The details are vague, but the purpose of the Push Project is clear: chef Ben Kramer wants to get Winnipeg cooks and diners out of their respective comfort zones.
THE PUSH PROJECT
● Location: Cloakroom, 200-70 Albert St.
● Dates: Feb. 14-23
● Tickets: $165.20 at chefbenkramer.com
Over 10 days in February, Kramer and 10 city chefs will host a series of intimate pop-up dinners at Cloakroom in the Exchange District.
The challenge pitched to guests is twofold. For one, dinner will be served around a communal table so ticket holders can look forward to spending an evening with 30 or so strangers (or friends-to-be, depending on your outlook). Secondly, the menu for the $165-a-seat event won’t be released ahead of time.
"They won’t know what they’re getting," Kramer says. "We’re hoping the clientele is willing to put their blind faith in us."
That said, the kitchen staff will be able to accommodate allergies or dietary restrictions declared in advance.
For chefs, the Push Project offers an opportunity to collaborate, learn from one another and put their skills to the test in a challenging environment.
Cloakroom is a 3,000-square foot event space on Albert Street opened by Winnipeg fashion designer Lennard Taylor in 2019. The room is a former warehouse with brick walls, columns and huge windows. It’s esthetically pleasing but it’s a far cry from the full-scale kitchens most of the featured chefs are accustomed to working in.
"We’re building a makeshift kitchen, so that will get them out of their comfort zone," Kramer says, adding that the food preparation and dining areas will be in close proximity so guests can chat with chefs while they’re working.
It’s been about five years since Kramer has worked in a standard kitchen. He has made a name for himself catering small dinner parties and large events — such as Raw:Almond, Table for 1200 and the Winnipeg Folk Festival — with his company Fun Events Only Dot Com.
"Being in a different kitchen and a different set-up everyday forces us to think differently, which has been great," he says. "We want to be able to share some of that knowledge with chefs around the city."
Kramer wants to teach as much as he wants to learn — something that’s been missing in his career since becoming a nomadic chef.
"My crew and I were talking about how we kind of work in a bit of a bubble because we’re not at a restaurant," he says. "It’s really hard to learn anything if you’re trapped in a bubble."
Kramer will be cooking solo the first night of the pop-up and then working with a new chef every other night with support from his Fun Events team. The goal is to collaborate on each menu item, not just split courses while sharing a kitchen with each other.
"If you know my food and the food of the chef I’m cooking with, you probably won’t know whose dish is whose," Kramer says.
Menu planning is in full swing, and to prepare, chef Jessica Young has created a list of dishes that make her nervous. On it are things like potato gnocchi, pâté, bread, fermented foods and organ meats. The purpose of the list isn’t to avoid, but to lean into her fears.
"I’m a little bit of a perfectionist... so I often go with something that I’m comfortable making," she says.
She’s most comfortable when she’s making dessert, specifically chocolate beet cake, but that hasn’t always been the case.
"I had always avoided doing desserts. It’s kind of where most of the women got put and I was very desperate to not be put into (that) category," she says.
Young started washing dishes when she was 15 and has worked her way through most Wow Hospitality restaurants in the city. She discovered her passion for cakes and pastries while working at Peasant Cookery and later took a deep dive into dessert at Cake-ology. She has since become the chef de cuisine at Diversity Food Services at the University of Winnipeg.
A few years ago, Young might have turned down the opportunity to work a pop-up, but the Push Project fits with her newfound philosophy of saying yes to everything that terrifies her.
"I haven’t always had the utmost confidence in myself," she says. "I see other people doing these things and in the back of my head I’m like, ‘What if I fail? What if this isn’t good enough?’ And I think there’s a lot of risk with putting yourself out there.
"It’s good to push yourself into the things that scare you, if I’m not scared about anything I’m kind of complacent."
When Kramer was looking for chefs to join the Push Project he set his sights on those like Young, who have been working in kitchens for years but don’t have name recognition among Winnipeg diners.
"Most big projects have the same chefs," he says. "We wanted to work with and kind of shine a spotlight on some chefs that are equally talented but aren’t in that little clique-y group."
Some of those chefs include, Aron Epp, formerly of Peg Beer Co.; Renée Girard of Harth Mozza and Wine Bar; Tara Podaima of Little Sister Coffee Maker; and RJ Urbano, formerly of Crème DeL’Essence and currently with Trans Canada Brewing.
A complete pop-up schedule and tickets can be purchased at chefbenkramer.com.
Eva Wasney reports on arts, culture and life for the Winnipeg Free Press.