We Winnipeggers have a tendency to focus on what's wrong with our city -- which is understandable given all that's wrong with it these days -- but there's lots that's getting better. And there are people who are trying to make it better in ways we don't often consider.
Restaurants, for example.
Which brings me to an event that exemplifies the effort on that food front. Next Thursday, Takashi Murikami, the godfather of local chefs and former coach of Canada's team at the World Culinary Olympics, will be honoured at the inaugural Top Chef Award Dinner. The funds raised at the black-tie dinner will send a pair of Red River College culinary arts students on four-month international internships at the renowned Institut Paul Bocuse in Lyon, France. The idea is to broaden their experience. The hope is that at least some of them will bring their talents back to Winnipeg for all to savour and enjoy. The concept was dreamed up by Fort Garry Hotel managing partners Ric Bel and Ida Albo, as their way of enhancing the major funding contribution from Andrew Paterson and his family to the college's culinary arts program, that's formally known as the Paterson Global Food Institute and housed in Western Canada's first skyscraper, the refurbished Union Bank Tower.
How will this international internship work and what will it do for the students and perhaps even our city?
Well, the program hasn't even sent its first interns, and we already have a glowing example. His name is Adam Donnelly and today he is the 31-year-old chef at the popular Segovia Tapas Bar and Restaurant in Osborne Village. And, along with his 26-year-old wife, Carolina Konrad, and her business partner parents, they have created one of the most acclaimed eating spots in the city. In Canada, for that matter. Donnelly, a Red River College culinary arts grad (class of 2005), accomplished that because he invented a self-funded international internship program of his own. One that took him to the kitchens of Melbourne, Australia and London, England and to tastings at the tapas-style restaurants of Spain that inspired his own. That's a long trek from where he started, on the edge of the Canadian Shield, in picturesque Pinawa, a place known for its fine people, but not its fine dining. His mother Chris served basic meat and potatoes at home, and he was a basic sports-playing boy. Then, one day, in his late teens, he saw something in the new-book section at the public library; celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly. Undoubtedly, it was first watching Bourdain on TV that made young Adam reach for the book.
"It looked like a pretty interesting lifestyle," he remembers.
Still, when he applied at Red River College it was initially in hotel management. That didn't last long. By 2003, he was in Red River's culinary arts program, cooking for the first time with risotto as his first dish. Risotto being a kind of initial test of whether he had the patience to be a chief. "It took a lot of time, and stirring and constant watching."
Part of the program involved three-month restaurant placements where the long hours and physical nature of the work tend to separate the cooks from the future chefs.
Adam thrived on it. "I liked how much I was learning."
Still it took a year off, travelling in Australia, working in kitchens and falling in love with the citrus-infused flavours of the land to keep him on the road to where he would end up.
But, as inspiring as his trip Down Under was, Adam wasn't sure he was in love with being a chef.
The only love of his life he was certain of when he returned to Winnipeg was his future wife, Carolina.
And together they moved to London.
Once settled, he was accepted to work, for free at first, with Michelin-starred Chef Tom Aikens. It's there the thought of being a chef moved from simmering on the back burner, to almost boiling over on the front. "When I was in London that's when I really knew it was for me and that's what I wanted to be."
But he wanted to be a chef in Winnipeg, where his friends and family were.
It was also while they were still there, and anticipation of the couple's hope of opening their own restaurant back home, that Carolina's parents purchased the house on Stradbrook near Osborne that became Segovia on their return to the city. Segovia opened Dec. 1, 2009, less two weeks before his 27th birthday. By 2012 Maclean's magazine had anointed Segovia one of Canada's top 50 restaurants.
Adam still travels, to grow as a chef, although I expect the birth five months ago of another love of his life, the couple's first child, a girl named Ausette, may cut down on some of those working holidays. But, obviously, travelling the kitchens of the world and bringing it back home, has made him a better chef. And Winnipeg a better place to live.
As I was saying, Adam Donnelly did that the hard way, on his own. But if you would like to help the next Adam Donnelly, and enjoy a world-class meal, too, tickets to the Top Chef Award Dinner are available at http://events.rrc.ca/topchefawarddinner.