November 15, 2018

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Creating memories through food

Fairmont chef 'tells the story of Manitoba' using local ingredients

On a hot August Thursday at noon, the line of hungry people waiting for a Backdoor Burger at the Fairmont Hotel at 2 Lombard Pl. stretches around the side of the building.

Today’s offering, the Don’t You Four Cheddar About Me, is a beef patty topped with, yes, four cheeses, tomato, crispy onions and a spicy aioli. It’s the creation of Tim Palmer, the executive chef for the hotel chain’s VG Restaurant.

And if the idea of a burger served out of the back of a kitchen doesn’t sound like what you’d expect from a high-end hotel chain, that’s exactly the point.

Palmer is embracing the challenge of changing the reputation of the venerable downtown dining institution formerly known as the Velvet Glove.

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On a hot August Thursday at noon, the line of hungry people waiting for a Backdoor Burger at the Fairmont Hotel at 2 Lombard Pl. stretches around the side of the building.

Today’s offering, the Don’t You Four Cheddar About Me, is a beef patty topped with, yes, four cheeses, tomato, crispy onions and a spicy aioli. It’s the creation of Tim Palmer, the executive chef for the hotel chain’s VG Restaurant.

And if the idea of a burger served out of the back of a kitchen doesn’t sound like what you’d expect from a high-end hotel chain, that’s exactly the point.

Palmer is embracing the challenge of changing the reputation of the venerable downtown dining institution formerly known as the Velvet Glove.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Tim Palmer, executive chef at the Fairmont Winnipeg’s VG Restaurant, has worked to modernize the restaurant’s menu.</p></p>

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Tim Palmer, executive chef at the Fairmont Winnipeg’s VG Restaurant, has worked to modernize the restaurant’s menu.

"What really makes my job enjoyable is the free rein that I have with the food program," says the chef, taking a break mid-lunch rush in the hotel’s lounge. He explains that the dining room is under no orders to conform to a chain-wide Fairmont menu. He and previous executive chef Eraj Jayawickreme had been slowly working on moving toward a more modern style; when he took over as executive chef, he says, "I took everything we were working on and pushed it into hyperdrive."

Chef's Table

Click to Expand

Tim Palmer

Executive chef, VG Restaurant

Age: 37

"Every menu, we’re progressively gotten away from the rack of lamb, the chateaubriand, the tableside caesar (salad)," he says of the classic but staid menu of the past. "Don’t get me wrong, those are great, but it’s not what our food program is trying to do."

That program, he says, is hyperlocal, with the kitchen sourcing as much as it possibly can from around Manitoba and Canada.

The hotel’s rooftop garden provides herbs, vegetables and edible flowers all summer long; it also houses three beehives, maintained by Beeproject Apiaries, which have provided 120 kilograms of honey this year. Thursday’s Backdoor Burger event is joined by Taco Tuesdays.

The Winnipeg-born chef, who graduated from Fort Richmond Collegiate, has a long affiliation with the Fairmont chain. At 18, he apprenticed at the Jasper Park Lodge. He went on to work at the Fairmont Southampton in the Bahamas and was chef de cuisine at Epic, formerly in the lobby of the famous Royal York in Toronto.

He and his wife returned to Winnipeg to raise their son, Jackson, now seven (the couple also has a one-year-old daughter, Penelope); his dream of becoming executive chef of a luxury hotel was realized two years ago.

 

Where did you study?

Where's the beef?

Le Burger Week</p><p>Fairmont VG Restaurant’s Friendly Manitoban Burger</p>

Le Burger Week

Fairmont VG Restaurant’s Friendly Manitoban Burger

Along with his weekly Backdoor Burger creations, chef Tim Palmer has also come up with a uniquely local take for the Fairmont VG Restaurant's contribution to Le Burger Week, which kicks off on Saturday, Sept. 1, and runs to Friday, Sept. 7

Along with his weekly Backdoor Burger creations, chef Tim Palmer has also come up with a uniquely local take for the Fairmont VG Restaurant's contribution to Le Burger Week, which kicks off on Saturday, Sept. 1, and runs to Friday, Sept. 7

Called the Friendly Manitoban, he says, "It represents who we are and our pride in Manitoba. Everything is made in-house, except for the bun, which we get from an amazing bakery here in town, Gunn's.

"It's got house-made sweet pickles, horseradish-seeded mustard aoili — we make the mustard in-house, we get the seed from Mustard Millers — and using local horseradish that we get from Harms Farm."

The patty is a mix of ground beef and HyLife pork from the producer in La Broquerie.

"We've been graciously given access to the high-end pork that they produce, which is usually sent to Japan," Palmer says, explaining that the burger will feature two patties — sandwiched in between them is a hunk of Bothwell smoked Muenster cheese, "that's made into basically a huge cheese stick."

The burgers will be topped with local tomatoes, butter lettuce and hot chili jam from rooftop peppers, the buns dusted with ground Manitoba hemp hearts.

About 115 Manitoba restaurants are taking part in Le Burger Week. For more info, see wfp.to/burgerweek.

SAIT (Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, Calgary) and NAIT (Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, Edmonton). I did my full culinary apprenticeship at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, and so for two months out of every year we would go to school. It’s great — it’s an amazing training ground, fully functional, huge kitchen. You’re learning as you work, and then when you go to school, you get the book knowledge, the terminologies. For me, the way I learn, it was much better than going to school full time for two years.

 

What drew you to cooking initially?

I started out in the kitchen as Kingswood Golf Course, I was 14 or 15. I always wanted to be a golf pro — delusional (laughs). I also worked at McDonald’s because my cousin was a manager. I started cooking and I enjoyed it. I worked at Perkins on Pembina, the old-school place. I really enjoyed making people happy, I liked the energy of the kitchen, the pressure, the hot environment... And food to me, it brings back memories, fond memories of my grandparents, Sunday suppers. I just love the idea of being able to create memories, feeling those emotions through food.

 

Do you come from a foodie family?

No, not really. I’d never had a lobster before I moved away, never had a parsnip, asparagus. Mom was a great cook, but growing up, we didn’t have very much money — not that we ever went without — but they sacrificed a lot for my sister and me. But she would make amazing meals: fried rice with chicken hearts and livers that she got for next to nothing from Dunn-Rite... to me, that was awesome because there was effort, there was passion, there was love put into the food.

 

What’s your goal with the VG Restaurant?

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Tim Palmer, executive chef at the Fairmont Winnipeg, at the rooftop herb garden. </p>

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Tim Palmer, executive chef at the Fairmont Winnipeg, at the rooftop herb garden.

Ultimately, we’re trying to tell the story of Manitoba. We love where we’re from — we have great ­influences; there’s a huge multicultural influence... We take the approach of ever-changing and ever-evolving, and we try to follow the concept of being locally authentic. Contemporary, a little bit edgy.

When you come to eat, you’re coming for an experience. We’re breaking the perception of "stuffy, pretentious, white tablecloths." You can’t change that right away, but we try to open people’s minds to know that we aren’t what grandma and grandpa’s restaurant or choice used to be. We have an amazing food program and we’re not just a hotel — we’re not just shovelling food out of chafing dishes onto plates.

 

What ingredient do you always have in your fridge or pantry at home?

Great olive oil. And fresh herbs. I truly enjoy them; I grow them inside in the winter and in the garden in the summer.

 

What’s your guilty fast-food pleasure?

Big Macs. We don’t hit McDonald’s that often, even with the little ones, but a Big Mac, down in two bites, basically.

 

What do you make that your son loves?

I love the fact that he loves all foods. He doesn’t not like anything, so there’s no special meals. But he likes homemade pizza, and there’s a sausage pasta I make with fresh ground pork and roasted pepper and cherry tomatoes. My wife is actually not so adventurous with food — she’s gotten way better — but Jackson and I will go for sushi. We’ll go see (chef) Ed (Lam) at Yujiro, we will sit back and have chef’s choice for hours. We will just eat and laugh and talk; he’s got his own special chopsticks.

 

Is there a local restaurant you like to go to as a family?

One of our favourite places — we used to live on Warsaw, just off Corydon — is Colosseo restaurant. The ­service is fantastic, they remember us, the food is great and consistent. It’s nothing flashy but it’s amazing. We’ll order calamari and, before you know it, Jackson will have eaten the whole order; I won’t have had any. "I like the crunchy rings," he says.

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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