As a chef, Hicheme Ouerghi prides himself on cooking from scratch and serving his guests a wide variety of dishes.
That can be a challenge when you’re on an island north of the Arctic Circle.
But after less than two years as a cook and hotel manager at Ulukhaktok’s Arctic Char Inn, Ouerghi has made a name for himself, attracting job offers from other communities across the territory.
“I do my cooking with love,” he says. “If I won’t eat it, I won’t serve it to anyone.”
The 28 year-old chef’s journey from a small city in northwestern Tunisia to an even smaller community in Canada’s North was a winding one, taking him across five countries on almost as many continents.
He knew from an early age his journey would involve cooking.
Born and raised in the city of Jendouba, Ouerghi says he loved helping his mother in the kitchen from an early age.
“I always cut her carrots, peeled her potatoes, everything,” he said.
After being accepted into the prestigious Alain Ducasse culinary school in Paris, he graduated fifth in a class of 200.
After a detour studying Italian cooking in Rome and Naples, he spent time both in Dubai and at a hotel in his home country.
One day, while working in Tunisia, he saw an add for a job opportunity in Canada.
“So I thought, it’s a scam,” he said. “But I said, you know what? Let’s do it.”
On a whim, he filled out an application.
Not long after, he was on a plane to Montreal, where he stayed with his sister for five days before moving on to La Ronge, a small community in central Saskatchewan. There, he worked at a barbecue restaurant for three years.
He was working in Kindersley, further south in Saskatchewan, when the pandemic reached Canada and hit the food-service industry especially hard. By the time he was offered the job at the Arctic Char Inn, he had forgotten he had even applied.
“I didn’t even have any idea about Ulukhaktok,” he says. “I even tried to Google it, but there is not much shown in Google or on YouTube.”
But even after all his travels, Ouerghi says he was ready for a new adventure: “I said, you know what? I’m gonna it give a shot.”
The community was already blanketed with snow when he arrived in September 2020. “I said ‘Oh my god, this is worse than La Ronge.”
Since then, Ouerghi has done everything from cooking to cleaning to managing the hotel.
Despite his French training, Ouerghi says it’s a challenge sourcing fresh ingredients in a community as isolated as Ulukhaktok. Yet, he’s put together a varied menu including eggs benedict, a buffalo chicken wrap and chicken poutine.
He says the locals “don’t want something from a bag, because you know, they’ve tried that too many times.”
With some Mexican cooking experience under his belt, Ouerghi says he especially enjoys cooking chicken quesadillas, even if the locals aren’t always fond of spicy food.
Although other opportunities are calling his name, Ouerghi says he’s become enamored with his new community.
“[It’s ] the most beautiful community I’ve seen in my life. I’ve been here for already two years, and I can’t even believe I’ve been here for two years. Time flies.”