Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Dario to be different

Restaurateur followed twisted path to success in west Winnipeg

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To begin, a story perhaps better suited to the Random Acts of Kindness page...

In the fall of 2006, a woman wrote to Marion Warhaft, asking the Free Press critic if she was familiar with Café Dario, a restaurant that had recently opened in a wee, two-room house at 1390 Erin St.

Because Café Dario was "in the middle of nowhere," the letter writer was concerned it wasn't going to be around for long. The woman didn't know how close to the truth she was; not only was owner Dario Pineda-Gutierrez struggling to keep his fledgling business afloat, he couldn't afford to change his sign, which still read House of Schnitzel, in reference to its predecessor.

Pineda-Gutierrez recalls the evening Warhaft -- or, at least, the person he presumes was Warhaft -- stopped in for dinner, on the advice of her correspondent.

"She wanted to try the empanadas. She was the only person who ever requested that dish, so I knew it had to be her," Pineda-Gutierrez says with a chuckle.

A couple of weeks later, Warhaft's glowing review of the "sophisticated little gem" appeared in the Free Press. (Sure enough, there was mention of the empanadas.)

"The next night we were packed solid. And by the following Saturday, everything had gone berserk -- we couldn't keep up with the phones, the orders -- nothing," Pineda-Gutierrez says.

Things got so bad/good that when a few regulars showed up without a reservation, the chef made room for them in the kitchen, next to where he was preparing his cream of goose and wild rice soup.

-- -- --

The Beatles have nothing on Pineda-Gutierrez when it comes to long and winding roads.

Born in Bogota, Colombia in 1951, the youngest of four children began following his mother around the kitchen at age four, not so much asking questions as taking note of what spices and herbs she added to her soups and stews.

Pineda-Gutierrez moved to Spain after high school to attend culinary school in Barcelona. A year or so after returning to Bogota, he turned his back on cooking and enrolled at the National University of Colombia, in a bid to follow in his parents' footsteps and become an anthropologist.

It was the Vietnam era, however, and Pineda-Gutierrez spent more time protesting the war than hitting the books. Frustrated, his parents sent him to their alma mater -- University of California, Berkeley. Pineda-Gutierrez, who didn't learn to speak English until he arrived in the States, found the class sizes at Berkeley too large and transferred to cozy Beloit College in Beloit, Wis., before the start of his second semester.

Pineda-Gutierrez's next stop was Winnipeg, where he came to work on his masters at the University of Manitoba. (Winters in Wisconsin weren't a walk in the park, he says, but they were tropical compared to Manitoba's. "I remember the first time my landlady told me to plug in my car. I was like, "Plug it into what?")

In 1977, Pineda-Gutierrez came out as an openly gay man -- back when public admissions were still largely taboo. He began to butt heads with his university advisers for political and personal reasons and after completing his final exams, decided to return to his first love.

He went to work for Heinz and Joanna Kattenfeld at Victor's, in Osborne Village. Six months into his tenure there, he was given a permit to remain in Canada by the minister of immigration at the time, Lloyd Axworthy. Axworthy attached one caveat to the agreement: whenever the Liberal honcho ate at Victor's, Pineda-Gutierrez had to prepare his meal.

Pineda-Gutierrez left Victor's in the early 1980s. He worked as a maitre d' at a downtown nightclub called Benjamin's, then owned and operated a diner in the Osborne Village Inn called the Greenhouse Café. There he served his share of beer-fuelled bikers, developed a few bad habits, then a few more, and went bankrupt.

Pineda-Gutierrez met his present-day partner in 1986 and moved to Calgary. He got a job with Smitty's travelling from B.C. to Newfoundland, helping new franchises get off the ground. Two years later, he left Smitty's for a new, upscale restaurant in Calgary called Café Calabash, where he rediscovered his passion for fine dining and gourmet presentation.

Pineda-Gutierrez moved back to Winnipeg in the early '90s. While working at Merteen's, a rooftop restaurant on Henderson Highway, he met the lieutenant-governor, Peter Liba, who hired him to cook at Government House for, among others, queens and future kings. During that period, Pineda-Gutierrez developed a string of food allergies that made it physically impossible for him to toil in commercial kitchens any longer. After hearing House of Schnitzel was for sale, he sunk his entire life savings into the business, and the rest, as they say, is history.

From the start, Café Dario has featured a fixed price menu for dinner (lunches are la carte). Five-course meals ($35) change nightly, but currently include appetizers like poached prawns with fresh mango and pineapple ceviche, and entrées like cumin-dusted duck breast and beef tenderloin topped with caper chimichurria.

Some have branded Pineda-Gutierrez's dishes Latin or Colombian-flavoured, but their creator spits out the term "ethnic restaurant" like it was sour milk.

"What we are is Pan-American. Everything we serve has been grown or raised in the Americas -- from Canada to Chile."

If customers have questions about a particular dish, the chef usually isn't too far away. Because Café Dario only seats 35 (not counting the seasonal patio), Pineda-Gutierrez does his best to make the rounds every night, and greet each customer personally. (While you've got him, be sure to ask about the time somebody ordered their steak tartare "well-done.")

As for the journey that brought Pineda-Gutierrez where he is today, the youthful-looking dog lover, who doesn't think a home is a home unless there's a German shepherd living in it, doesn't regret one millilitre mixed or one kilometre travelled.

"My luck cannot be imagined. All of my experiences, my adventures have been unique. Maybe I'm not a millionaire but I make a living and love what I'm doing."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 23, 2013 E5

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