Interview by Gregory Furgala | Photo by Will Bergmann
Jesse Friesen, executive chef for Pizzeria Gusto Group, has bussed tables, run restaurants and won national cooking competitions, and he did it all in Winnipeg. While the city is rarely mentioned alongside Montreal, Toronto or Vancouver, Friesen says it’s enjoying a culinary renaissance and catching up quickly, driven not just by chefs eager to push new tastes and experiences, but by a new generation of Winnipeggers that have made dining out a lifestyle, and who demand their restaurants catch up. Friesen is happy to oblige them.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
CRFN: How did you get into cooking?
Jesse Friesen: Part of me thinks it was destiny, but a lot of it was being in the right place at the right time. When I was kid, just a week before I turned 13, I was in eighth grade and there was a field trip to Montreal for a week, and I was the only kid in my class who couldn’t afford it. Coincidentally, my English teacher’s husband owned an Italian restaurant. I asked if I could get a job, and she said sure, so I ended up bussing tables.
I got bored of doing that kind of stuff and always had my eye on the kitchen, so I asked the chef if I could wash dishes instead and just took it from there. I just stayed in the kitchen and never left, and I’ve been there for over half my life.
You went to Red River College after high school — what was that like?
It was great. I met a lot of good people and still stay in contact to this day with the majority of my instructors, and it’s just really awesome because I graduated over ten years ago and they treat me like a colleague. I still stay in contact with the college all the time. Everyone from the dean to the chair of the culinary program.
What’d you do after Red River? How’d you move forward from there?
I did a work term at a country club toward the end of my time in school, so I stayed on there for a couple seasons. The executive chef there was my mentor for the most part, and he taught me a lot of stuff. He kind of opened the door to competing for me, because at first I didn’t really understand why someone would spend all their time competing and working and not getting paid, but he really drove it into my head that this is something you should do. So I worked there for a bit and competed as a younger guy, and then I stayed in contact with him and moved forward.
I kind of bounced around for a couple years and ended up at a steakhouse downtown as the sous chef. That was my first kitchen management position. From there I got kind of lucky, because within about a year of me being there the head chef quit and they approached me about taking over the kitchen versus hiring someone else. I know that was a huge gamble for them because I was only 23 at the time. I just wanted to prove myself, and that’s exactly what I did. I ended up staying the chef there for four years.
Toward the end of my time there, it got bought by a local restaurant group here in Winnipeg that had more of a corporate-style structure. I did that for a bit with them, but eventually I didn’t know if I was into it anymore, so I ended up going to Pizzeria Gusto in 2016. I was hired as the executive chef of the group. There’s two restaurants, Pizzeria Gusto and the Merchant Kitchen. Gusto was where I started off, and about three months in, I went over the Merchant and did both.
So in all that time, how have you seen Winnipeg’s food scene change.
Well, it’s funny because the majority of chefs in Winnipeg know that it’s behind the times, but the food scene has developed drastically over the past five years. It [used to have] a different vision of, when you go out to dine, it’s almost like a formal affair. Now it has progressed until it’s a daily routine for a lot of people. Back in the day, going out to dine was more of a privilege, but now going out to dine is more of a lifestyle. It’s more about sharing and telling stories, and using sustainable, local products.
So why do you think that is? What changed?
I think a lot of people in Winnipeg travel to other places, not only in Canada, but throughout the world, and they’re inspired by what they see. They want to bring that stuff to Winnipeg, especially because there’s a lot of opportunity to be one of the first few people to bring something different to Winnipeg.
I think there’s definitely a lot of classic restaurants that have been more or less the same since they opened, and I love that because it’s consistent. But there’s a lot of places that roll with times, and they’ve changed over the years. They’re using more local products, using more vegetables versus proteins, that kind of thing. You have to give Winnipeggers what they want, and the people of Winnipeg go out and see other things and say, “I want that in my city.”
You now work with a few different culinary traditions: Italian, and Asian and Latin street food. How do you manage the jump from one to the other?
Well, Pizzeria Gusto is the fourth Italian restaurant that I’ve worked at in my career, so I’ve always been somewhat accepted into the Italian community in Winnipeg because of working for Italian families. Italian food is my heart. That was what I first learned how to cook, that’s what I love to eat more than anything, and it just comes naturally to me. I also married into an Italian family, so any time I go to my father in law’s house, it’s all Italian everything. I comes naturally and it makes me happy. It’s part of who I am.
In terms of [Merchant Kitchen], it’s definitely different. I love Latin food, it’s one of my favourites. I love Asian food too, but Latin is up there big time. I love spice and acid and cilantro and all those kind of notes. It’s one of the things I love about my job. I never get bored because today, for example, I’m going to be at Pizzeria Gusto until 2 o’clock prepping for a dinner we have tomorrow, and later I’m going to Merchant and I’m sure I’ll be cooking something completely different.
You’ve competed in a number of competitions, including the Gold Medal Plates, which you won in 2016. Could you tell me a little about that?
In my first year [in 2015], I competed and got the silver medal in Winnipeg, so I was super happy with that. After getting that medal, the restaurant was just packed for months and months after. It was just a notable achievement. And then in 2016, I ended up taking the gold medal, which was great. That was definitely a game-changer for my career. A lot of different doors opened for me. Then, coincidentally, I won that competition again in Winnipeg last year. I’m the only chef in Winnipeg to ever have won that competition twice.
Do you often get to show out-of-towners around Winnipeg? What’s their reaction like?
We host a lot of people of celebrity status when they come into Winnipeg because of our relationship with the city. So we definitely do host athletes, actors, musicians, that kind of stuff. When they’re in town at our two restaurants, for the most part they’re amazed that there are these gems in Winnipeg. I’ve never personally had the chance to take these people on a dine-around throughout Winnipeg, but I’ve done that with other people from out of town, and they’re normally very, very surprised.
What’s next for you and the city?
There are a lot of different food halls being made in Winnipeg, similar to the ones in Toronto, Vancouver and Ottawa, where chefs have counters that are quick-service but serve chef-driven food. I think pop-ups and specialized one-time events are a big thing now, here, and they’ll continue to grow in Winnipeg.
I just see the food scene growing. I believe it’s going to keep going in the same direction that it is right now, which is catching up to the bigger cities. Because I think it took us a little time to realize we were behind the times, but we’re speeding to get there now, and I think we’re going to keep going and going until we catch up. We’ll become a dining destination.