Renée Girard doesn’t like talking about herself.
The sous-chef at Harth Mozza & Wine Bar would rather talk about how amazing her fellow kitchen colleagues, Harth chef/owners Brent Genyk and Brady Palmer, are. Or the importance and urgency of sustainability. Or her family.
Girard, 33, comes by her down-to-earth passions honestly, having grown up on a fourth-generation family farm near Elie, her favourite place in the world.
"When my brother and I were kids, my parents turned our hip-roof barn into a restaurant café so they could bring out customers for berry-picking but also host events like weddings," she says. "My grandma would be in the kitchen cooking all the time, so I learned from her."
Her brother, Justin Girard, and his partner Britt Embry have taken over the farm and turned it into Hearts & Roots, a small-scale, certified organic fruit and vegetable farm where Renée has hosted pop-up dinners. She helps out at the downtown farmers market on Thursdays, and is excited about this summer’s debut of the Manitoba Farmers’ Market Coupon Program, a community initiative that will provide people who experience barriers to accessing healthy food with coupons to purchase food directly from participating farmers markets across Manitoba.
Another connection to the family farm: Girard was also recently accepted to an upcoming culinary arts residency at Marble House Project in Vermont, where she will make a farm-to-table dinner based on her grandmother’s recipes.
Most days, you’ll find the self-taught cook hand-rolling pasta at Harth, where she’s been in the kitchen for nearly two years.
"I’ve always cooked at home and was always trying to experiment and explore different types of food. Before I made the switch to back of house at Langside Grocery, I was working at Forth in the Exchange and my partner, Ken, suggested it. He said, ‘I think you’d be happier in the kitchen.’ I don’t think I’d ever go back to front of house."
Still, whether it’s front or back of house, Girard has a love of restaurants.
"I love the community, honestly. I love dining, I love food, I love eating," she says. "Eating is a necessary part of life, but restaurants make it feel special."
Free Press: Hearts & Roots is clearly a special place for you.
Renée Girard: Hearts & Roots is probably the biggest inspiration for me, generally in my life but also when it comes to this industry and cooking. The work Justin and Britt are doing is so important and I think the fact they’re continuing to push themselves also forces us to push ourselves in the industry. Food doesn’t just appear on the plate. You see people working so hard to take care of the land, take care of produce, take care of their animals, and it’s pretty awesome.
FP: Can you bring that ethos to your work?
RG: Absolutely. Brent is really great about bringing in local produce when it’s in season. Obviously, during the winter it’s tough. You can still reach out to some farmers here who have storage crops, so if you’re looking at winter squash or carrots or potatoes, you can still get that. When it comes in season, it’s great. I still work at the downtown farmers market with Justin and Britt on Thursdays, so I’ll reach out to the guys here in the kitchen and say, "Hey, there’s this on feature or we have this on feature, can we get it?" We’ll get updates from farms about their seasonal produce lists, and we’ll create features off of that.
FP: Tell me about working at Harth, which is a unique example of a destination restaurant with a downtown feel in the south end of the city (1-980 St Anne’s Rd).
RG: As you said, Harth is such a unique place. It’s incredible to work here. It’s wild to see how successful it’s become, which, knowing the people now that have been a part of it, doesn’t surprise me in any way. The care for quality has made them who they are today. We’re lucky because the area is quite populated and there’s not too much like it around here. They really want to serve you here. It’s obviously a labour of love.
FP: What’s your day like?
RG: I work the pasta station here so that takes up most of my workload, but being sous-chef there are other duties to take care of to make sure everyone on all stations are set up and ready to go and feel supported. I come in and make sure the ovens are on and we’re getting the foccacia going, all the sauces and stocks are ready to go. And then myself and Brady hand-roll pasta. There’s one to two hours when we do that every day. Right now, we have an agnolotti and a tortellini, so there are two hand-rolled stuffed pastas on the menu. It’s very soothing. It’s my favourite part of the day. You’re there, with the dough, listening to music, talking about our days and connecting about food. It’s a pretty awesome time. And then you head right into service.
FP: You’re also involved in lots of creative pop-up projects. Is having that outlet important to you?
RG: It’s really important to me to stay creative outside of work. We’re pretty lucky here because Brent lets us do features and be involved in the menu creation, but I need that bit outside of work. I’ve been pretty lucky to be involved in a lot of projects. There was (Ben Kramer’s) Push Project dinner recently, I’ve done a couple farm dinners, and the Winemaker Dinner with Matt Sherlock from Lock & Worth Winery. It’s really inspiring to be able to collaborate with those people and learn from them, too.
FP: What is your favourite dish to cook or eat?
RG: Pasta. One hundred per cent. I mean, I love eating everything; I am not a picky eater, I have no allergies. But I love pasta. And sardines. I love sardines.
FP: What are your go-to dishes in your own kitchen?
RG: Honestly, sardines (laughs). I probably have 15 cans in my cupboard right now. So I’ll toss them with a homemade chili crisp, or a hot sauce, or if I have aioli in the fridge, I love that with crackers. I’m also a sucker for perogies. And eggs. I’m pretty lucky with the farm. Farm-fresh eggs are like nothing else.
FP: What are some other Winnipeg restaurants you love?
RG: I love going to Clementine for breakfast. The people there are always so welcoming and I think the food is awesome. I love Segovia if you’re doing something a bit fancier. But also BMC for tacos and Baraka if you want a pita. Like, that is the best you can get in town.
FP: What about junk food?
RG: I’m a sucker for nachos. And popsicles, but it has to be a Cyclone. Even in the wintertime.
Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.
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