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Cooking up a storm

Winnipeg chef's new Vancouver restaurant offers culinary masterpieces with a side of controversy

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Chef Makoto Ono

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Chef Makoto Ono

VANCOUVER -- Success at home was sweet for Makoto Ono, but he had to learn some bitter lessons abroad to find good fortune in other cities.

Ono made the Corydon Avenue bistro Gluttons the place to be after he won the Gold Medal Plates, Canada's culinary Olympics, in 2007. He surprised no one more than himself, facing some of his heroes in the competition, he said at the time.

Ono's artistic, sophisticated dishes, which included a tuna presented three ways and olive candy, made him a media darling, and stories were tossed around about Canadian foodies flying to Winnipeg to eat at his restaurant.

When Ono got the call to open his own restaurant in Beijing ahead of the 2008 Summer Olympics, he jumped at the chance. Or, rather, he stepped in with trepidation as he entered unknown waters.

Ono and his family know something about risk. He grew up at his parents' restaurant, Edohei, where, in the 1980s, they helped introduce sushi to hesitant Winnipeggers.

The Beijing experience was a nightmare, he says frankly.

"The staff came from small villages. It was hard to teach and micro-manage, especially without a common language," Ono recalls.

He grappled with Chinese red tape as well, along with the challenges of turning meat-centric Beijing on to his Japanese-inflected cuisine.

At 200 seats, the restaurant also proved to be too big. It closed shortly after it opened.

Ono's next stop was Hong Kong, where he opened another eatery, Liberty Private Works, cooking omakase meals in the kind of private kitchen restaurant common to foodies in Hong Kong.

"You can operate a private kitchen without a licence. It's all word of mouth. We were in a three-storey walk-up with no signage. Twenty-two seats. We did one menu with one seating a day and I did my shopping at the market," he remembers fondly.

Ono made his way back to Canada last year. He returned to Winnipeg to help his retiring parents close Edohei before moving to Vancouver in February to open his latest venture, Pidgin. It was one of the city's most anticipated restaurant openings of the year.

"Winnipeg is a great city, but I wanted a little more in terms of a city and food scene," Ono says. Plus "my girlfriend (whom he met in Hong Kong) is from here."

I caught up with him recently on a late Friday afternoon as he was preparing the evening service. The staff who let me into the stylishly minimalist 66-seat restaurant greeted me with what felt like a why-are-you-disturbing-the-master-at-work vibe.

But Ono himself was the image of grace as he took a break from his semi-open kitchen to catch me up on life since the Gold Medal Plates.

He has the same goofy grin and the same mullet that makes him look something like an anime character, but he's more mellow after his time in Asia.

The chef originally wanted to open a small noodle shop.

"After Asia, I was worn out," he said. But a business partner, Brandon Grussutti, approached him, and their discussions grew into Pidgin.

At Pidgin, Ono is once again doing what he does best -- bringing together Japanese, French and Korean cuisine in flavourful, artistic shared plates. They range in size and are priced between $10 and $25 each.

Working with, and inspired by, the offerings of Lower Mainland farmers, fishermen, foragers and gardeners, you could call Pidgin something of a sum of his career to date.

The dishes speak to his knack for melding different cuisines while keeping flavours clear. They include a gazpacho with smoked tomatoes, tuna tataki and brioche balsamic croutons. A zucchini and crab dish is a visual and gustatory yin/yang.

But Pidgin purposely blurs the line between casual and fine dining. Beside the exotic on the menu are chicken wings, which have also become an attraction.

Reservations are good and reviews have been mostly glorious. The Vancouver Sun's Mia Stainsby wrote: "The food is intriguing and alluring... Ono isn't a follower. He bushwhacks to new ideas without getting lost and offering clean, eye-pleasing plates of food."

But the restaurant has also garnered some unwanted press, reminding Ono that nothing comes easy in the restaurant business.

Pidgin is located in Vancouver's notorious Downtown Eastside, across from Pigeon Park, a community gathering place and hub of illicit drug use and alcoholics.

Since the restaurant's opening, anti-poverty protesters, offended by the idea of a high-end restaurant in what has been called the poorest postal code in Canada, have been gathering nightly in front of Pidgin. They call the restaurant a symbol of unnecessary glamour in an area that needs jobs and more low-income housing.

Why they target Pidgin specifically, when there are other gentrified businesses and a burgeoning cocktail and food scene nearby, remains a mystery.

Ono had little to say about the protests.

"I concentrate on my kitchen, motivating my team, and creating a great restaurant."

Grussutti, whom Ono met through mutual friend Chantalle Noschese, Ono's pastry chef at Gluttons, is fed up with the protests.

Grussutti said he has hired people from the neighbourhood in the past to work in the restaurant and believes in the neighbourhood's future, but that is as much as he wants to talk about the subject.

"It distracts from what we are doing here, from what chef is doing, from our bar program. (During the early part of the evening I was at the restaurant, there were no protesters.)

Grussutti calls Ono "super-talented and the most humble and honest person I know. He makes food that is beautiful and smart. You look at something simple like a mushroom and snap pea salad, served with an egg marinated in soy, and you think it's simple, then eat it and the flavours blow you away."

Vancouver and Pidgin appear to be the right fit for the moment.

But will he cook again in Winnipeg?

"I love Winnipeg. I still miss it and have a lot of friends there. It's just the winters," he says.

His friend, Mandel Hitzer, owner of Deer + Almond and a creator of last year's warming hut pop-up restaurant Raw: almond, has asked him to be a part of a similar event next year. Ono likes the idea.

"If I have time I'd love to do it."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 9, 2013 D3

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