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Prairies on the plate at Fusion Grill

Owner Scot McTaggart had a dream about opening a restaurant; lucky for him, it didn’t come true

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The Globe and Mail named it one of Canada’s 10 best dining spots. Its wine list has garnered a Cuvee Award for its commitment to this country’s vineyards. And its owner, Scot McTaggart, was honoured with Cuisine Canada’s lifetime achievement medal for his contributions to the "Canadian culinary landscape."

Impressive, yes, but if you need another example of how lip-smacking the fare at Fusion Grill is, you have to go back to Feb. 14, 2006.

Customers enjoy lunch at Fusion Grill on Academy Road.

Enlarge Image

Customers enjoy lunch at Fusion Grill on Academy Road. (JOE BRYSKA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS) Photo Store

At around 8 p.m. on the night in question, McTaggart brought a couple their dinner, then wished them a happy Valentine’s Day. No sooner had McTaggart turned around to check on another party than the woman picked up her entree and hurled it at her tablemate’s head. (In case you’re wondering, she ordered the duck.) "I don’t even know what started the fight because the next thing I knew, she got up and left," McTaggart says, pointing out which window her side — a wild rice potato latke — caromed off.

Not wanting to let a second five-star meal go to waste, the fellow remained seated and proceeded to finish every last morsel on his plate.

"It seemed like he enjoyed his dinner but I can’t really say for sure," McTaggart says. "He didn’t say a word the rest of the night."

McTaggart, 51, has been in the restaurant biz for 35 years — ever since he lied about his age to get a job as a banquet waiter at the Hotel Fort Garry, back when he was a Grade 10 student at Windsor Park Collegiate.

Even when McTaggart was majoring in music at Bemidji State University in the early 1980s, he was more interested in reading menus than notes, he says.

"Essentially, my legs weren’t skinny enough to be a rock star, nor did I have enough talent," says the former trumpet player. "But what I did have was an affinity for the restaurant industry. So when I got back to Winnipeg, I decided I’d work in a bunch of different restaurants and try to learn something new from each one.

"Take the Keg, for example. That’s where I learned how to party."

Panko crusted pickerel cheeks with orange snap pea salad, crème fraîche and apple cider cured Northern Pike caviar.

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Panko crusted pickerel cheeks with orange snap pea salad, crème fraîche and apple cider cured Northern Pike caviar. (JOE BRYSKA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS) Photo Store

Over the next several years, McTaggart toiled as a waiter and/or manager at such yester-year faves as Mother Tucker’s, Thomas Button’s, Strawberries and Mr. Greenjeans. In 1986, he moved to Toronto, where he spent the next four years "studying" in some of that city’s toniest establishments.

McTaggart returned to Winnipeg in 1990 to take a job as the general manager at Rumor’s Comedy Club. Five years into his tenure there, McTaggart had a dream that bothered him for days. In it, McTaggart was an old man who’d spend his waking hours in a ratty armchair, staring down at his bare feet.

"It was like this scene straight out of a David Lynch movie — all grainy and black and white," McTaggart says. "Just me, repeating the same mantra over and over: ‘I shoulda, I shoulda, I shoulda opened that restaurant...’" In November 1995, McTaggart contacted a childhood chum, Geoff Kitt, who was working as a chef in Victoria. McTaggart convinced Kitt to move back to Winnipeg and within a couple of months, the pair pieced together a 87-page business plan detailing their vision.

"We’ve been credited with creating this socalled ‘haute prairie cuisine,’ but really the whole idea started because we were committed to using the freshest ingredients possible," McTaggart explains. "And since freshness has a distinct geography, it meant using those ingredients that were closest to us, like Manitoba pickerel."

Fusion Grill opened for lunch and dinner on June 17, 1996 in a former Chinese takeout joint at 550 Academy Rd.

Day 1 was a "gong show," McTaggart says. He and Kitt were the only staff on duty and by dinner time, things were out of control.

"We figured, ‘It’s a small place (41 seats), we’ll be fine.’ But it actually got so busy at one point that customers were answering the phone for us."

One person who neglected to call ahead prior to his own visit years later was an Academy Award-winning actor who used to go by the name of Mork.

It was mid-afternoon and McTaggart was in the basement, doing some paperwork. Suddenly, his chef (by then, McTaggart and Kitt had parted ways) burst into the room and said, "Robin Williams in the dining room! Right now!"

McTaggart ascended the stairs, two at a time. He was standing behind the bar, adjusting his tie and debating whether or not to approach the star when he noticed Williams mimicking his every move, with a big smile on his face.

"I was like, ‘Oh s---, I’m caught now,’ so I walked up to his table and said, ‘Do you know who you are?’" Funnily enough, a lot of customers react the same way when they realize that the Fusion Grill’s head waiter and its owner are one and the same person.

"I’ll be explaining tonight’s specials, or talking about where this or that came from, and people will say, ‘Hey, you’re the guy we hear on the commercials,’" McTaggart says with a laugh. "The thing is, I still love working on the floor. Every time I try to step back from it, I’m not gone for long.

"Besides, with looks like mine, I’m not going to hide in the back. I have to be out here, sharing my charm and charisma with everybody."

david.sanderson@freepress.mb.ca

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