I grew up in a home that honoured the finer things in life. I was immersed in an environment of creativity and art, where european family values were very much alive.
My father David, being a jeweller who was self taught and had made a name for himself, was exemplary of a philosophy I still aspire too. “Pursue your passion, do what makes you happy”.
I’m not sure exactly why I chose cooking. Many forms of expression interested me, music, writing, painting… At fourteen I decided that I would be a chef. I didn’t even know what that meant. There wasn’t a Food Network, or Celebrity Chefs; being a chef wasn’t ‘cool’… yet.
I am sure it was the home cooked meals that I enjoyed growing up. Lovingly prepared by my mother, Marie. These meals were never a chore, they were just part of being a family. Her mother and grandmother did the same. This is how people ate, as far as I knew, we rarely ordered in, there were no frozen or canned foods in sight.
I wanted to get started as soon as possible. At fourteen, I tried to get a job in a kitchen with no luck. It was ‘dangerous’ and ‘very intense’ work, and I was far too young. The best I could do was a job working cash at Country Style Donuts. Even there I was intrigued, the baker made everything from scratch, and I wanted in. Much to the dismay of my parents, I started working the graveyard shift, if only to assist the baker and appease my curious mind.
I then got a position bussing tables at a popular Mediterranean restaurant with the promise of ‘kitchen shifts’ now and again, to see ‘if it was for me’. I eventually got in the kitchen full time. But this was short lived, at this point the restaurant had lost their manager and head Chef and even at a young age I could see that this was not the best environment in my formative years as a chef. After three Chefs in three months, I was out.
I found myself at a pretty nice Italian place. Everything was fresh, made from scratch, a whole world I had never seen before. I did my best to acclimatize. The challenge of working in this intense environment was difficult. I had once heard ‘Cooking is something you either have or don’t’. Was this true? Was I to choose another career? This was only the beginning.
It stirred in my mind for sometime. Did I have it? No, this is what I wanted, and I was going to get it.
I sat idle for some time. I still remember the day my dad pushed me out the door to get a job. It was raining. I went to several places, I knew I didn’t want to work for, none the less looking for employment. The last place on my list was Restaurant Dubrovnik, I knew this to be one of Winnipeg’s premier restaurants, I had no chance. I stepped into the riverside mansion and was greeted by a prestigious maitre’D who went to summon the Chef. A nearly seven foot tall man entered the room and sat across from me reviewing my resume. He was French trained Chef Gojko Bodiroga. I was nervously waiting for him to respond. Eventually he looked up at me and said ‘You look good on paper, but that means nothing’, ‘Come in tomorrow night and I’ll try you out…’. I went in for dinner service the next day, the Sous Chef showed me around, got me equipped in the traditional garb. The Chef then informed me, ‘You will be working the grill, cooking Filet Mignon, Ribeye and other such items’. I had never cooked a steak in my life! I listened to the Chef’s instructions and focused on the task before me. At the end, I thought I had failed. The Chef pulled me aside, ‘ Nice effort, come back when you know what you’re doing’, I thought he’d say. But what he said was, ‘How would you like to work full time?’. Over the next year I apprenticed under the Chef, the first person to nurture my enthusiasm and passion for cooking.
I then started the Culinary Arts Course at Red River. I wanted to stay at Dubrovnik for my work term but was informed that I couldn’t stay where I was working. The Chef made a quick call and I was set up at the top Italian Restaurant in the city, Amici, working under a hard core Austrian Chef, Heinz Kattenfeld.
It was here that I realized how a professional kitchen was run. I knew I wanted to stay for a while and absorb as much as I could. To this day I see this as my toughest and most beneficial training. I stayed here knowing that the knowledge I was gaining at school was applicable and that I would benefit greatly from the experience.
Eventually I competed in the Skills Canada Competition, winning silver. The College decided to send me to the Knorr Nationals in Halifax the following year. One of my instructors put me in touch with a local Chef, Steven Donnelly, who took me under his wing, helping me to train for the competition and acting as my personal host in Halifax.
Twenty minutes into the competition I stabbed my left pinky, severing the tendon and nerve. I was rushed to another room, where Chefs and Judges debated the severity of my wound. The consensus; go to the hospital. I fought, I told them to bandage me up, I came here to compete and that is what I was going to do. The judge from France sided with me and got me fixed up. I completed the competition on time, despite having lost a half hour, and finished fourth over all. After this, I did go to the hospital where two surgeons spent several hours repairing my finger. My cast became a beacon, attracting the various international Chef’s that were in attendance during the competition, voicing their respect for my perseverance.
Less than a year later I received a call from Chef Donnelly. He had landed a job as Executive Chef of a Luxurious Five Star Golf Resort on the North shore of Nova Scotia. He wanted me to come out and work for him. I hung up the phone, called my current Chef at Amici and told him I was moving to Nova Scotia. I sold all my stuff in a garage sale, bought a plane ticket and was at the resort within a week.
When I was being driven to the resort, I felt regret, I was in the middle of nowhere, what had I gotten myself into? But then this endless black iron fence started to progress along the left side of the road. Eventually we pulled up to an impressive gate, which, after verbal confirmation over the intercom, slid open. We drove through this pristine landscape which would become my home for the next few years.
The resort was a sanctuary, a gated community for societies elite. Price was no object, guests arrived in private jets and expected the best.
Here I could explore, only the best ingredients would do. I was free to take my culinary knowledge as far as it would go. Beyond food, Chef Donnelly taught me how to manage a team. How to motivate people using tact in a professional and organized manner. I had renewed faith that a kitchen, with all its intensity and complexity, could run as a calm and efficient machine. I quickly moved through the ranks, eventually becoming Chef Donnelly’s right hand man. I oversaw events with Bill Clinton and Prince Edward. I had the opportunity to work with Chef Stefan Czapalay who exposed me to techniques and concepts at the forefront of the culinary world.
The night before I moved to Nova Scotia I had eaten dinner at my favourite Sushi restaurant with my parents, Wasabi. The Chef there, Cho Venevongsa, pulled me aside. They were planning to open another location of Wasabi and wanted to talk about me running the kitchen. Everything was in place, I was off to Nova Scotia the next day. I told Cho we’d keep in touch, perhaps in the future something would align.
After three years at the resort I decided to get back to family and friends in Winnipeg. I felt I had learned what I could and was exited for a new challenge. I had been speaking with Cho and they were set to begin work on the next instalment of Wasabi.
I worked several jobs upon my return to Winnipeg. Back to my home at Amici for a while. But nothing seemed to satisfy me after my experience at the resort.
Eventually I was offered the Executive Chef position at Restaurant Dubrovnik. This was a comforting, full-circle proposition for me. I was so excited to take the helm of the kitchen where I had gained my first experience, where I had been first nurtured and believed in. What an opportunity! I was so excited.
It turned out that Restaurant Dubrovnik sought to maintain their old world charm. It felt like I had pushed rewind. I wanted to move forward, to shape my future as a Chef, not relive my past.
I, again, didn’t know what my next move would be.
A former Sous Chef of mine from Dubrovnik called to inform me of his new found Chef’s position at Glutton’s. The once famous cutting edge restaurant put on hold was about to give it another go. I decided that this was my chance to break free, a new challenge if nothing else.
I took the Sous Chef position at Glutton’s. This was my most creative and progressive time since I had left the resort. Without restriction, I was able to further develop as a Chef and refine my style. We achieved two five star reviews. One morning I came in and was told not to get changed, the restaurant was sold. We had been open a mere seven months.
What was I to do now? Well, going out with the Chef for drinks sounded like a good plan.
The very next morning I received a phone call. It was Cho, construction was nearly complete on the next installment of Wasabi. A gorgeous 140 seat restaurant, like something you’d see in Vegas. They wanted me to be head chef, starting immediately. What timing.
I finally had a home in Winnipeg, somewhere I could unleash the full scope of my abilities. I had always appreciated the minimal approach to Japanese cuisine. The idea of clean flavours and presentation, letting the food speak for itself, had been a key part of my philosophy. There was a chefs table where I could experiment, designing unique multi-course dinners. Bringing in elements of modern French and Scandinavian cuisines. The challenge was just what I needed. It was at Wasabi Sabi I was named one of Manitoba’s top 10 Chefs two years in a row, and asked to compete in Gold Medal Plates. I won gold the second time around.
I became friends with a server named Kyle at Wasabi. Kyle and his best friend Marc had a dream to open a gourmet burger restaurant. The two of them had marketing and business backgrounds, but there business plan stopped at the food. They wanted their burgers to be natural, healthy and really tasty. That’s where I came in. I had always thought that taking a common food, like burgers, and having it designed by a chef with my kind of experience would be very successful. Only problem was that I did not want to be flipping burgers. I had also wondered how one becomes a consultant and saw this as an opportunity to get my foot in the door. A year and a half later Unburger was open (now – NUBURGER). It would later be named best new restaurant in Uptown magazine, and best burger restaurant three years in a row.
On to my next challenge…