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Not likely! Getting to know chef Daryl MacDonnell

by Darcy Rhyno

Daryl MacDonnell’s idea of retirement is to start a 32-seat, fine dining restaurant that’s redefining Cape Breton’s culinary scene. After cooking in restaurants across the country, he returned home and cooked at the island’s largest kitchens like Baddeck’s Inverary Inn and Keltic Lodge in Ingonish. Last year, he created Woodroad on the upper floor of a new timber frame house his brother Peter built on a bluff overlooking the ocean between Inverness and Margaree. His seven-course set menus offered three nights a week—plus Sunday brunch—are wildly popular, even in this first full season. Saltscapes spoke with MacDonnell about Julia Child, whale highways, and past lives.

Where did you grow up?

I was born in Inverness but moved to New Waterford. My parents and sister still live there. We have ties to Margaree through my mother. My brother and I would go every summer. We’d fish every day and play with our cousins. Peter stayed in Margaree after high school and started Larch Wood Cutting Boards, so he had a mill to do the lumber to build Woodroad.

And your father’s side of the family?

My grandfather was a miner in Inverness. His was the first house there to have a piano. All the fiddlers would go there for parties and funerals. My father was a butcher, but he took a job as a coal miner in New Waterford.

How did you learn to cook?

Cooking was just in me from young. My mother was a professional cook. Dad would do the butchering when people got a deer and I’d tag along. We children took care of each other, and I was the cook. I would do lunches and start supper. I’d watch cooking shows like Jacques Pépin and Julia Child. I remember the Galloping Gourmet and Wok With Yan. When I was young, I thought I was a French chef in a past life and that I could speak French, play the violin, and cook.

Can you sum up your philosophy to cooking?

Keep it simple and have good technique. (Order of Canada recipient) chef Takashi Murakami, my mentor at the St. Charles Country Club in Winnipeg, was Japanese, but he was French trained. I still use those methods today. Everybody I work with calls my beef stock kitchen gold.

What’s special about Woodroad?

The sunset is second to none. The other night, everybody in the restaurant was out on the deck, watching the sun go down. It’s like another course. Whales go by, the little ones close to their mothers. You see their shadows when the water is calm. It’s like a highway.

You started Woodroad as a retirement project.

It’s still a lot of work, but it’s cook work whereas when you’re an executive
chef, there’s more administrative work. I’ve achieved what I wanted. I worked in very good restaurants and I raised my family, which was number one. Now, I’m doing what I wanted to do many years ago. It’s a great way to
finish a career.

As you look back, what’s been most rewarding?

Giving young people a chance to learn the trade. The biggest accomplishment of all is seeing them doing well in the profession—food trucks, chefs, sous-chefs. I get that from my mentor. When you mention his name to anyone who’s worked with him, they stand taller. They stand proud. That was a goal of mine from the start. A lot of cooks felt they could do their best with me, and that’s satisfying.

 

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