Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Kitchen confidential

For one night only, chef turns secret Winnipeg locations into fine-dining experiences

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Restaurant Day is a quarterly event that encourages closet Wolfgang Pucks to operate their own diner, drive-in or dive for a 24-hour period. The global food fest got its start three years ago in Finland, where it has since been nominated for a raft of cultural awards.

The next Restaurant Day is set for Aug. 18. That's when organizers hope to better the mark set in May when 1,501 pop-up restaurants in 29 countries -- including a dozen or so in Canada -- took part.

"I guess that settles it; our next dinner should be Aug. 18," says Anna Sigrithur, owner of Zest for Life Catering.

In mid-June, Sigrithur posted a blurb on Kijiji inviting Winnipeggers to sign up for a "secret" supper club. The 23-year-old's goal was to bring "food lovers together for an ephemeral, fine dining experience" -- albeit for one night only.

"I spent a lot of time on the West Coast the last couple of years, visiting places like San Francisco, Seattle and Portland," Sigrithur says, clawing at some caked dirt underneath her fingernails. (When Sigrithur isn't busy in the kitchen or studying economics at the University of Winnipeg, the self-taught chef volunteers her time at various community gardens around town.) During her travels, Sigrithur heard whispers about one-off, gastronomic get-togethers -- ones where cooks, some professional, others not -- would choose a covert location, plan a menu, then invite people via social media to show up at a prescribed date and time for an evening of good food, fine wine and pleasant conversation.

"I just loved the idea of setting up somewhere really cool, banging a meal off and being done," says Sigrithur, who grew up in River Heights. "So when I got back to Winnipeg (in December), I started thinking I should figure out how to make something like that work here."

On July 8, the Clandess Diner -- the name Sigrithur cleverly selected for her venture -- opened for business in a pair of screened-in verandas at the St. Norbert Arts Centre, at 100 rue des Ruines du Monastere. Guests, 20 in total, sat family-style at two long tables adorned with orchid and lily centrepieces. The theme of the evening was "Manitoba Summer" -- appropriate given that the temperature was still hovering in the mid-20s at 10 p.m. when Sigrithur and her business partner and co-chef Nathan Enns served the main course -- rosemary-crusted elk sirloin with roasted baby vegetables.

The five-course, prix fixe meal cost $40 and included one glass of organic wine. Sigrithur and Enns did the majority of the prep work off-site but did rely on the centre's commissary to, among other chores, warm the soup (wild mushroom consomm©) and cool the dessert (birch syrup ice cream served with spelt flour ginger cake and fresh strawberries).

As for Dinner No. 1's setting, well, that was a bit of a no-brainer, Sigrithur says. "I thought of SNAC because it's so beautiful and I love the fact that it espouses the same values as me: local food, organic food -- it's just kind of a more wholesome and nature-based place."

"The dinner was sensational," says Phoebe Chard, one of the attendees. "For many of the ingredients, we were sampling the garden around us and it was that kind of agrarian pleasure that made the event so appealing." (Indeed, an hour before the first guests arrived, Mosheh Ravensong, the centre's gardener, was busy harvesting hyssop and spearmint leaves for the end-of-the-evening tea.)

"Each course was made with affection but also with curiosity," Chard goes on, noting she first became familiar with so-called secret suppers while she was living in Vancouver. "It was a very relaxed occasion; the service was superb -- very friendly and informed. I sat with a friend but the table was small enough for everyone to be part of the same conversation."

"I would say that the elk was the biggest hit of the evening, along with the ice cream," Sigrithur reports, a couple of days later. "As much as I try to feed people interesting things like sun root and lovage puree, it seems you just can't beat meat and sweets."

Sigrithur's intention is to "open" the Clandess Diner once a month, each time at a new location. Nowadays, she can hardly go for a stroll, she admits, without spotting a backdrop she'd like to feature next.

A couple of her friends have riverside properties where she'd love to stage gourmet, five-star bonfire meals, she says, leafing through a dog-eared, Hilroy scribbler that serves as her Rolodex. "Another friend of mine is a fermentation expert. So I'd also like to attempt an outdoor, fermented feast. And maybe in the future, we can host one at the (Assiniboine Park) conservatory, with tables set along the pathways, amid the trees."

Of course, there are certain rules and regulations Sigrithur must adhere to when she's deciding between a rooftop in the Exchange District, say, or along the banks of the Red River.

"It has to be on private property -- we can't just set up in a park," Sigrithur acknowledges. "We do have our food handlers' certificates (through the catering company) but there are other legalities involved, like getting a liquor licence.

"Obviously we want to do everything totally by the book so we're not in danger of being shut down. But private, yes, with the owner's permission where everything's G -- yeah -- that's what we want."

Sigrithur hopes to attract a rotating, core group of 150 or so diners. If there's enough demand she may opt to operate Clandess Diner for an entire weekend, instead of just one night, she says.

Granted, Sigrithur isn't too concerned if worse comes to worst and there are a few empty chairs come dinner-time.

"If people decide this isn't for them I'll just call up my friends and tell them to get their butts down here and feed them for free."

For more information on Clandess Diner, and to find out where future meals will be, go to www.clandessdiner.com.

david.sanderson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 3, 2013 D13

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