To Gather and share Chef Mike de Groot brings curiosity, culinary courage and ‘world class’ compassion to the Leaf’s craft kitchen and bar
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That question is the driving force behind Gather Craft Kitchen & Bar.
It’s so central to the restaurant overlooking the lush greenery of The Leaf at Assiniboine Park that chef Mike de Groot keeps a whiteboard in the prep kitchen reserved for all the possible what-ifs.
A vision board. Or, more accurately, a creative proving ground with hypotheses scrawled in red marker.
“I’m pretty obsessively curious,” de Groot says. “Can we ferment this? Can we dry this out and make a powder? What happens if we marinate this with a product we’re wasting?”
At less than two months old, Gather is still very much an experiment.
The restaurant opened in December alongside the park’s highly anticipated new conservatory and staff have been busy exploring the symbiotic relationship between the kitchen and the plants flourishing next door.
The 106-seat dining room is situated off the atrium of the indoor pavilion. During the day, a large bank of south-facing windows catch the sunlight filtering through the nearby tropical biome. Palms and potted perennials are scattered throughout the space. The decor and tableware is intentionally earthy.
The whole complex — The Leaf and the themed outdoor gardens that surround the sprawling greenhouse — is known as Canada’s Diversity Gardens. Coming up with a menu that reflects such a broad and inclusive moniker was a challenge, to say the least.
Gather Craft Kitchen & Bar, 145 Leaf Way
Open daily, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
For chef Mike de Groot, grilled arctic char is a perfect example of capturing wasted potential. The dish is a limited time feature inspired by the meditative Unfurl exhibit, which is designed to mimic the shape of a coiled fern leaf, currently on display at The Leaf.
Gather Craft Kitchen & Bar, 145 Leaf Way
Open daily, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
For chef Mike de Groot, grilled arctic char is a perfect example of capturing wasted potential. The dish is a limited time feature inspired by the meditative Unfurl exhibit, which is designed to mimic the shape of a coiled fern leaf, currently on display at The Leaf. It includes a fillet of arctic char and a bitter fennel and orange salad served with a rich beurre blanc and a punchy, pungent remoulade sauce — the latter is made from fermented brussels sprout trimmings that would’ve otherwise ended up in the trash.
The beef short rib, on the other hand, is a highlight of the regular small plates menu. Designed to be shareable, the dish comes with a small slab of fork-tender beef and a smooth celery root purée. It’s topped with a bright beet ketchup and briny pickled rutabaga. The addition of roasted hazelnuts rounds out a busy, well-balanced dish.
Tasting Notes is an ongoing series about Winnipeg restaurants, new and old, meant to offer diners a glimpse at what’s on the menu.
“You’ll see dishes from all over the world,” de Groot says. “It has to be true to that region, but it also has to be true to ourselves; we have to put our own twist, our own personality on those dishes.”
It’s a delicate balance achieved through trial and error and informed by personal preference; “it has to be something that we want to eat,” says the chef.
Like the adjacent foliage, the menu is also poised to change with the seasons. Right now, in the dead of winter, diners will find rich, hearty dishes, such as coconut korma curry and braised lamb shank.
Often, there’s a direct correlation between the plants and the plates. Recently, the kitchen turned raw coffee beans harvested from one of the biomes into a syrup for its vegan “faux gras” dish. In the summer, de Groot is looking forward to using ingredients plucked from the kitchen garden outside.
“It’s a pretty uncommon resource to have at your disposal,” he says. “It’s quite a privilege.”
It’s a privilege earned through years of working his way up the ladder.
Born and raised in Winnipeg, de Groot found cooking as an aimless university student.
“It was just the most exciting place I’d ever been,” he says of his first kitchen job. “It was fast-paced, it was loud, it was chaotic but controlled.”
When he started cutting classes to pick up more restaurant shifts, de Groot realized he was probably on the wrong career path.
He graduated from culinary arts at Red River College Polytechnic and worked at the former Mise Bistro before joining the Gates on Roblin under the leadership of chef Heiko Duehrsen. After stints at Sydney’s and Sous Sol, he reunited with Duehrsen — now executive chef with the Assiniboine Park Conservancy — for the opening of the Park Café nearly a decade ago.
From brunch to banquets, de Groot has been involved in every aspect of the multifaceted food program at the park. Opening Gather has been a chance to bring all those experiences together under one architecturally impressive roof.
“We could’ve put anything in this spot and it would’ve been successful,” he says. “But we really wanted to open a world-class restaurant to represent this world-class facility.”
For de Groot, “world class” is about the menu and the locale, yes, but it’s also about what’s happening behind the scenes. As an employer, his mission is to foster a positive working environment.
Hiring continues to be a challenge following a mass exodus from the restaurant industry amid the pandemic, making way for a workforce that is younger and largely inexperienced — something de Groot sees as an opportunity rather than a hindrance.
“We’re building them up to be the next generation of chefs in the city,” he says. “When things get tough in the kitchen, (you need to) react to those problems in a positive, engaging and educational way and not with anger, which is so easy to do.”
It’s why experimentation and what-ifs are such an important part of the job. It’s why obsessive curiosity is something the head chef hopes to pass onto his staff.
“We could’ve put anything in this spot and it would’ve been successful… But we really wanted to open a world-class restaurant to represent this world-class facility.”–Mike de Groot, chef
“You have to give them room to experiment, you have to give them room to make mistakes and try things,” he says. “It was certainly important for my growth, so I know it’s important for other people’s growth.”
A well-functioning kitchen is also a practical consideration at Gather, where the line is on full display, separated from the dining room by a low, colourful counter. An open kitchen was a must for de Groot, whose initial layout suggestions — sketched out on graph paper — made it into the restaurant’s final design.
“To see it now is pretty surreal,” he says, looking over at an apron-clad crew of kitchen staff busy prepping for the upcoming lunch rush.
Eva Wasney is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.
Updated on Friday, January 27, 2023 12:05 PM CST: Adds photos