Donair Pizza: A Very Canadian Combination of Dough, Beef and Sweet Sauce
By: Ivy Knight
The official tree of Halifax in Nova Scotia, Canada is the red spruce. The official dog is the Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever. They even have an official fossil. But until 2015 they did not have an official food. That’s when a movement began to make it the donair.
Rumor had it that Edmonton – in the Canadian province of Alberta – was considering making it theirs. As home to an inordinate amount of Maritimers (those from New Brunswick, Nova Scotia or Prince Edward island), who move to Alberta to work in oil, Edmonton has more donair shops per capita anywhere in Canada outside of Halifax. This pushed the Halifax City Council to a vote. They tied! Some were against the donair being made official because it’s considered late-night junk food beloved by drunks, and is perhaps less classy than lobster or blueberry pie (two other foods being considered). It was up to Mayor Mike Savage to cast the tie-breaking vote. And there, in the council chamber, ten days before Christmas, he did just that, and made history, formalising what Canadians have known for decades – donair is the official food of Halifax.
Joe Cobden is a comedian and filmmaker who shot a feature documentary about the origins of the donair. “It’s very important to my fellow countrypeople in Nova Scotia,” he tells me from Paris where he’s now living. The hard drive with all his footage was stolen and it seems the doc will never get made, but everything he learned about donair history is still in his head. “Peter and John Gamoulakos were Greek immigrant brothers who set up [Velos Pizza] shop in Bedford in the 1970’s. Nobody was buying their food because nobody in Nova Scotia eats lamb or yogurt or cucumbers, at least not back then, and certainly not tzatziki. But my people eat a lot of hamburgers, and they love sugar. So Peter made this bastardisation of the gyro. He used reconstituted beef, basically the hot dog of the beef world, and he created a sauce with sweetened, condensed milk. According to John, the original recipe is in a safe in Antigonish somewhere. Who knows?”
The brothers didn’t have a name for their new creation until they had their first customer.
“Someone came in and said what do you call this thing? Either Peter or John, they’ve both laid claim to it at different times, looked down at the spit roasting machine, which was called Don-Air or possibly döner, after the dish from whence sprang all kebab permutations. So the brother called it that, but, with his Greek accent, it came out sounding like “doan-air.” And that’s how the name was born.”
Peter went on to establish The Original Mr. Donair in the 1980s and the brothers marketed Mr. Donair products. Peter passed away in the early 1990s and John sold “The Original” Mr. Donair to Tony’s Meats in Antigonish in 2005.
The Nahas family has been serving donair for fifty years. Their shop, King of Donair, has introduced everyone from Anthony Bourdain to Michelin-starred chef Dominique Crenn to the dish. Nicholas Nahas, the youngest of the Nahas brothers, was raised on it. “People say don’t you get tired of donairs? Even to this day I don’t. I love donairs.”
This is the thing about donair, the people who love it, really love it. Nahas explains, “Five years ago we had a live feed on YouTube. For three months, 24-7, it was a feed of our donair spit. People around the world would tune in to watch. It reached like 150-something countries.”
Jesse Clausheide made his first pizza on his roommate’s Ooni oven. He would go on to open Nimrods’ Floating Pizza Bar in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. “This whole business came about because my roommate bought that oven. I catered his wedding with that oven.” Now he’s gearing up to open his third location.
Jesse was born in Vermont. He didn’t taste donair until he was in his 20s. “I was working as a delivery driver for Famous Peppers Pizza in Montague. They put donair pizza on the menu and I tasted it.” His take? “Odd, but delicious.” Jesse’s version is considered by many to be the finest iteration of donair pizza. This might be due to scarcity – you can only order it during the tourist season – from Mother’s Day to Labor Day, at his tiny pizzeria located in the country’s smallest province.
“It might not make sense to say I’m going to put icing sugar on spicy meat, but the two go together beautifully,” says Nicholas. “Donair is funny. It has this stigma that it’s late-night drunk food, but it blends so many cultures. It’s what Canada is now.” Nicholas and his three brothers were taught the secret recipe by their dad when they were teens. “Paprika, pepper, garlic,” is all he’ll say when pressed. “It’s ground together with 100% beef and served on thin steamed and grilled Lebanese pita.”
Anthony Bourdain was at the first King of Donair pop-up, which took place in a shed during the Devour Food Film Festival in 2014. “After he ate it he said, ‘This is marvelous!’” recounts Nicholas. “I’ve never heard someone describe a donair as marvelous before. Dominique Crenn had two back-to-back. Bill Pullman was cool. Matty Matheson is awesome whenever he comes in.”
At King of Donair, they’ve got donair egg rolls, poutine, even beer, but pizza is king when it comes to donair-adjacent items. “When you’ve sliced off all that you can [from the spit] you chop it up and use it for pizza,” says Nicholas. It’s a natural byproduct of #kebablife. And the pizza is always white. No tomato sauce, not even olive oil. “Just the dough! Then donair meat, cheese, onions and tomatoes. We use a pan and put it through a conveyor oven.” As for the crust, Nicholas pauses. “It’s not thin, it’s not thick. I’ve never really thought about it before. Let’s just call it traditional.”
According to filmmaker Joe, “You can’t have anything but tomatoes and onions in a donair; if you have lettuce, it’s probably time for you to go to prison, according to any Nova Scotian.” The same holds true for a donair slice. But, leave it to a donair latecomer to mess with tradition.
Jesse didn’t put donair pizza on the Nimrod’s menu initially. He only developed a recipe as a special request for a customer. “We were just planning to keep it on for a week.” Demand was so high they never took it off. The Nimrod’s version is slightly elevated; garlic cream sauce base, mozzarella, donair meat, diced onions and cherry tomatoes. It’s finished in the traditional style, with a drizzle of donair sauce. And one more element that really takes it over the top. “We were playing around with za’atar and tried it on the crust. That went over really well.”
Like Canadians, donair is pretty adaptable and easygoing. As far as cult pizza goes, it pairs well with beer and tastes great in cold weather.
Says Joe, “Donair is a remarkable symbol of what makes Canada great; this moosh of culture. No one cares about Canadian cuisine, the best of us is from somewhere else. I don’t think a lot of countries can boast that.”
Ivy Knight (@ivyporkchopknight) is a journalist, former line cook and one-time pizzaiolo who grew up on Prince Edward Island, Canada. Her byline can be found in The New York Times, The New Yorker and Food & Wine. She also creates restaurant memes @allezceline.