Food & Drink, Trends

River Pop-Up: A culinary adventure on ice

As they are clearing off the warming huts and shutting down the skating trails on the river, I am inspired to reminisce about the coolest, and coldest, thing we did this winter.

For the past few years, Winnipeg has really been embracing our harshest season. We have had the Festival de Voyageur for years, but recently we have added the world’s longest skating trail, architect designed warming huts, a 48 team curling bonspiel on the river and a host of other outdoor activities designed to celebrate the season. This year, we added RAW:almond to that list.

Salt pike brandade, pike hardfisk, crispy kale, gin cured carp, tulibee caviar, cured yolk, pork rind

I first heard of this idea at our Christmas staff party. Mandel, the chef and owner of Deer and Almond took me and my wife aside and said “We are building a restaurant on the river, we want to get other restaurants involved.” Without hearing any more details, we told him we were in. We didn’t know the logistics, had no sense of the budget, but we knew that this was going to be something we wanted to be a part of. A few weeks later we were invited to a meeting at Elements. At this meeting we were shown plans created  by Joe Kalturnyk of RAW Gallery and renderings of the pop-up restaurant, we divided up the 21 nights among the restaurants, we discussed logistics. We all agreed that we would have no trouble selling out the event. And then we discussed the budget, although we all dreamed of making huge piles of cash from this event, we agreed that if we broke even, the event would be a success. This was going to be the most exciting culinary event of the year.

Oxtail broth, snails, porcini knefle, porcini lemon oil, preserved lemon

The restaurant was going to be built on the ice at the juncture of the red and the Assiniboine rivers. As far as we knew, this was the first time in Canada, maybe even the world,  that a full-service restaurant was ever built on a frozen body of water. The idea was conceived by Mandel Hitzer of Deer and Almond and Joe Kalturnyk of Raw Gallery. For Mandel, this was all about the food and the dining experience. For Joe, this was an exciting architectural project. It was important to Joe that this restaurant blend into the surroundings. Shaped like and elongated igloo the structure leans into the north wind. From a distance, the structure blends into the snowy background.

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The restaurant enacts an idea of impermanence: 21 days, and it is gone. Really gone, not wrapped up and stored in warehouse, but completely disassembled. For the structure, Joe used rented steel and aluminum scaffolding. When the event is over, the building goes back to being scaffolding parts. Cooking and architecture are often compared. They both require a healthy mix of art and science. They both present an image in three dimensions, and they are both functional. But unlike food, architecture is usually intended to build permanent structures. In this project, Joe questions the need to build permanent structures at all.  With this popup, Joe introduces the concept of temporary or nomadic architecture.

Photo credit: Jesse Gair

 Goat spam, veal sweetbread croquette, sauce gribiche, celery root

The most exciting part of this event was that we were running a restaurant on the frozen river. The second most exciting part was that we were going to collaborate as chefs. Mandel could have done this project on his own, but seeing value in collaboration, he invited some of his favourite chefs to join him. Adam Donelly from Segovia, Tristan Foucault from Peasant Cookery, Eric Lee from Pizzeria Gusto, Ben Kramer from Diversity Foods, Aaron Epp from Elements and Scott Bagshaw from Deseo  and myself were all going to cook with Mandel on the river.

Photo credit: Jesse Gair

Continuing the collaboration, each restaurant was also going to bring their front of house people who would work with servers from Deer and Almond. Carolina, owner of Segovia and Danielle, owner of Bistro 7 ¼, were also intrinsically involved in the planning. They made sure we had all the service end figured out. For the chefs, it’s all about the food. We were content to serve our meals on paper plates with plastic forks. Carolina and Danielle made sure we had proper plates and flatware. They sorted out the service and the billing. And every night, the front of house made sure the guests were comfortable, happy and well taken care of. Dani Lee from the Winehouse chose some excellent wines for us to serve with our dinners.

Every three nights there would be a new menu. Each chef would collaborate with Mandel to come up with an exciting and unique menu. This was an opportunity for us to learn from each other. We could push each other in directions we wouldn’t normally go and have fun in the process. Each menu would be the result of this collaborative process.

For my menu, we decided to go old-school French. The more I read about the French culinary tradition, the more I realize that chef’s cooked way weirder over a hundred years ago than they do now. We hear about all the ways in which chefs these days are pushing culinary boundaries, but they have nothing on the chefs from the 18th and 19th centuries. So for my menu, I mined some of the older dishes. Oxtail soup with snails, braised trotters, brandade,  rillettes, sauce gribiche. Out of this, we were able to create a menu that was simultaneously challenging, yet oddly comfortable and familiar.

Milk simmered pork shoulder, crispy belly, trotter braise, pommes aligot, french lentils

As you would guess, there were many challenges to cooking in a tent on the frozen river. The first couple nights were particularly cold. Although the guests were all bundled up, we had a hard time keeping the food warm. The plates we were putting everything on were icy cold. We solved this problem by blowing the fan from the heater directly on to the dishes. The two barbeques we had brought for grilling refused to heat up. By the end we started calling them the blast chillers. We had planned for sous vides and crock pots and induction burners, but had trouble keeping the electrical working. The lights and the massive fans from the heaters used up all our juice. We were left with 6 butane burners and one turkey deep-fryer to cook all our food. On the second night, I melted the gas hose that fed the fryer. Don’t worry, no explosions.

Photo credit: Jesse Gair

All in all, things went pretty smoothly. The courses were timed out well. Each cook in the kitchen knew exactly what to do and when. The servers knew that once the plates were sauced or the last sprinkle of finishing salt was sprinkled , the plates were good to go. And I believe that the diners all left happy and well fed.

Warm rice pudding, duck skin shortbread, confit apricots, duck crunkles, foie gras, grey salt

The great joy of this event was the interaction with the customers and the sense of a shared experience. With every dish, the chefs came out to talk to the diners. We told them a little about the dish, a little about the pop up. We shared stories and jokes with the guests. Some of the guests were even challenged to a chin up contest with Mandel. Our guests were invited to come into the kitchen, to see what we were doing, to take pictures, ask questions. All the guests were sat at one long communal table and so they were encouraged to interact with each other. I don`t know if there were new friendships forged here, but I did see more than one business deal and one job interview go down. Everyone who came to the pop up left with a feeling that they had not just had a delicious meal, but they had shared an experience. They had been on an adventure with each other, with the cooks and servers and with everyone who played a part in making the first River Pop up happen.

Photo credit: Jesse Gair

What next? You will see this group reunited. We have already started talking about next year`s river pop up. But in the meantime, we are scheming spring projects, summer projects and autumn projects. We dream of a restaurant in a farmer`s field around harvest time. Stay tuned, keep your ears to the ground.


Alexander Svenne is the food writer for Spectator Tribune and chef at Bistro 7 1/4. Follow him at @ChefAlex

All photos by Jesse Gair

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