A Thanksgiving Dining Debate for Outdoorsmen

The author and his father remember the best food they've ever had on a Canadian fishing trip.

A Thanksgiving Dining Debate for Outdoorsmen

You have to love Thanksgiving — a holiday designed around food and football, perfectly timed in late fall so you can talk hunting with your relatives as you force down another piece of pumpkin pie. Can someone pass the whipped cream?

Here’s a holiday-inspired question designed to generate some family-friendly debate around the table or — let’s be honest — on the basement couch in front of the TV: What’s the best food you’ve ever had at a hunting or fishing lodge?

I’m going to ask my relatives this question right after our annual game of touch football. Better yet, maybe during the second half to distract the defense and create space for the flea-flicker that might just win us Turkey Bowl XXVI.

To start the debate, I’ll share my answer here: The best food I’ve ever had at a hunting or fishing lodge was Aikens Lake Wilderness Lodge, a second-generation, luxury fly-in fishing resort with walleye, pike and lake trout fishing in Atikaki Provincial Park near Winnipeg, Manitoba.

A unique aspect of the lodge, and a big reason why it draws acclaim, is its shore lunches (photo above) and gourmet dining. The mastermind behind the food is renowned chef, Enzo Costantini.

"We are thrilled to have Enzo as our chef,” said Aikens co-owner Julie Turenne. “He’s extremely talented with great experience even before Aikens. In addition to opening and running his own successful restaurants, in his earlier years he also was the head chef at another high-end fishing lodge and was a senior chef at one of Winnipeg’s premier steakhouses."

Chef Enzo Costantini and Aikens Lake co-owner Julie Turenne.
Chef Enzo Costantini and Aikens Lake co-owner Julie Turenne.

At Aikens, Costantini has elevated the cuisine to a whole new level.

“One of my specialties is slow cooking meats,” said Costantini, a Red Seal Chef with 38 years of experience. “Take back bacon, for example. I like to brine it for five or six days, then smoke it for four hours, and serve it at breakfast before guests hit the water for a great day out fishing with their guides.”

“The smoked tenderloin is another dish I’m proud of,” said Costantini. “You’re seasoning it, letting it marinate, then it comes up so tender it melts in your mouth.”

Of course, Costantini’s Italian heritage also contributes to his repertoire. He learned to cook from his Italian immigrant mother, Franca, and to this day incorporates many of those family secrets passed down thru the generations. One example? Understanding the importance of fresh herbs.

This past year, Costantini brought a variety of herb plants to Aikens and grew them to pick from all season long. They had a very special origin.

“My mom brought them straight from Italy, the Abruzzi region. Dry oregano, rosemary, thyme, basil––I love them all, and you use them different ways to bring out different flavors. This year we added fresh pesto to our chicken parmigiana and it’s gotten killer reviews.”

Chef Costantini with herbs brought to Aikens from Italy.
Chef Costantini with herbs brought to Aikens from Italy.

Costantini also takes pride in creating the same fantastic food while employing different techniques, as needed, to accommodate any dietary restrictions our guests might have.

“I do a lot of research when guests have requests, and I also enjoy talking with the guests,” said Costantini, who also spent several years as a fishing guide on the Red River. “A lot of the knowledge just comes over the years, knowing which cake mixes are OK, being careful with sauces. With ribs, for example, Bull’s Eye BBQ sauce is gluten free, most others aren’t. The response we get from guests is super rewarding. It’s awesome to have people remember you and say, ‘We’re so glad you’re here.’”

One such repeat guest is my father, Paul Capecchi, from Minneapolis, Minnesota. Dad is a retired lifelong 3M employee who has years of experience at high-end corporate dinners and customer retreats as well as Canadian fishing trips. In fact, while baseball aficionados can recite batting averages and ERAs, my dad can proudly answer trivia questions when quizzed about most any Canadian fishing lodge.

My dad was blown away with Costantini’s excellence in the kitchen. “This has to be the greatest dinner you’ll ever have at a fly-in lodge,” my dad said of the fillet mignon, shrimp, Caesar salad, fresh bread and cheesecake.

“It’s as good or better than any of the top restaurants in Minneapolis, and there’s two big differences. First, here (at Aikens), it’s all-included while at a nice restaurant in the city this is a $100 plate. Secondly, you go to the best restaurant in Minneapolis and you’re packed in the middle of the city, looking at buildings and knowing you’ve got to get the car and fight traffic after your meal. Here, you’re enjoying this phenomenal food watching the sun sparkle on the lake 50 yards away thinking, ‘Do I go back out on the water for an hour after this, or am I just going to walk along the beach back to my cabin and relax?’”

Dinner is served at Aikens Lake Wilderness Lodge, complements of Chef Costantini.
Dinner is served at Aikens Lake Wilderness Lodge, complements of Chef Costantini.


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