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Mark Rendell
Mark Rendell

Yellowknifers: The Celebrity's Chef

From Halifax to Kandahar to Yellowknife, Kim Burke has cooked up a life full of adventure and encounters with well-known faces from Dame Judi Dench to the Trailer Park Boys

The blaze of sirens above dusty desert streets sent Kim Burke dashing back to her metal, air-conditioned sea can. Eleven Taliban fighters had just tried rushing the gates of the Kandahar Air Base, meeting a wall of bullets from a passing convoy of American Light Armoured Vehicles. But was the assault just a diversion?

"Our role was not to let the soldiers have any need to worry about us,” says Burke, who emerged from her sea can once the perimeter had been secured four hours later, still wearing a camo flak jacket and helmet. Her first stop? The local on-base store for nerve-calming near-beer with her fellow Tim Hortons employees.

If you’ve been to Bullock’s Bistro in the past 10 months, you have Burke to thank for the fried cod. Before becoming the storied restaurant’s fish cook last November, however, she’d served Double Doubles in Afghanistan, made sandwiches for Harrison Ford and helped Bif Naked avoid creepy male fans — and that’s just a few of her adventures so far.

"Like when the Foo Fighters came in and dumped a salt shaker full of salt into my water glass," she says with a laugh.

Burke’s been many things in her 54 years, most of which have involved food. Originally from Caledon, Ontario, she started waitressing at a local truck stop when she was 13, then graduated to bartending at the Powwow Lounge in Brampton — "so inappropriate, totem pole in the middle, country and western music every night" — and the “titty bar” downstairs, outside of which a man was once hit by a stray police bullet.

For the decade leading up to her first trip to Afghanistan, she’d been living in Halifax as something of local celebrity, dishing up pizza for inebriated concert-goers in Hell’s Kitchen, the little restaurant in the basement of Halifax’s premier show venue, the Marquee Ballroom.

"The Trailer Park Boys became friends of mine because they'd come to the Marquee in character, but they'd get overwhelmed with all the attention and run into my kitchen and hide for a minute just to catch their breath.”

"The rap guys Swollen Members from Vancouver, they would eat my pizza every time they came and start doing improvised pizza rap in front of my kitchen window,” she continues with a laugh, “and Bif Naked absolutely loved me because I would always lock the doors, to keep people out, because she has stalkers everywhere."

It was an exciting time for Burke. When not in the depths of Hell, she’d cater the wrap parties for film crews shooting in Nova Scotia, serving everyone from Kevin Spacey to Harrison Ford.

“I was talking to the owner one night and I looked down and it was Dame Judith Dench standing in front of me. Now that was the only time I couldn't talk."

As with all things, the wave eventually crested: she was laid off from the Marquee with 12 days notice and the pub she got a job at afterwards burnt to the ground on her birthday. She went back to school for a diploma in business administration, but no luck there: “I thought, OK, that will look good on my resume. Halifax, here we go! Nothing.”

She ended up working “a horrible, boring job” in the cafeteria at Halifax’s navy base. But it was there she saw a poster recruiting civilians to work at the Tim Hortons on the Kandahar Air Base, a sprawling NATO camp of 33,000 people.

Burke (on the right) with her co-workers, winding down after a Taliban attack with some near-beer | Photo courtesy Kim Burke

 

Life on the air base when she arrived in 2010 wasn’t all sirens and flak jackets. But was hot, smelly — “porta-potties everywhere... open air sewage” — and noisy: "The only place to find peace on the base was to sit on the flightline, because there's no generators out there and I loved watching the crazy helicopter maneuvers bringing patients into the hospital.”

The Afghan Tim Hortons was similar to the domestic variety: Timbits, Double Doubles and 30 minute lineups. There were some differences, however. Instead of a drive-through, there was a walk-through, and the parking lot was the site of frequent vehicular crime (OK, maybe not too different from Canada): “People would leave their keys in their car and go into Tim Hortons, then somebody would come out of Tim Hortons and take that truck to the other end of the base, and just leave the keys in it. So the military police were constantly running around looking for everybody's cars."

Burke did two tours, the first in 2010 for six months, the second in 2011 for five and half months. She worked the very last shift at Kandahar’s Tim Hortons before the Canadians Forces packed up and left, taking their national coffee chain with them.

Back in Halifax, Burke fell on tough times again. Jobs were few and far between, and a stint running a food truck for the summer wasn’t enough to sustain her through the winter. She moved west two years ago in search of work in Alberta’s oil camps, just as industry started its spectacular swan dive.  

"I am the queen of bad timing," she says, with a wry chuckle. “So here I am, sitting in Edmonton, very despondent, I didn't know where I was going to go, what I was going to do, didn't have any money.”

She’d always kept in touch with an old friend, Andre Dorais, the former fish cook at Bullock’s; the two had met 25 years ago, when Burke was running a food truck in Ottawa and Dorais was working in a restaurant just around the corner. Stuck in Edmonton, with no immediate prospects, things began to finally look up for Burke when Dorais came to town for some medical treatment.

“He called up Renata [the owner of Bullock’s at the time] and said ‘I hear you need a cook, I'm sitting with one right now.’ And from the time I talked to Renatta, I was working in a week."

"It's been an amazing ride,” says Burke, who arrived in Yellowknife last November.” I had no idea what I was getting into, I still have no idea what I'm getting into. It's crazy busy, and I've never worked in a place with such beautiful product in my life."

And in a strange way, many strands of Burke’s history have been drawn together since moving up North. The first thing she saw when she walked into Bullock’s was a blue and yellow sign hanging from the roof: “Hell’s Kitchen.” When Joel Plaskett and his band were up for Folk on the Rocks, Burke, friends with the band from Halifax days, organized a fishing trip for Joel’s drummer. And she’s still making food for plenty of military folks stationed in Yellowknife.

There was even that one Bullock’s customer she got chatting with — a strangely familiar older guy with a limp. It turns out he’d been a regular at the Powwow Lounge back in Brampton in the ‘80s. He was the one hit by the stray police bullet all those years ago.