A Cut Above: Sask. chef preps for culinary nationals


Makenna Rai at the Saskatchewan Young Chef Culinary Challenge. (Photo Provided)

Makenna Rai’s love of food boils back to family. Growing up, she spent hours in the kitchen with her Baba. By the age of 10, she was handily making perogies on her own. Her parents were shift workers meaning Rai would often be in charge of supper. It all sparked a passion for cooking.

Makenna Rai got her start making meals for her family when she was 10 years old. (Photo Provided)

“My mom had a huge cook book from my Baba and I started making the recipes,” she says. “I don’t love anything in my life as much as I like cooking. I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

“She’s very driven and more mature than most culinary students.”

After completing the commercial cooking program at Walter Murray Collegiate and working in several Saskatoon restaurants, Rai took the leap and enrolled in Saskatchewan Polytechnic’s Culinary Arts Program. At the same time, Rai took a new job working at Stoked Kitchen & Bar alongside Executive Chef Anthony McCarthy and Executive Sous Chef Justin O’Reilly.

“Makenna is very passionate about learning. She’s very curious,” says McCarthy who suggested she try competing. “She’s very driven and more mature than most culinary students.”

Rai put in the extra hours with McCarthy and O’Reilly working to balance flavours and perfecting her menu for the regional competition.

“Chef Anthony can be tough,” says Rai. “When I was making my duck and didn’t render the fat properly, he was standing over my shoulder pushing me in a positive way. He’s very supportive but always demands the best from us.”

Rai is training hard for the national competition in Niagara Falls, Ont. in June. (Photo Provided)

Last month, all the hard work paid off. Rai won the Saskatchewan Young Chef Culinary Challenge, securing a spot in the 2023 Canadian Culinary Federation’s Young Chef Culinary Challenge in Niagara, ON in June.

“When they announced my number, I was stunned,” she says. “I thought I was going to cry. It was all worth it!”

Now with nationals only a few months away, Rai has stepped up her training schedule working on elements of her competition menu with McCarthy and thoughtful plating with O’Reilly to get it just right.

“It’s not going to be easy,” explains McCarthy. “There’s usually six to eight competitors from right across the country and they’re all very good. If she does all her preparation and has it tasting good, I’m sure she’ll end up on the podium.”

Rai is determined to have a career in the culinary arts and while competitions like these can set young chefs apart, it’s always been about that initial joy she found in her family’s kitchen.

“There’s no better feeling than putting your heart and soul into a dish,” she says. “It’s always about makingpeople happy and enjoying food.”