Near the end of March, right around the time restaurant owners across the province began limiting the number of guests allowed inside their establishment or shutting down altogether owing to COVID-19, a regular at Corrientes Argentine Pizzeria, 137 Bannatyne Ave., poked his head through the door, glanced around and started to cry.
"Half the chairs were resting upside down on top of the tables, there were maybe two people here and he said it made him very sad to see our place, which is usually full of life, looking like that," says Alfonso Maury, who earlier this year celebrated his fifth anniversary as owner of the attractive, Exchange District resto, known for its overstuffed empanadas and South American-style, thin-crust pizzas.
Maury, who runs things with his wife Roxana, is the first to admit the past eight months haven’t been easy. Restaurant sales are down close to $200,000 compared to 2019, due to in large part to the cancellation of popular, nearby events such as the Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival, the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre season and the Winnipeg Goldeyes’ home schedule, goings-on that typically bring in hordes of diners. And while Corrientes’ sprawling, outdoor patio helped offset losses during the summer months, ever since the province issued a code orange designation for the Winnipeg region in late September, things have been, in his words, dead all over again.
"But it’s OK. We are positive people and we know there are better days ahead," says Maury, who also owns and operates La Pampa Empanadas, a takeout shop with two locations in the city. "When that fellow looked at me with tears in his eyes and asked if we were going to be the next (to close) I answered no, that wasn’t going to happen. I assured him as long as we have life we have hope."
Maury, 55, was born and raised in Buenos Aires. One morning when he was six years old, he was helping his mother in the kitchen when, out of the blue, she asked him what he thought he’d like to be when he grew up. That’s easy, he replied: a chef.
"Unfortunately in Argentina, it’s not always what you want to do, but rather what you need to do in order to survive," he says, citing that as the reason he chose to study engineering, after graduating high school. At age 21, not long before he was due to return to university for his final year of studies, he landed a job at the posh Sheraton Buenos Aires Hotel & Convention Centre, where his father was the official photographer. Because guests there were often a who’s who of celebrities, including many touring rock stars, and because his father often let him tag along to press conferences featuring the likes of Eric Clapton, Ronnie James Dio and Lemmy of Motörhead, it wasn’t long until Maury — still a huge rock ’n’ roll nut to this day — quit university, deciding that working in the hospitality biz was more alluring than crunching numbers in an engineering class, day in and day out.
Maury remained at the Sheraton for nine years, serving as a doorman, concierge, line cook… anything that needed doing, pretty much. In 1998, by which time he was married with three young children, he and his family, who are Jewish, moved to Israel to live in a kibbutz; the very one, he likes to point out, that was depicted in the television mini-series The Spy, starring Sacha Baron Cohen.
Working in Israel afforded him all the experience he would ever need for running his own restaurant one day, he says. As lead chef at a pair of dining spots run by the kibbutz, he routinely cooked for as many as 1,000 people a day — double that number come Passover. Life there was great, he says, but deep down he’d always had a secret dream, one fuelled by a power trio from Toronto that preached The Spirit of Radio.
"When I was 14, a buddy of mine invited me over to his place to listen to a new album he’d bought called 2112," he explains. "The second he dropped the needle I was like, ‘What is this? Who are these people?’ I’ve been a huge Rush fan ever since and because of that, I made a promise to myself that one day I would live in Canada, home of my favourite band."
In 2008, a few months after Maury joined Facebook, he was contacted by a person named Pablo who was wondering if he was the same Alfonso Maury he grew up with in Buenos Aires. After replying yes indeed, the pair traded messages, letting one another know what they’d been up to through the years. When Maury mentioned he was living in Israel, spending his days as a cook, Pablo, who had been living in Winnipeg for 10 years, remarked, "A cook? You should come here. Winnipeg has more restaurants per capita than anywhere else in Canada."
Maury had never heard of Winnipeg, that’s true, but given his affection for Rush, he thought this might be his big chance to move to the Great White North. He got in touch with the Rady Jewish Community Centre and in October 2008 flew here for what he describes as an exploratory visit. He hit as many restaurants as he could while he was in town, even going so far as to leave his resumé behind at a few spots. He then headed back home where he announced to his family, who had stayed behind, that Winnipeg "looks pretty good." Two years later, after going through the proper channels, all five emigrated to Manitoba, arriving in September 2011.
It didn’t take long for Maury to find work. Within three days of settling into a rented condo in Lindenwoods he was cooking at an Italian restaurant on Pembina Highway. He was laid off from that job just after Christmas 2011 but landed on his feet almost immediately, this time at Hermanos (now closed), a South American tapas and wine bar on Bannatyne Avenue. While there he helped then-owner Noel Bernier open Corrientes right down the street from Hermanos. For a while he split his time between the two restaurants but as soon as Bernier opened Prairie 360, the revolving restaurant atop Fort Garry Place, in 2013, he moved over there full-time to assume the role of head chef.
Maury is of the firm opinion that early morning phone calls rarely bring good news. That’s why he wasn’t sure what to think in January 2015 when he awoke at 5 a.m. to hear Bernier leaving a message on his answering machine. Rolling over in bed he murmured to Roxana, "This can’t be good, he must be firing me." That wasn’t quite the case; when he got in touch with his boss minutes later, the first words out of Bernier’s mouth were, "How would you like to buy Corrientes?"
"Back when we opened Corrientes, I told Noel that if he ever wanted to sell, I wanted first crack at buying it," Maury says. "I got off the phone, woke Roxana up and told her she was going to have to quit her job, because I was going to need her help at our new restaurant."
Their first nine months at the helm were nothing to write home about, Maury says. There had been a slew of different chefs at Corrientes since he left in 2013, and reviews during that period were less than stellar. But as word began to spread that the restaurant had new, hands-on owners — Maury, who developed the original recipe there, produced almost everything coming out of the kitchen while his wife took care of the front of the house — business slowly began to pick up. Still, it was touch and go for a while, he allows.
"I remember in September (2015) having to pay staff wages out of our own pocket. In order to cut down on labour costs, the two of us began pulling 12-hour shifts, six days a week. Sometimes I was so tired I’d fall asleep on a couch in the back, and Roxana would wake me up if a customer came in."
Their hard work eventually paid off. By December of that year sales were up significantly and in 2016, their first full year on the job, traffic increased 40 per cent. By the end of 2016, they were so confident in Corrientes’ future that Maury began hunting around for a location for a project that had been on his mind ever since they came to Winnipeg, a bakery-type operation specializing in empanadas, the exact type they serve at Corrientes.
Their first store, managed by one of their daughters, opened at 1604 St. Mary’s Rd. in the summer of 2017. Outlet No. 2 opened at 1549 Grant Ave. this past June.
"The minute the first one proved successful I wanted to open a second, my fear being when you have a good idea, somebody else is going to steal it," says Maury, who turns out two dozen varieties of empanadas, which he laughingly describes to people unfamiliar with the dish as an Argentinean Pizza Pop. "Half the people who come here know us from the restaurant and half don’t. Just the other day a woman picking up a dozen empanadas asked if we supply Corrientes. ‘Supply Corrientes?’ I said. ‘We are Corrientes.’"
Finally, we get that Winnipeg isn’t the Big Smoke, Rush’s hometown, but we wondered if Maury is nonetheless pleased that he chose our icy burg to put down roots. "Si," he says.
"It’s been my experience that people who live in the middle of a country aren’t typically open to new things as, historically, they have less contact with the so-called, outside world," he says. "In that way Winnipeg was a very nice surprise for us. Yes, it took a bit of time for some to come around to our style of cooking and the different spices we use but when they did, they really let their love show. We feel very welcome here."
David Sanderson writes about Winnipeg-centric businesses and restaurants.
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.