Sweet Spot: As a “little big city,” Winnipeg’s passionate community of chefs is redefining what makes a restaurant scene

By Gregory Furgala | Photography by Lorie Shaull

Will Bergmann has a simple philosophy that gets him through Winnipeg’s bone-chilling winters. “There’s no bad weather,” he says amiably. “Just bad clothes.”

A lifelong Manitoba farm boy, Bergmann works the land near Winnipeg, where he co-owns The Oxbow, a natural wine bar and restaurant at the forefront of the city’s bustling food scene. But Bergmann’s real passion is food education, and every winter he runs an annual ice fishing trip that serves as an immersive — and cold — classroom for chefs and cooks across Canada to learn about the origin of the produce, meat and fish they handle daily. They haul cooking equipment and lunch onto the ice and bond over hot food. Surrounded by like minds in the freezing air, it makes the abstract quality of place less so.

“It’s a magical experience,” says Bergmann. “It’s so vast, so huge, and there are villages set up on the ice. This is something most people have never seen. They don’t realize what’s below their feet.”

“In Winnipeg, the distance between farm and table is relatively nil.”

But sitting on the “hard water” — a Manitoba-ism — the more notable part of the setting might be how close they are to Winnipeg. Few cities in Canada are better-situated for an excursion like Bergmann’s. Two highways make a ring around city, a concrete delineation between it and the surrounding hinterland. But the distance from farm, pasture and wilderness to condos, Bell MTS Place — home of the Winnipeg Jets — and restaurants like Merchant Kitchen, Nonsuch Brewing Co. and Deer + Almond, is about as long as most Canadians’ daily commute. From his farm in Glenlea, it takes Bergmann only 30 minutes to get to Oxbow. In Winnipeg, the distance between farm and table is relatively nil.

Part of that is Winnipeg’s size. About 750,000 people call it home — enough people to support a bustling restaurant scene, but not so big that its chefs, managers and patrons get lost in it, or start taking over land outside the ring. It thrives in its containment. Jesse Friesen, executive chef at the Merchant Kitchen and Pizzeria Gusto, calls Winnipeg a “little big city or a big small town.” He couldn’t make it to last winter’s ice fishing trip, but understands the appeal, even if many outside of Manitoba don’t. “Ice fishing is classic,” says Friesen. “You’re all fighting against the cold, and you’re kind of like, ‘Why the hell am I doing this?’ It’s because it brings you together.”

“When there’s a farm-to-table dinner, everyone in the city knows about it.”

Manitoba’s vast open space makes for a tight-knit, mutually-supportive community of chefs that intimately appreciate their rural surroundings. Bergmann concedes Winnipeg’s chefs are often playing catch-up with their contemporaries in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, but that misses what makes Winnipeg unique. It’s not a daunting place to get it know. It’s inclusive and fuelled by camaraderie, not competition.

“What’s different is the attitude around here,” explains Bergmann. “How people work together, how chefs works together and how consumers have embraced it. When there’s a farm-to-table dinner, everyone in the city knows about it, which is a different vibe or feel than what’s happening in other major centres.”

It makes for a different kind of restaurant scene with different ideas. Raw Almond, founded by Winnipeg chef Mandel Hitzer, who owns Deer + Almond, and Joe Kalturnyk, an architect, invites diners to feast beneath a low-slung oblong dome on top of a frozen river. Chefs come from all over Canada and from around the world to participate as well. The concept has been exported to other cities, and even to Tokyo.

But — for obvious reasons — dining outdoors in the coldest month of the year still feels uniquely Winnipegan. Just wear warm clothes.

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