On Wednesday, Oct. 30, hundreds of well-heeled Winnipeggers will crowd into the RBC Convention Centre for Canada’s Great Kitchen Party, an annual fundraiser for Community Food Centres, amateur sport organization B2ten and MusiCounts, which supports music programs in schools.
Restaurant: Thermëa, 775 Crescent Dr.
Signature style: Local, from scratch
The event (which formerly focused solely on sport and was known as Gold Medal Plates) this year features seven local chefs, each one charged with preparing an appetizer-sized dish paired with a Canadian wine. The winner at this regional event goes on to compete in the Canadian Culinary Championships, held Jan. 31-Feb. 1 in Ottawa.
Thomas Stuart’s contribution will be a fennel-cured Manitoba Watersong trout with sea buckthorn, paired with a Benjamin Bridge sparkling wine from Nova Scotia. The 38-year-old chef at Thermëa is pleased with the pairing, but he’s more excited to have his staff participate in the stressful but rewarding evening.
"I don’t like saying ‘I’m not in it to win it,’" the affable Stuart says on a recent afternoon in a basement boardroom at Thermëa, the Scandinavian-style wellness getaway adjacent to the Crescent Drive Golf Course. "But I’ve never been in this for accolades; I want my team to experience it."
The Gordon Bell High School graduate, who’s married with a two-year-old son, is a team player. Asked about his proudest moment as a chef and he singles out the kitchen staff at Thermëa.
"I have this feeling of pride every time I come here and I see how well the team gets along and how loyal they are — we have no turnover in our kitchen," he says. "We get together after work, we do barbecues in the park, we go on fishing trips together and go foraging by Lake Winnipeg."
Winnipeg was the first Thermëa by Nordik Spa-Nature location to spin off from the original in Chelsea, Que., and Stuart was given carte blanche to create a menu. He’s embraced the spa concept, with selections that lean toward healthy options, but not at the expense of indulgence or flavour — local ingredients are given pride of place. As the company expands — there are plans for Nordik Spas in Whitby, Ont., Calgary and Edmonton — Stuart says the menu will necessarily become more standardized, but he’s involved in helping to develop the chain’s culinary program.
The subtle northern European slant of the menu is apt, considering Stuart first decided to become a chef after a trip to Europe with a high school friend.
"I came back and I was hemming and hawing, so I took my first year at University of Winnipeg," he says. "My parents had saved a small college fund for me, so I thought, no harm in trying regular school, just to see what it’s like. I didn’t like it at all, didn’t go to my classes. I was not responsible — and it wasn’t my hard-earned money, so…
"But I just knew after experiencing that classroom setting that something more hands-on was for me."
Here’s what he had to say:
Are you self-taught or did you go to culinary school?
I went through the Red River culinary arts program and graduated in 2005. I worked in restaurants as soon as I graduated high school. I worked at a bakery just off Corydon called Bread & Circuses… That’s where I got my start. They bought grain and milled their own flour to make bread. To get to see that as one of my first restaurant experiences was very impactful.
Do you come from a foodie family?
No. I’d say they are now, and not just because of me, but because of the culture in Winnipeg. But at the time, I remember growing up with boiled pasta, overcooked chicken breasts. Being a parent now, of a two-year-old, I don’t blame them for not cooking me gourmet meals, don’t get me wrong. But if there’s any semblance of recipes that have been passed on from generation to generation in my family, it’s very British, so a boil or a roast. When they got fancy, they made Yorkshire pudding.
My dad’s mom was from England; my mom’s family goes back eight or nine generations in Canada. I did one of those DNA tests and it’s very centralized: England, Ireland, Scotland.
How would you describe your style?
After graduating from culinary school, I got a job right away at Fude in Osborne Village. The mantra at Fude was that we made "inspired cuisine." So my sandbox that I got to play in was huge; there were no borders. So I struggle to answer that question, because I feel like people are looking for an answer like "I like Italian." For me, my style is from scratch. My style is that in every dish I create, I like to feature a local product and make the most of it.
What your son’s favourite meal that you make him?
I do get joy out of packing his lunches. We have one of those compartmentalized (bento boxes) and I like populating those little squares with fun things. I’ll make a little avocado salad with pesto, and a little church sandwich with the crusts cut off. He loves macaroni and cheese that we make from scratch. And he’s a diehard pickle eater — like, we have to stop him.
Is there a food you won’t eat?
So, 50 per cent of my team is Filipino. It’s a big family up there, and they really challenge me on some of the food that they do for staff meals. One thing that I can’t get my head around is the century egg (egg preserved in mixture of clay, ash, salt, quicklime and rice hulls). It’s just gross — brown, gelatinous. But there’s a lot of dishes they’ve whipped up that just have this amazing flavour. One I keep asking them to make is this dish that uses beef knees. We use them to make stock. There’s a joint and a lot of cartilage in there. After making stock, my sous chef harvests all the cartilage and then he makes it into this amazing dish served over rice that has the natural gelatin mouthfeel you get from a hearty chicken soup. It’s so comforting and warms you right up — I love it.
What’s your guilty pleasure food?
If you’re craving fast food, what’s your go-to?
Probably Qdoba. I like Mexican food and I find it tastes real… for fast food.
What’s your best hangover cure?
A nice, simple, basic caesar, with pickles.
What do you always have in your fridge or pantry?
One thing that my parents did instil in me was always to have two or three big bricks of cheese. We’re trying to be a bit healthier and cut back on that a bit. But when I can: Safeway eggnog.
Tickets for Canada’s Great Kitchen Party are $350 at greatkitchenparty.com. The event is hosted by Manitoba Olympian Jon Montgomery and features performances by Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy, Barney Bentall, Devin Cuddy, Bill Henderson, Anne Lindsay and Sam Polley.
The competition gets underway at 6 p.m.. The sit-down reception is at 7:30 p.m.
The competing chefs include: Stuart; Deer + Almond’s Emily Butcher; Heiko Duehrsen of the Qualico Family Centre; Winnipeg Squash Racquet Club’s Cameron Huley; the Fairmont Winnipeg’s Tim Palmer; Fabrizio Rossi of De Luca’s South Landing; and Minkyu Ru of Gaijin Izakaya.
Senior copy editor
Jill Wilson writes about culture and the culinary arts for the Arts & Life section.