James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

Burmese Curries and Skijoring Is a Really Specific Combination

Burmese Curries and Skijoring Is a Really Specific Combination

Breakfast Samosas in Canada

Few chefs have 98 dogs, but for Russell Donald they are as critical to business as his Burmese grandmother’s curry recipes. Donald fell in love with dogsledding and moved to Canada from the United Kingdom in 1988, bringing along his love of curries.

Now he runs dog sleds on the trails in Alberta’s Rocky Mountains and runs The Mad Dog Café & Market with his wife, Dawn. “We’re not an Indian restaurant, but Indian food is our specialty,” explained Russell as I perused the chalkboard menu. Eating breakfast in a place called Dead Man’s Flats and served by an Englishman who claims to be mad (about dogs and curries) may sound risky. In fact, it’s a delicious way to start a visit to Banff National Park or Kananaskis Country. The café is a short drive to either park and you can dogsled before or after you eat.

Luna, the café mascot—an aloof Alaskan husky with one blue eye and one brown eye—had already headed to the trailhead when I tucked into my breakfast samosas and tomato chutney. The smell of curries wafting from the kitchen had my senses screaming “comfort food” as I bit into the lightly browned pastry. The flavors of eggs, bacon, sausage, and onion danced on my taste buds as Russell explained what it is like to cook for human customers and also feed nearly 100 dogs. “I used to go to the market to set up, then go feed the dogs, then run back to work at the market and then go back to the dogs. It was nuts!” he laughed. Now, the business has more staff, so Dawn has added menu items and Russell has attempted to set a world record for skijoring: being pulled on cross-country skis by a team of twelve sled dogs.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t time to try a breakfast Nanini—tomato chutney, eggs, cheese, bacon, and banana peppers wrapped in naan bread—as I rushed to layer on my winter clothes to go dogsledding. Driving up a narrow gravel road to the frozen Spray Lakes, I found Luna and twenty of her canine friends waiting to run with the excitement of a football team seconds before the ball is snapped.

Our guide led in the first sled with seven dogs and two passengers. Zaboo—the 9-year-old Huskie leading our group—looked over his shoulder, his pink tongue lolling out the side of his mouth as he settled into a steady run over the crusty spring snow. His gaze seemed to say this old dog knew all the tricks and I didn’t have much to offer except ballast. I travelled in the middle sled, trusting my team would follow Zaboo since my skill with haw and gee—left and right in dog-speak—was limited.

The sky was the color of a bluebird and the snow sparkled as we slid by. Pine smells drifted from the thick forest and the wind tickled my ears. I imagined what it had been like for early explorers who faced craggy peaks and tangled forests without snow machines or automobiles. Dog sleds could have helped winter travel but it is unlikely anyone was snacking on samosas.

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