This article was published 29/7/2018 (1220 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Kevin Durkee is the owner of Culinary Adventure Co., an eight-year-old Toronto-based venture that offers guided walking food tours in six Canadian cities including Winnipeg.
Last fall, when Durkee first entertained the idea of adding Manitoba’s capital to the mix, a few of his chums in the Big Smoke chided him, asking whether snow shovels and mosquito repellent would be part of the itinerary.
"I heard all the jokes about Winterpeg to which I replied, ‘Guys, it’s not Winterpeg, any longer,’" says Durkee, seated inside Forth (171 McDermot Ave.), one of several stops on his freshly-minted Exchange District Tour. (In addition to the Exchange tour, Culinary Adventure Co. also offers a Made in Canada Food Tour and a Savour The Forks Food Tour, both of which are based out of The Forks.)
"I’ve travelled to Winnipeg over a dozen times in the last year and every time I’m here, I’m completely blown away by the local food scene. I feel like there’s almost a Brooklyn-fun-edgy-vibe to the city these days where you’ve got all these adventurous young chefs saying, ‘screw it, I’m going to cook what I want to cook and serve what I want to serve,’ " he continues.
"Take a restaurant like Deer + Almond (85 Princess St.) or a funky little spot like Parlour Coffee (468 Main St.). There’s no question you could drop either one of them into any major metropolitan centre on the planet and they would flourish, they’re that world-class."
'I've travelled to Winnipeg over a dozen times in the last year and every time I'm here I'm completely blown away by the local food scene' ‐ Kevin Durkee
Culinary Adventure Co. was founded in 2010 by a husband-and-wife team from Toronto. Around the same time, Durkee opened Cheesewerks, a restaurant that served gourmet "grub" such as artisan grilled cheese sandwiches, fondue and mac and cheese. It didn’t take long for the two businesses to find one another. By the end of 2011 Cheesewerks was a regular pit-stop on the couple’s Bathurst Street walking tour.
Remember that old TV commercial in which the late Victor Kiam stared into the camera and informed us he liked Remington’s electric razor so much he bought the company? Well, that’s sort of what it was like for Durkee. The married father of one purchased Culinary Adventure Co. in 2014 after the original owners divorced.
"I didn’t buy it so much for what it was as for what it had the potential to be," says Durkee, a marketing and advertising professional for 15 years before he became a restaurant owner.
"If you had travelled anywhere in the world 20 years ago, your first priority probably would have been to find out what time a particular museum or art gallery opened. But thanks to things like the Food Network and people like Anthony Bourdain — may he rest in peace — travel has become more about scoring a reservation to that new restaurant you read about or visiting that cool out-of-the-way bakery. People are definitely putting a bigger emphasis on food when they’re planning a vacation and that’s the market I wanted to tap into."
Culinary Adventure Co. expanded to Ottawa and Kingston in 2016. Charlottetown and Halifax joined "the family" 12 months later. In June 2017 Durkee was contacted by Darcy McGregor and Matt Singer, a pair of Winnipeg entrepreneurs seeking advice about a similar business they were in the early stages of developing.
Durkee was more than happy to offer the pair suggestions. But after the third or fourth phone call he felt it was getting to the point where if he shared much more he’d be giving away "the secret sauce," he says with a laugh. That’s when he made McGregor and Singer an offer: since Culinary Adventure Co. already had name recognition, a marketing strategy and an effective ticketing system, why not join forces by combining Durkee’s business acumen with their knowledge of Winnipeg?
A few days later the pair agreed to Durkee’s proposal and Culinary Adventure Co. Winnipeg was born.
It’s Wednesday morning at Union Station. Because he never wants to be "that guy" who’s stuck behind his desk all day, Durkee has flown to Winnipeg from Toronto to personally conduct a Made in Canada Food Tour for a pair of travel writers from Philadelphia. After greeting the married couple, Durkee asks Michael and Larissa Milne if they have any questions before we (we being Durkee, the Milnes, plus a Free Press reporter and photographer) embark on our three-hour excursion.
"Just one," Michael says, noting this is his and wife’s first trip to Manitoba. "The other day while I was doing my homework I read that Winnie the Pooh’s name is short for Winnipeg. That completely blew me away and makes me wonder why there aren’t 30-foot statues of Winnie the Pooh at every entrance to the city?" (For the record, Milne doesn’t believe he’s related to A.A. Milne, author of 1926’s Winnie-the-Pooh and its follow-up The House at Pooh Corner).
Exiting Union Station, at which point Durkee draws everyone’s attention to the building’s limestone exterior, we head across the street to Upper Fort Garry. There, while being treated to the sound and light show depicted on the historic site’s Heritage Wall, Durkee dishes out our first course of the day: fresh-baked bannock buns from Tall Grass Prairie Bread Company, cut in half and smothered with saskatoon jam.
Following our snack and an amusing chat about where the Milnes chose to dine the previous evening — think "the house with the little red roof" — it’s off to The Forks and Bite No. 2. (In case you’re wondering, all food consumed during tours is preselected by Durkee and his staff, though allowances are made for allergies and dietary restrictions.)
"Wait right here; I’ll be back in a few minutes," Durkee tells us, after we plop ourselves down at a communal table in The Common, The Forks Market’s 20-month-old dining hall. A few minutes later he’s back with a pair of offerings: a whack of what he refers to as "the best pickerel in the country" from Fergie’s Fish and Chips and a wood-fired pizza from the Red Ember dubbed the Happy Pig (vodka sauce, red onion, house-cured pork sausage, Fontina cheese and parsley).
"Before you take a bite (of pizza) put a drop or two of this on it to enhance the flavour," he says, pulling out a vial of whisky-barrel-aged maple syrup he professes to carry on his person everywhere he goes. (He’s right; the syrup goes great with the ’za. Except the whisky flavour packs such a punch we’re not sure whether to slurp it or shoot it.)
Our tour includes a number of other stops — a combination of eating and sightseeing — but because Durkee wants to maintain the element of surprise for future guests, we promised we wouldn’t reveal the entire route. That said, we will let slip a pounded cheese appetizer (creamy old cheddar, cider gastrique, chives and grilled sourdough) we sampled at SMITH at Inn at The Forks was worth the price of admission on its own. (For a full list of prices and times, go to www.culinaryadventureco.com and follow the link to Winnipeg tours.)
Without a doubt, the question Durkee gets asked most often is how he picks the places on his tours, which can accommodate as many as 16 guests. Some assume there are "backroom deals or kickbacks" involved but that’s 100 per cent not the case, he explains.
"We’re completely agnostic. We only choose places we love to eat at, ones that we’ve been charmed by and want to share with our guests," he says, adding logistics are involved as well. For example, he’s "crazy stupid in love" with Stella’s Café’s home-made jam but hasn’t been able to fit Stella’s into a tour yet because none of the chain’s locations are within walking distance of his three Winnipeg routes.
"We also pay attention to social media and local food writers. Take a place like Bronuts (100 King St.) which is part of our Exchange District tour. I was already following them on Instagram before I’d ever set foot in the place and knew we wanted to tell their story."
Although his company has only been operating in Winnipeg for seven weeks, Durkee is already looking past the Perimeter. Down the line he’d love to incorporate Manitoba’s First Nations and Hutterite communities into his tours, "all the things that make this province so spectacular from a storytelling perspective but also through the lens of food."
He’s also fairly certain our burg will join Toronto and Ottawa as the only cities on his circuit that offer tours year-round. Sure, Winnipeg may not attract as many out-of-town visitors as those places, he admits, but because roughly 70 per cent of his business comes from local residents celebrating with friends and family, he’s not too worried about the winter months.
"We do a ton of birthday parties, wedding parties and, come November and December, office Christmas parties," he says. "About the best thing somebody can tell me at the end of a tour is ‘you know, I’ve lived here my whole life and never would have gone to a certain restaurant or tried a particular dish if I hadn’t taken your tour, so thank you very much.’"
David Sanderson writes about Winnipeg-centric businesses and restaurants.
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.