Up with downtown Kate Fenske is in the business of boosting much-maligned Winnipeg neighbourhood

Kate Fenske can rewire a light fixture, build a deck and construct wooden stairs from scratch.

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Kate Fenske can rewire a light fixture, build a deck and construct wooden stairs from scratch.

What she cannot do is cook.

And yet here she is, standing in a commercial kitchen, tearing up a baguette into bite-size pieces for a bread salad that will accompany today’s meal: roast chicken and broccoli with cheese sauce, Fenske’s go-to comfort food.

“I don’t cook, can’t cook and would rather fix things. He’s better at this and I’m better at that, and we play to our strengths,” she says as the “he” in question, partner Liam Martin, takes on the bulk of the work.

Homemade: Downtown Edition

It is often the simplest of foods that evoke the strongest of emotions. That first cup of tea as dawn breaks, standing still before life comes crowding in. The perfumed sweetness of a fuzzy peach. A grilled cheese scarfed down in a rush between activities, leaving your tongue slightly burned. The smell of buttery popcorn, salty on lips as you lean in for a first kiss at the cinema.

It is often the simplest of foods that evoke the strongest of emotions. That first cup of tea as dawn breaks, standing still before life comes crowding in. The perfumed sweetness of a fuzzy peach. A grilled cheese scarfed down in a rush between activities, leaving your tongue slightly burned. The smell of buttery popcorn, salty on lips as you lean in for a first kiss at the cinema.

Homemade: Downtown Edition is a monthly series inviting a person who works in Winnipeg’s downtown to cook and talk about their favourite comfort food. If we are what we eat, then who are you?

This series would not have been possible without the generosity of staff at RRC Polytech, Paterson GlobalFoods Institute, who kindly permitted us to use the kitchens of Jane’s restaurant.

Send us your recipes!

We’re looking for Valentine’s recipes for an upcoming Homemade feature. Do you celebrate the season of love with home cooking? Fill out the recipe submission form to share your special occasion dishes and heartfelt desserts.

“It’s pure chaos if I’m in the kitchen. I can make a solid spaghetti with vegetables; I have made a sauce from scratch; but those are the things I would pull out if I needed to feed friends or family. Otherwise, no, I am just throwing stuff in a bowl and heating it up,” she says.

This meal has been Fenske’s favourite from the time she was a child when she used to go for Sunday lunches at her grandparents.

“I called it stringy chicken growing up and I loved it! It was so dry that I could pull it apart and it used to be so delicious, but I couldn’t eat that now,” she says.

“When Liam first cooked me a roast chicken, I took one look at how moist it was and asked him if it was undercooked. He gave me this look,” she says, roaring with laughter, “and said, ‘It’s cooked perfectly.’”

Fenske is vivacious and fizzes with energy. It seems easy for her to command the room; she has a natural sense of authority. But it’s tempered with humour, compassion and curiosity.

The self-confessed extrovert — “I am getting better at being alone and resting, but it’s not my natural state of being” — enjoys being with people, which is lucky, as her job as the CEO of Downtown Winnipeg Business Initiative Zone (BIZ) involves a lot of human interaction.

The former journalist is up at 6 a.m. to check emails, scanning through the news as she listens to the radio — “I want to know what’s going on before I get in the shower” — before heading to work downtown.

She is probably the only person in the city glad to see cars snaking all the way down Portage Avenue. The increase in traffic means the city is en route to a recovery.

“I am excited to see rush-hour traffic again,” she says with a laugh. “That’s always a good sign. We are seeing more businesses open, our visitation is up significantly, we see more workers downtown.

“In the last week of December we had three new businesses open and that shows optimism in our city. We are not there yet — we still need to make a concerted effort — but it is happening.”


Kate Fenske and her partner, Liam Martin, play to their strengths in their relationship: he likes to cook, while she prefers to fix things.

Fenske’s effervescence can be misleading but it would be foolish to underestimate her; under that easygoing demeanour is steely determination. This is someone who means business.

As the CEO, a role she has held since 2018, her remit is to advocate for a vibrant, inclusive and accessible downtown that welcomes people from all walks of life.

No easy task.

Tell anyone you’re going downtown, and unsolicited warnings come flying at you: “It’s sketchy; it’s seedy; make sure you hold on to your belongings; be aware of your surroundings; don’t go there at night…”

So, is downtown really as bad as people say it is?

“There have been concerns around safety and, yes, those are valid concerns, of course. We have struggles in our entire city — homelessness, addiction and mental health, to name just a few — but that’s not just confined to Winnipeg, ” she says.

She admits changing public perception is difficult, referring to a recent conversation she had with a stranger who was looking for a business that had closed four years ago.

“I told her that and her reply was, ‘I avoid downtown like the plague’,” Fenske says.


Liam Martin whisks the cheese sauce, finding the right balance of thickness using flour and milk, at the RRC Polytech kitchen in Winnipeg.

“It’s the hardest. I understand people’s concerns, I understand where they are coming from, but I really wish they would come and check things out and experience it for themselves.

“It is tough when you hear things like that from people that haven’t even been here. You have to ask, ‘How are you supporting restaurants and businesses here?’ It can’t just be supporting our arts and our culture and our shops every few years. We have to create a community.”

Her solution is to shift the gaze towards people, making them a priority, whether that’s establishing a more robust public transit system, pedestrian-friendly pavements and well-maintained bicycle lanes or investing in amenities that will support residential spaces.

“We need to get away from the fact that downtown has been a central business district and transform it into a welcoming space for all. Focus on people. Look at how people move around, look at how the most vulnerable are supported in our public parks and spaces, and look at where people live.

“Look at how these spaces work and how we invest in them. Restructure how our city is designed and maintained. You want a strong and vibrant downtown; that’s how you get young people to stay. They are looking for a vibrant urban core. And it needs to be a place where everyone can thrive; business owners, artists, students, seniors… our entire community should be able to thrive.”


Martin carves the perfectly roasted chicken.

She’s aware there’s still a lot of work to be done but remains undaunted, no doubt the influence of her youth as a child of two teachers.

Both parents taught at the Comp, the fond nickname for Lord Selkirk Regional Secondary Comprehensive High School. Her late father Albert (Al) taught phys-ed, economics and geography, and her mother Patricia was an English teacher. As a teenager Fenske would pretend she didn’t know them if she saw them in the hallway.

“My mom is the one who taught me how to rewire a light fixture. She builds furniture; she has built a deck. She’s never really enjoyed cooking either. She is someone who will make a smoothie instead of cook.

“We both love food, but we cook out of necessity.”

French fries at the Selkirk Snak Shak were a big treat and on Sundays, if she wasn’t at her grandparents for lunch, the family would drive down to the A&W in Lockport and the young Fenske would be thrilled at getting her order taken at the table.

Nowadays, she and Martin frequent slightly more upscale joints and she’s happy to share her favourites with anyone who asks.

She likes a gin martini with a twist at the Oval Room in the Fort Garry Hotel — “it’s like going on a little mini vacation every time we’re there” — loves the grilled cheese sandwiches at the White Star Diner on Kennedy Street — “Bruce makes the best ones, or go try the pulled pork” — and can be found tucking into Famena’s roti at a “tiny spot on the base of the Garry Street Parkade.”


Liam Martin brushes bread cubes with olive oil to make bread salad, part of Kate Fenske’s favourite comfort dish.

Capital Grill on Broadway is another beloved spot. “No matter what you are craving or feeling like that day, you can go in there not knowing and still find something to eat,” she says.

“Being landlocked in major city that is not close to anything and yet, when you look at the diversity of restaurants… everything from price points, to where it comes from, to the styles… we have one of the best food scenes in Canada.

“I love sharing some of the good experiences that we have downtown in terms of the food and culture. There are so many hidden gems, local and independently owned, that I love,” she says, as on-message as ever.

It may sound as if Fenske’s glasses are rose-tinted when it comes to Winnipeg but rest assured, her vision is clear. Just because she chooses to focus on the positives doesn’t make her blind to the things that need to be fixed.

“We’re our own worst critics sometimes,” she says. “We need to champion and be cheerleaders for our own city. We are the only ones who can save it.

“But at the same time, we need to be critical to find where we can improve; we have to look at it through a critical lens. If we become complacent, things are just going to stay how they are. We have to stop being OK with mediocrity.”

Zuni Café-inspired roast chicken, bread salad and broccoli with cheese sauce

Recipe courtesy of Liam Martin.
For two to four servings
Prep Time: 30 minutes + 1 day for dry brining the chicken
Cook time: 1 hour plus 15 minutes for chicken to rest


1 small chicken, 1 to 1.6 kg (2 1/2 to 3 1/2 lb)
Kosher salt, 5 ml (1 tsp) per pound of chicken
Black pepper, to taste


250-350 g (1/2 to 3/4 lb) slightly stale and chewy bread. Avoid sourdough. Crusts should be removed to use as croutons on another day
120 ml (1/2 cup) olive oil
20 ml (2 tsp) white wine vinegar
15 ml (1 tbsp) dried currants (or fresh pomegranate seeds)
15 ml (1 tbsp) pine nuts
5 ml (1 tsp) red wine vinegar (or more to taste)
2 cloves garlic, slivered
4 green onions, slivered on a bias
A couple of handfuls of arugula or mixed greens

Seasoning the chicken:

The day before, pat the chicken dry and season liberally with kosher salt (1 tsp/lb) and pepper, making sure to season inside the cavity as well. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

Preparing the bread salad:

Cut bread into large chunks. Cut off and reserve crusts for croutons for another dish if you like.

Brush bread chunks with olive oil and broil briefly until browned. Flip chunks over and repeat.

Trim any charred sections and then tear or cut into bite-sized pieces.

In a small bowl, combine olive oil, white wine vinegar and salt and pepper to taste. Toss with bread in a wide salad bowl. Season with salt and pepper further to taste if necessary.

If using dried currants, soak them in red wine vinegar and warm water and set aside. This step can be skipped if using pomegranate seeds.

Roasting the chicken:

Preheat oven to 475 F. Select an oven-friendly frying or roasting pan (a 10-inch cast-iron pan works for us) and heat it on the stovetop on medium-high heat.

Place the chicken in the pre-heated pan breast side up and then place the chicken in the centre of the oven. Cook it for 20 minutes this way. You want to hear it sizzle, so if it isn’t, don’t be afraid to increase the oven’s temperature. Conversely, if it’s sizzling too much and beginning to smoke reduce the oven temperate by 25 degrees.

After 30 minutes, remove the pan and carefully turn the bird onto its breast side and return to the oven.

Roast for another 10-20 minutes and then re-flip the bird to re-crisp the skin for another 5-10 minutes.

While the chicken is roasting:

Put pine nuts into a small roasting pan and place in the oven for a few minutes, just long enough to warm through. Then add them to the bread salad.

Add some olive oil to a small skillet and heat over low heat. Add garlic and green onions and heat until softened. Be sure to stir often so they do not brown.

Once softened, add them to the bread and toss with the salted water or chicken stock.

Transfer the bread salad to an oven-friendly baking dish, tent with foil and put in the oven after the chicken has been turned the last time so it cooks in the oven for 5-10 minutes.


Remove chicken from the oven and turn off the heat. The bread salad can remain in the oven for another five minutes or so.

Place chicken on a plate to rest and then pour the clear fat from the pan. Add a small amount of water to the pan and swirl.

Slice the skin between the thighs and breasts of the chicken and tilt so the juices run clear onto the plate. Then add juices to the frying pan with the water and drippings. Bring the juices to a simmer, scrape the drippings and stir them into the juices.

While the chicken continues to rest, remove the bread salad from the oven and transfer to a large salad bowl. Drizzle the bread with the pan juices and toss. Fold in the arugula or mixed greens and currants and transfer the bread salad to a platter.

Carve chicken into 10 pieces and add to the top of the bread salad and serve.

Broccoli and Cheese Sauce

Prep Time: 5 Minutes
Cook Time: 10 Minutes

30 ml (2 tbsp) butter
30 ml (2 tbsp) all purpose flour
250 ml (1 cup) milk
375 ml (1 1/2 cups) shredded cheddar cheese
Salt and pepper to taste

Melt butter in a saucepan over medium heat.

Whisk flour into melted butter until smooth. Cook and stir for about 3 minutes.

Add cheese and stir until melted.

Season with salt and pepper to taste and serve over steamed broccoli florets.

AV Kitching

AV Kitching

AV Kitching is an arts and life writer at the Free Press.

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