This article was published 19/12/2018 (759 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The roots of RJ Urbano’s culinary journey are hidden in the name of his restaurant, Crème DeL’Essence.

The 25-year-old chef began selling custom ice cream from his parents’ house — unusual flavours such as salted-caramel Oreo, matcha green tea and Vietnamese coffee — as a side gig while he worked full-time in the kitchen at 295 York (the high-end downtown resto that’s now Carne Italian Chophouse).

"It started off with a few friends at first and then it started blowing up on Instagram, because that’s how social media is, right?" Urbano recalls, chatting after lunch hour at his Inkster Boulevard restaurant.

"It was just crazy. It was mid-winter — January or February — and people would be lining up at the door for the ice cream. We would have random people knocking at the door (of our house). And sometimes I wouldn’t be there, so sometimes my parents would end up doing it for me.

"Then I got busted by the health inspector; someone reported me... I took that as a sign to either take the opportunity to go this route — we have a potential business on our hands — or go back to finding a job, the usual routine. I felt like the opportunity presented itself and the fact that this place was vacant... We thought, why not, let’s do something for the North End, because we don’t have a lot of good restaurants around here."

He and his partner, general manager Ryan San Diego — the two co-owners are the only staff — started out serving brunch and gourmet ice cream in 2015 in their unlikely location in the Inkster Industrial Park, just east of Keewatin Street.

Despite the lack of foot traffic ("We were more of a destination restaurant at that point," Urbano says), the restaurant did well, thanks in part to San Diego’s social-media savvy.

Crème de L'Essence owners R.J. Urbano (left) and Ryan San Diego.

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Crème de L'Essence owners R.J. Urbano (left) and Ryan San Diego.

Crème DeL’Essence’s Instagram is a stream of delectable-looking dishes, from savoury stuff like rice bowls and "KFC" and waffles (fried chicken, hot sauce, yeasted chicken-fat waffles and maple-black garlic glaze) to sweets such as Prench toast (purple yam-infused french toast with pickled strawberries, banana hazelnut crumble and white chocolate ganache).

After testing an expansion into an ambitious dinner menu, the co-owners have settled on an ever-changing short list of 10 or 11 dishes — with the customer favourites of pork-belly hash, french toast, eggs Benedict, and chicken and waffles as constants — as well as hosting frequent pop-ups, private dinners and chef’s table events that allow Urbano to fuel his creative side.

Asked to define his culinary style, he hesitates. "I guess the best description would be fusion, although it’s not so much fusion itself, but it’s more like refined French techniques," he says. "Especially when it comes to Filipino cuisine, we don’t think of it as fancy food. It’s very home-style cooking, the only thing that’s really missing is refinement. Some people are going to say that it doesn’t need to be refined, but we are just putting our own style into it.

"We’re not trying to change Filipino cuisine, we’re just trying to elevate it."

Free Press: How did you first enter the culinary world?

RJ Urbano: It’s been spontaneous, is what I would say, for the whole career I’ve had so far... I was at University 1 (first-year classes) at the U of M. I was kind of lost; I didn’t know what I was going to do. I was supposed to be a social-work officer in the military — that’s what I was going to aim for. I was like, "I guess so, I like helping people." I realized midway through university, "Wow, this is crap. This sucks. This isn’t what I want to do for the rest of my life." That’s when the thought came to me: what do I really want to do? I always liked helping my mom cook at home. Why not try cooking out? So I looked for a job and Sun Valley restaurant on Oak Point Highway was hiring a line cook, no experience necessary. That was a great job and I thought, "This could be fun." So that’s when I signed up for (culinary) school.

Right when I got to school, that was such an exciting time. You’re learning everything, how to make your salads, your dressings, your soups, your stocks — all your fundamentals. Definitely the first year was a ­life-changing part; that’s where you learn the foundation that chefs need.

FP: Do you regret dropping out of the culinary program at Red River College with just six months to go?

Chicken and waffles being prepared in the kitchen at Crème DeL'Essence.

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Chicken and waffles being prepared in the kitchen at Crème DeL'Essence.

RU: No, not at all. I completely thought it was meant to be. I didn’t want to question it... It really depends on what you want to do with your life. Are you still going to go back to your same routine? Are you going to take any risks? Starting a restaurant is something that the school doesn’t really teach you. They can explain how to go at it step by step, but reality is a completely different story.

FP: This is a small operation. How much of what you do is creative and how much is managerial?

RU: It’s about 50-50. It’s looking after all the bills, all the costs behind it, managing all the inventory, buying the groceries, prepping, cooking, cleaning. It’s only me and (San Diego) most of the time. He serves, does coffee, does the till. I have my little cousin who will help us sometimes with the dishes because he wanted to get some experience.

FP: You said your mom’s cooking is a big inspiration. What’s something she makes that you can’t replicate?

RU: Her spaghetti, all the time. There’s a kind of Filipino spaghetti — she can give me the ingredients, the same list and it’s still different when I make it. I think it’s that touch of love, as cliché as it sounds.

FP: Is there anything you won’t or can’t eat?

RU: I don’t like bitter melon; it’s probably one of the worst things. I’m not a big fan of grapefruit. And I have a slight shellfish allergy.

FP: What ingredient or item is always in your fridge or pantry?

RJ Urbano at his restaurant, Crème DeL'Essence, on Inkster Boulevard. The chef initially started out selling custom ice cream out of his parents' house.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

RJ Urbano at his restaurant, Crème DeL'Essence, on Inkster Boulevard. The chef initially started out selling custom ice cream out of his parents' house.

RU: Potatoes. For an Asian guy, I love my potatoes. A favourite for me is shredded hashbrowns, like the ones you would have at Perkins.

FP: What’s your guilty-pleasure food?

RU: It would have to be McDonald’s — I would get a Bacon McDouble and a Junior Chicken and I would stuff the chicken in between the patties of the McDouble.

FP: Is there something you love that you can’t serve here because customers won’t order it?

RU: Beef tongue. Some people think it’s gross, and I’m like, "Aw, c’mon!" Braise it, make sure it’s nice and tender, serve it with with a nice sauce, on toast or with rice. I love pairing it with mushrooms, garlic, shallots, herbs.

FP: What’s been your proudest moment as a chef?

RU: It’s not really a specific moment, but having other chefs see you as a peer. Now that I’ve actually made connections with chefs I used to look up to, it’s an amazing feeling. They know you have to put hard work into running a restaurant; it’s not going to run itself. It’s stayed (open) three years for a reason. I just wanted to make a mark, and making a mark at this age — I was 21 when we started this — it’s pretty crazy.

FP: What did your parents think of you opening a restaurant so young?

RU: They were very against me dropping out of school at first... but I didn’t want a piece of paper like a diploma or a Red Seal (trade certification) to define why I do what I do, why I love what I do.

FP: Why do you love what you do?

RU: I feel like it’s for the people. We have so much stress, we work crazy hours, but when you see people enjoying your food and it makes their day, you’re like, "It’s honestly worth it."

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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