Freedom comes in the form of a 20-square-foot kitchen for Dustin Pajak.
The 31-year-old head chef of Close Company on Stafford Street has spent the last five years cooking, creating and experimenting in one of the city’s smallest sit-down restaurants. From the beginning, owners Cam Chabot and Tammie Rocke have encouraged Pajak to make the space his own.
"(They) pretty much just handed me the keys to the place," he says. "It’s a perfect scenario for any chef to be able to just be able to run with it."
Growing up in southern Manitoba, Pajak got his first taste of kitchen life working in small-town restaurants. As a kid, he cut french fries at the local diner while his mom worked and as a teen he got a job as a cook to save up enough money to buy a car.
He moved to Winnipeg at 18 to study computer programming and even though he finished first-year at the top of his class, Pajak knew he couldn’t spend the rest of his life in front of a screen.
"There was a future in it, money-wise or whatever," he says. "In terms of lifestyle, it was… a very monotonous, kind of boring job."
He decided to pursue cooking more seriously and got a job at Earls Kitchen and Bar. Working at a chain, with its 100-seat dining room and dozens of employees, was in stark contrast to the rural restaurants he was used to. The experience gave him a better understanding of the business side of the service industry and the company paid to send him to culinary school at Red River College.
"That was a really amazing foundation," he says.
Pajak moved on to learn the ins-and-outs of fine dining at the former Lobby on York and helped open the short-lived Sherbrook Street venture Fitzroy with Jon Hochman, the new owner of Gunn’s Bakery.
His initiation into Italian cuisine came while working for restaurateur Sam Colosimo at the late Brooklynn’s Bistro, as well as Teo’s and Mano a Mano on Corydon — for about two years he worked split shifts, doing prep and lunch at one restaurant and dinner at the other.
"I loved working for Sam," he says. "(But) that was probably the most I’ve worked ever in my career."
Close Company has been an opportunity to slow down and focus on quality over quantity.
"Because we are smaller, there’s certain things that we’re able to do, like grow our own garnishes and our own herbs. You wouldn’t be able to do that in a 300-seat restaurant, because you’d need 300 of everything," Pajak says. "So it’s kind of using our size as an advantage as opposed to a disadvantage."
Free Press: It sounds like you’ve had a lot of great mentorship. What would you say your proudest moment as a chef has been so far?
Dustin Pajak: This restaurant, at this point in my career, this is gonna be a milestone for me. Everyone knows that I’m here, we have a good customer base and word’s getting out there slowly.
But I think (the best part) is grabbing the reins and fully doing it. How many chefs can say that they are doing the whole process, from payroll to cooking the food to clearing tables to washing dishes all on the same night, right? It kind of like solidifies the fact that if this was 100 per cent my spot… that I would be able to jump in at any point.
FP: Does your previous schooling in computer sciences play into the stuff you do in the kitchen?
DP: Oh, definitely. I love sitting down with Cam, one of the owners here, and talking about numbers with him. There’s an interest level (in numbers) required to run the business.
I mean, judging by the sales and seeing what’s selling and what’s not selling, that definitely also gives me a little bit of idea of where the menu should go. I don’t think it’s always product-driven.
FP: What has the coronavirus pandemic been like for you?
DP: We went from a small restaurant to even smaller. We were doing 12 to 14 seats and now it’s down to like eight to 10, ideally, on the inside.
And I got three weeks off, which was amazing, that was probably the first time since I was 18 that I had time off. I have a massive library of books — I think I’m at like 160 cookbooks in my collection — (so) I was just going back and reading them.
FP: Do you have a favourite cookbook?
DP: There’s so many. I like this one called Coco. It’s 10 of the best chefs in the world picking their favourite chefs.
I really like to do a good mix of like, high-end Michelin Star books and then I also like getting Bon Appétit (magazine) every single month because I think you need to play in that middle zone.
FP: Where do you find inspiration for your cooking?
DP: I would say a huge, huge amount is always what’s available. It’s awesome to be going through the farmers market at St. Léon or in St. Norbert and just seeing these products and just feeling the sparks going in your brain. It’s easier to do that than just to sit down with an empty pad of paper.
FP: What would you say your specialty is at the restaurant?
DP: Tuna has always been a staple… we try to maintain a really amazing tuna quality.
And then the garnishes are always super fun, whether it’s black garlic... or, like, different vegetables. I like cooking with celery because it’s a super-underrated vegetable — it has super texture, it’s got lots of water, you can pickle it, you can roast it, you can braise it.
FP: What’s a favourite dish you like to cook at home for friends or family?
DP: Grilling. I love open-fire cooking. I was at Lac du Bonnet for the last four days… and I grilled all three of our meals every day. Whether it’s breads or doing whole roasts or even vegetables on open fires, that’s probably the best way to make them more dynamic.
Also, I grew up working a massive garden the size of, like, two city blocks with my grandmother. So if I can incorporate cooking on that live fire with something that I can literally pick… that’s (the best) kind of scenario.
FP: What’s something you always need to have in either your fridge or pantry?
DP: Vinegar. And always lots of different ones. Every chef has a flavour profile that their palate kind of has. Mine has always been like a really, really good balance of acid and fat.
FP: Do you have a guilty-pleasure food?
DP: Fast food.
FP: Is there anything that you can’t or won’t eat?
DP: I’m down to eat anything if you’re smart with how you’re approaching it, but I don’t want to eat just a bowl of hot pig eyeballs.
FP: What’s your favourite restaurant in Winnipeg?
DP: I’m huge into pizza. Right now I really love Hildegard’s; it’s a bakery on Portage, and on Fridays and Saturdays they do pizzas. All their breads are milled in-house, so it’s really amazing flour.
It’s more, like little shops. I really, really love the girls down at the Cheesemongers; we do a lot of stuff at the restaurant with them.
When it comes to "restaurant" restaurants, you’d be surprised how many Asian restaurants I go to. I love that home-cooked kind of feel and I’m a big dim sum fan — Noodle Express and Kum Koon, when they push the cart around.
This interview has been condensed for clarity and length.
Eva Wasney is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.