party. At least that’s my theory as to why PEI has no shortage of food-focussed festivals and events. There are celebrations of our most famed products (lobster and potatoes for the un-indoctrinated), culinary competitions, booze-centric festivals, and so much more. And, of course, there’s the pièce de résistance, the Fall Flavours Festival. In every imaginable way it takes the culinary experience and elevates it in spectacular fashion, with celebrity chef hosts, unique venues, interactive elements, and, importantly, the best and freshest ingredients from PEI’s soil and sea.

Fall Flavours may seem like it’s ages away, but for chefs, event planners, industry associations, sponsors, and all the other behind-the-scenes players, July and August mark the final sprint before Canada’s Food Island is showcased for the world to taste.

One of those sprinters is chef Irwin MacKinnon of Papa Joe’s in Charlottetown, who’ll be wearing various toques (the official word for a chef’s hat) in this year’s festival. MacKinnon will be defending his title as the winner of last year’s Best of Sea competition. The winner of this annual competition is named ‘Chic Chef of the Year’ and given the prestigious honour of representing PEI at the Garland Canada International Chef Challenge, which takes place during the PEI International Shellfish Festival.

The Garland competition pits 12 chefs from different parts of the world against each other in a friendly, but intense tournament that involves black box ingredients, a live broadcast, an audience, and that eternal nemesis of chefs the world round—the stopwatch. In 2016, the chefs, who came from as far as London and New York and as close and New Brunswick, were required to prepare four (!) shellfish dishes during a 45-minute period.

“It was pretty intense[…]me being the way I am, I bit off quite a bit in terms of components,” MacKinnon said. “It was a great, great opportunity to network, talk shop over the weekend[…]though chefs are competitive by nature, the situation was not like that, [there was] a lot of camaraderie and new friendships formed.”

Best of Sea 2016 dish created by Chef Irwin MacKinnon, Papa Joe’s/Photo Credit: Heather Ogg Photography

If he wins this year’s Best of Sea competition, MacKinnon may have to find a way to clone himself for the month of September. He’s catering Toes, Taps, and Taters on September 8, as well as Feast and Frolic on September 14. Hosted by chef Chuck Hughes, Feast and Frolic is a gala dinner to kick off the PEI International Shellfish Festival and involves serving 450 guests a huge feast of seafood. Meanwhile the Toes, Taps, and Taters event will be catered at a potato warehouse in Canoe Cove, and is also being hosted by Hughes.

“I get bored easily, I like a challenge,” MacKinnon said, as if to explain the workload he’s taking on. And his hectic schedule doesn’t end there.

In addition to his regular gig as head chef at Papa Joe’s, Chef MacKinnon is president of the PEI Association of Chefs and Cooks, which is organizing two tantalizing Fall Flavours experiences. The first is the Great Island Grilled Cheese Challenge, a favourite amongst Islanders and dairy-lovers with a very accessible ticket price and the promise of an indulgent, cheese-filled experience. This year, along with Discover Charlottetown and Versatile Management Group, the Association is also organizing A Chef’s Island, which will take place Sept 30 and be hosted by Chef Michael Smith. An upscale affair, A Chef’s Island will feature up-and-coming chefs from across the country preparing dishes with the Island’s finest ingredients.

“I’m looking forward to networking with other chefs, other people in the industry and on the Island[…]I’ve met lots of great people through Fall Flavours, like Heidi [Zinn] from Discover Charlottetown and Kendra [Mills] from the PEI Potato Board,” MacKinnon said.

“Fall Flavours is a great way for us to get the message out to North America about who we are, what we’re capable of—our people, our hospitality, our food.”

If you happen to catch sight of MacKinnon in the lead-up to Fall Flavours or during the Festival, be sure to give him a handshake, a hug, or a pat on the back—he surely deserves it, as do the many other folks working behind the scenes to make September the tastiest month of the year on PEI!

About Shannon Courtney

Shannon is the co-founder of Salty and was its editor-in-chief for the publication's inaugural year. When she’s not writing about food, Shannon's either cooking, eating, talking, or thinking about it. Her food adventures have included milking a Jersey cow in Australia, almost overdosing on maple syrup in Prince Edward County, and studying local food systems in Vermont as part of her Master’s thesis research. Shannon is also a Registered Holistic Nutritionist and strongly believes you CAN make friends with salad.

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