June 22, 2018

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Community foodie brings the heat

Restaurant boss, philanthropist keeps busy

Kelly Cattani is having a crazy day.

She was up early to do a TV interview for a fundraiser for Women’s Health Clinic she is spearheading, and she’s fresh off a post-blizzard lunch rush at the Oak & Grain, the restaurant at the Hilton Winnipeg Airport Suites where she is executive chef.

Now, in the middle of another interview, she’s dealing with the fact that the salesperson who is coming to do a knife-store pop-up at the restaurant has been diverted to Thunder Bay because of snow on the runway in Winnipeg.

They say “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen,” but Cattani loves the heat — it’s why she got into cooking in the first place.

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Kelly Cattani is having a crazy day. 

She was up early to do a TV interview for a fundraiser for Women’s Health Clinic she is spearheading, and she’s fresh off a post-blizzard lunch rush at the Oak & Grain, the restaurant at the Hilton Winnipeg Airport Suites where she is executive chef.

Now, in the middle of another interview, she’s dealing with the fact that the salesperson who is coming to do a knife-store pop-up at the restaurant has been diverted to Thunder Bay because of snow on the runway in Winnipeg. 

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Executive chef Kelly Cattani at Oak & Grain.</p></p>

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Executive chef Kelly Cattani at Oak & Grain.

They say "If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen," but Cattani loves the heat — it’s why she got into cooking in the first place. 

"I was working at, of all places, a Booster Juice, right by U of W; my friend was the manager," Cattani says of her first experience with the energy of restaurant work. "We would get slammed, a lineup out the door and down the block. And I just loved the adrenaline and the perfect way you could settle into a flow with someone. Her and I didn’t even talk — we would just make and give, make and give, make and give. 

"It was so much fun, that sort of dance that we’d do around each other to put out a product that made somebody happy and satisfied and nourished."

The Red River College culinary graduate, who is married with a nine-year-old daughter, went on to work at catering companies, in fine dining restaurants, banquet halls and casual outlets. Now she presides over a restaurant that combines many of her experiences.

"We wanted to appeal to the business travellers who come to an airport Hilton, but we wanted to be approachable to our neighbourhood and a part of our community as well," she says of the focus of the renovated, revamped Oak & Grain (formerly Bistro 1800), which has a menu of elevated comfort food with a stress on local ingredients. (Cattani’s buttermilk chicken sliders were the winner at this year’s inaugural Fried Chicken Festival.)

Being part of the community extends to Cattani’s work outside the restaurant. She is the organizer of the Women. Wine. Food. fundraiser, now in its second year, featuring an all-female lineup of local chefs dishing up appetizers paired with wine.

"I have been so blessed throughout my culinary life in this industry to participate in a huge variety of events," Cattani says of the inspiration behind the event. "It blows my mind, the opportunities that have come my way, and I’m so grateful to have had them. But I remember being at a few of these fundraiser things — and chefs are always asked to contribute their time and product, and we love doing it because it’s a way to express our creativity, meet new clients, get out and see some new things, interact with friends — but being at these things year after year, I noticed there were never any female chefs at them. Like, ever. Never ever. "

Cattani wanted to share the spotlight with more women in Winnipeg restaurants.

"Ladies like me are out there, we’re cooking in kitchens and we’re leading kitchens," she says. "I just really wanted Winnipeg to be able to see these people and taste some of the food they were making, showcase the female talent in the city."

Women. Wine. Food takes place Thursday, March 8, at the Hilton Winnipeg Airport Suites from 7 to 10 p.m. Tickets are $125 and can be purchased at wfp.to/womenwine.


Jill Wilson

Do you come from a foodie family?

Kelly Cattani

I don’t think so, but my parents both liked cooking and my mom really likes that I’m in this industry. They entertained a lot when I was growing up… and I’m a horribly socially awkward person, I’m very shy, so I wonder if I ended up cooking to contribute to that spirit of hospitality that was such a part of my childhood without really needing to talk to people.

Jill

What style of food do you think is your signature?

Kelly

For me, it’s about cooking from scratch, putting lots of fresh herbs and vegetables into things; it’s about taking what you have, what’s available, and doing something delicious with it. It’s more about place than about style — it’s about here, it’s about Manitoba and Winnipeg.

Jill Wilson

What ingredient do you always have in your pantry?

Kelly Cattani

Buckwheat flour. I’m gluten-free and that’s my go-to substitution.

Jill

So you must be good at offering gluten-free options on your menu?

Kelly

I’m still learning; I’m good at being comparable. I have a lot of dietary restrictions and I completely understand that people have the restrictions that they have and they don’t want to be a burden, but they do want to eat. Having an attitude that is inflexible seems incompatible with what we’re trying to do in this industry — it’s called the hospitality industry. Our goal is to feed people food that makes them happy, not food that makes us happy (although that’s a huge aspect of it).

Jill

You’re in charge of a restaurant kitchen, a banquet hall, room service and you do lots of other events. It sounds super busy.

Kelly

There’s some weeks when I forget what my daughter’s face looks like (laughs). It’s an industry job and the life is the life. You should know, if you’re getting into this work, that you need a supportive partner, because you will be working 12-hour days, nights, weekends. 

Jill Wilson

What’s your daughter’s favourite of your dishes?

Kelly Cattani

She doesn’t eat dairy, so I make a mac ‘n’ cheese with soy cheese and soy milk. She would eat it every day if she could. 

Jill

Is there a dish or food trend that you think is overdone?

Kelly

Avocado toast. Enough! (laughs) It does look so pretty, though.

Jill Wilson

What’s your guilty pleasure? 

Kelly Cattani

It’s not really a guilty pleasure, it’s something that I’m really happy I’m able to find. There’s a restaurant (Boulevard Pub & Bistro) in my neighbourhood that has gluten-free chicken fingers on their menu and I hadn’t had chicken fingers in a really long time. For someone like me, it’s absolutely magical to have breaded chicken. I was there yesterday, actually! 

jill.wilson@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @dedaumier

Jill Wilson

Jill Wilson
Senior copy editor

Jill Wilson writes about culture and the culinary arts for the Arts & Life section.

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