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Opinion

You can be forgiven if you haven't seen the teaser signs that hang in front of the mysterious curtains in The Forks Market's centre court.

"Delicious Things are coming to The Forks Market," they read.

You can be forgiven for not seeing those signs -- as I have forgiven myself -- because so few of us venture into that food court anymore. Which is precisely why the signs are now there.

"We did a big public consultation," Forks CEO Paul Jordan says as we stand in front of the curtain with the "Delicious" signs. "And everybody says it's tired, it's old, it's not top of mind anymore."

So, after a quarter-century of the same-old, same-old look and pedestrian offerings, The Forks has decided it's time for a space and taste renewal.

"We're going to make a food destination," he vows, of our historic meeting site that's already the province's most visited place.

What lurks behind the curtain are the five to seven new spaces for four to seven new tenants.

That's for starters.

Jordan already has an image of how the freshly designed kiosks will not only look, but who will be doing the cooking.

Clare MacKay, vice-president of corporate and community initiatives for The Forks North Portage, holds some of the fare currently available at The Forks food court

BORIS MINKEVICH/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Clare MacKay, vice-president of corporate and community initiatives for The Forks North Portage, holds some of the fare currently available at The Forks food court

"All of these," he says, imagining what will emerge from behind the curtain, "will be interesting, young food entrepreneurs."

Those centre-court spaces opened up after the departure of some "underperforming" tenants. As for the rest of the current tenants across the way, Jordan says this: "They all realize that we have to re-energize that place and we have to do that with new entrepreneurs coming in. So that's what we're going to do."

He calls the newly imaged centre court a classic food hall.

Which is?

"You'll see them a lot in the States and in Europe. It's communal eating."

I gather that means you can join other people at tables of varying sizes, with food from various kiosks.

Kind of small plates in a big hall, as I see it. It also means a new, refreshing, inviting look to centre court. But, renos and refreshing can be kind of old itself. To me, it's really the ingenious and inclusive way The Forks is going about trying to attract young chefs that's really delicious. And inviting.

The Forks hasn't issued any calls for proposals yet, but when they do, the biggest, shiniest lure will be the way The Forks is structuring the startup investment and financial model. Jordan declined to get into the specifics, but I gather it amounts to a turn-key operation that requires a relatively modest amount of investment and has an "out" clause that will make the classic food hall accessible for the young, the talented and the financially challenged.

"Because right now," Jordan says of the old model, "it's not accessible. You have to put in so much capital in a store like this. And you have to get into a long-term lease, and if it's not working, it's hard to get out."

That's why The Forks is structuring it with an easy exit clause that doesn't leave the young food entrepreneur -- or the parents who might be backing him or her -- bankrupt.

The Forks food courts. Story about upcoming improvements.

BORIS MINKEVICH/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

The Forks food courts. Story about upcoming improvements.

"If it's not working," Jordan says, "they can get out."

As for getting in, Jordan says there will be a jury that will judge the proposed concepts and presumably put them through a taste test.

Jordan says they've already had discussions with Red River College's culinary-arts program. Their grads are prime prospects. Young people who need a place to practise their art, earn a living and maybe even make a name for themselves. And then, if and when they're really good and ready, move on to open their own restaurants.

The way I see it, The Forks is not only helping itself, it's providing a proving ground for young chefs to give Winnipeg a better restaurant scene. Both at The Forks, but, more importantly, throughout the city if the best of the chefs eventually decide to venture out on their own.

Oh, but centre court's renewal isn't all that's new at The Forks.

Jordan says The Forks is also exploring the concept of welcoming a craft brewery to the site. And this summer they'll be creating a bike-path entrance from Main Street as the first Forks phase of a designated bikeway connecting Osborne Village with St. Boniface.

Anyway, here's to The Forks.

And the knives and the spoons.

But mostly, here's to the next generation of young Winnipeg chefs who are being offered a kitchen door to their dining-out futures.

And ours.

Bon appétit. And bonne chance.

gordon.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca