We arrived at the airport early in the morning, feeling the usual feelings before an event like this – one part excited, one part anxious and another part not quite sure what will come of it. There’s always a worry that something may get lost, ruined or burnt, or the people hosting us may not be as hospitable as hoped. Fortunately for us, or unfortunately depending on how you choose to look at it, only the first part came true. Losing everything we’d prepped in Toronto is one of those moments where the whole world shatters – not only because you lose everything you’ve worked hard to perfect; but also, psychologically it tears you down. Traversing through the “seven stages of grief” was comparable to the Dante’s 9 Circles of Hell from our perspective. It crushed us. 150LB of mise-en-place was thrown to the wind, rotting in some depot that Canada Post couldn’t even find. After finally accepting our fate, we dug our heels in for a couple of long days ahead.
The saving grace in all this, was that classic Winnipeg hospitality. There was never enough that could be done for us, offered to us or provided for us. Every person there wanted us to win despite all odds; after all, who doesn’t love a comeback story? We started to look at what was in front of us, and what we needed to make to be fully ready for Sunday service. We began raiding Deer + Almond, an adorable diner-esque restaurant run by Mandel Hitzer – our host for the next few days. At this point, I would have sold my own grandmother to get all the ingredients we needed on such short notice for the dinner.
Two days before our dinner, we were fortunate enough to be offered a seat for Mandel’s dinner – something to help us understand the look and feel of the event. It meant sacrificing prep time, but also meant gaining valuable insight; so we set off to find the kitchen cloud on the river. As we wandered down along the Forks, the most Canadian wedding seemed to be taking place between a couple of young kids. Them, in their hockey jerseys surrounded by only a handful of friends, and the officiant, decked in full hockey referee gear - laughed and kissed and applauded as we passed them. I took this as a promising omen for some reason. If these 21-year-olds can make the best of it, and be so happy, so can we I figured. After getting a bit lost, we found RAW:almond – something between a covert bunker and a shrunken-down indoor soccer dome. It wasn’t until we stepped inside that I truly began to appreciate the magnitude of this project. Everything was so intricate, so beautiful and well prepared despite the fact that only 26 inches of ice stands between this beautiful structure and an icy flowing abyss that is the Red River.
As we ate (maybe gorged is more appropriate), we began to understand the mind of Mandel – playful but serious, adventurous but a fan of tradition, wild but well-thought out. The more we spent time with him, the more I found this to be true. Mandel did everything for us – offering his staff, his time and his insight into the city. He took us to his favourite places to eat and gave us whatever we needed to be ready. After 40 hours, 30 coffees & a few awful pizzas – we were there. Finally, ready, prepared and satisfied with the pound of flesh we were ready to serve up for dinner. Sleep deprivation had transformed into some sort of demented energy, preparing us for the two days of service ahead of us.
As we stepped into service, the trauma of the past few days somehow put us in total sync with one another, moving in unison and understanding what needed to be done. Service went off without a hitch. Diners were hesitant to dive into a dish that had both blood & berries together in it – but we pushed them into it. Taking their hands to the pool of blood-port jus to show them that challenging their own perceptions of food is what this dinner is about. We wanted to showcase the power of vegetables, to show that the noble root vegetables this season offers us can be as magnificent as a steak. We wanted things that were soft and delicate, but big in flavour. We wanted the familiar to collide with the strange.
In the land of the Well-Done Burger, our mid-well pheasant and illegal blood-port jus was approached with hesitation at first. As we continued through dinner, we decided to be uncompromising in this. We wanted people to feel uncomfortable because it meant that when they ate it, they would feel that much better about it. And as we went through each service, that hesitation was there – only to be pulled apart with each dish. By our final service, this wave of relief washed over us; but one that almost didn’t believe it was over. Through everything that had happened, something made me feel as though we were stuck in purgatory here, forever doing service for 20 joyous people three times a night like bears juggling bowling pins on a sideshow. After it was all said and done, we were happy. Despite it all we had done it. We conquered everything that came at us and pushed through it. It dawned on us that in just 7 hours we had to jump on a plane to return to Toronto so we said our goodbyes to everyone three times over, thanking them for everything they had offered and shown us and headed to bed.
At the beginning of the trip, the events that left us short-handed had crippled us; but with these new-found friends, in a different part of the country, the very same thing that we thought had crippled us had made us stronger. That’s the best part about travelling and cooking, even when you’re feeling down, new bonds are formed to help pick you back up, like a burn that weakens your skin at first – only to make it thicker once it heals.
Matt Ravenscroft is our Drake Catering chef and has been been really into Third Rock from the Sun as of late but mostly likes cooking. Follow his #drakeontheroad adventures on Instagram, @drakecateringto.