Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 10/12/2017 (1627 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Before the advent of the celebrity chef, Winnipeg had one its own, even if most of the city never knew it.
That's because unlike most celebrated chefs who derive their fame from the restaurants they open and the trendy lists they make, for more than 40 years, Takashi Murakami has concentrated on preparing the menu and leading the kitchen staff as the executive chef at one of Winnipeg's most exclusive private-membership places: the St. Charles Country Club.
Not for much longer, though.
As the Order of Canada recipient was telling me the other day, by March when he will be 69, he will be retiring to the Woodhaven house where he and his wife, Sanae, live, and where, some years ago, my wife and I had the rare privilege of dining with them. On that occasion, he didn’t talk in any detail about how he came to arrive in Winnipeg or how he came to be invited to be the chef at the stately but then-still stuffy St. Charles.
As it turns out, his is a story marked, as so many lives are, by fateful crossroads. In his case it was a detour to Winnipeg, a city he was warned — in that typical, sneering way — that he should avoid.
His life's road started in Japan where he was born and had found his direction and his passion by the time he was 15. He enrolled in vocational school and began apprenticing as a chef.
Why? Because there was a food shortage in post-Second World War Japan.
"I wanted a full stomach," he said, with his characteristic chuckle.
His father wasn't impressed, because being a chef wasn't a manly job.
But Murakami had found his direction, and in 1970, at the age of 20, the passion that went with it had taken him to Canada's cowboy country. He found a job in Calgary at the recently opened Husky Tower, which was being managed — as fate would have it — by man who would become like a father to him.
Don Cutler had been the supervisory chef for the entire Canadian Pacific hotel system, but working out of Winnipeg's Royal Alexandra Hotel until the Higgins and Main landmark was abandoned in 1967 and later demolished. Cutler, who was celebrated himself, would return to Winnipeg in 1975 as general manager of the St. Charles Country Club, which is how he came looking for Murakami to become his executive chef.
Murakami was surprised. He knew Cutler, but not well. Obviously, Cutler knew him well enough.
"I asked people about Winnipeg," Murakami said. "No one recommended it."
No one, that is, until he chanced to meet a woman who grew up not far from the St. Charles club's golfing grounds: George Knudson’s sister. Not that Murakami knew then that Knudson was a star professional golfer who as a kid had caddied and learned to play the game there. It was on her recommendation that Murakami would take up Cutler's invitation and head off to Winnipeg to feed some of the city's most-privileged citizens and manage a kitchen with people who routinely wield knives in a confined, high-stress environment.
"I came here at age 25. I knew everything," he said, again with a chuckle.
"I was a young punk."
But Cutler trusted and helped him.
"He was a chef himself, so he (knew) what I go through. He gave me a much better education; how to do it, beyond the food. He motivated me. He was almost my father figure, in a way. I was very attached. As a chef, he made a big impact on my career," Murakami said.
Still, at first, it was a struggle. Murakami didn’t have the kind of life experience he needed to run a kitchen.
"You know, how to train people. How to work together and how to communicate, personally."
Back then, he was at the club by 6 a.m. and still there an hour or two after midnight.
"So my wife never (saw) me," he said.
He recalled how Sanae would take their little boy, Kouki, to the park and what people thought when they only saw the two of them.
"Everybody thought my wife was a widow," he said.
He said that with a little laugh, but he wasn’t laughing back then.
"I didn’t know how to work smart."
Cutler did though, and eventually, so did his protege.
"After about five or six years, I realized I could do things the way I wanted to," Murakami said.
And ultimately he would have to do it without his father figure looking out for him.
Don Cutler was 72 when he died in 1999.
Cutler, of course, had been good to Murakami, but so had the club, and over the decades, Murakami has been good to the club, the community and the country. The gold medal-winning chef has watched and helped guide the rise of the culinary arts program in Winnipeg, and coached and was a member of a world champion Culinary Team Canada.
Three years ago, when his lifetime achievements were celebrated at Red River's College's first Top Chef Award dinner, Murakami made it clear how happy he was for taking the road less travelled to Winnipeg.
"I was offered a job in a larger city, but I realized Winnipeg offered a great amount of opportunity for the profession. I realized also that you don’t have to be in a larger city to be the best you can be," he said.
As Murakami prepares to retire, I wondered what's made him proudest or happiest.
"I think what makes me happiest is all my guys who worked with me becoming successful."
Chefs across the country, and of course, the locals, among them Steffen Zinn of Red Ember Pizza Truck fame; Norm Pastorin at the Cornerstone; and Cameron Huley, executive chef of the Winnipeg Squash Racquet Club. Mentoring them and helping them find their own way, that's what makes Takashi Murakami proudest.
Just as it must have made Don Cutler proud to see Murakami find his own recipe for success.
All those years ago.