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Ben Kramer, Executive Chef of Diversity Food Services at The University of Winnipeg uses local organic products which his kitchen prepares for students at the University of Winnipeg in Winnipeg Friday, May 13, 2010. (JOHN WOODS/John Woods/The Globe and Mail)
Ben Kramer, Executive Chef of Diversity Food Services at The University of Winnipeg uses local organic products which his kitchen prepares for students at the University of Winnipeg in Winnipeg Friday, May 13, 2010. (JOHN WOODS/John Woods/The Globe and Mail)

Eating habits

University revolutionizes Winnipeg's food scene Add to ...

It was a review that would have shuttered most restaurants. Lukewarm, tough chicken served with soggy potatoes and vegetable mush. A server who coughed onto her own arm as she presented a meal.

This grim appraisal of a culinary experience appeared in the Maclean's University Rankings of 2009, panning the food at the University of Winnipeg.

But instead of drowning its sorrows in a tray of powdered mashed potatoes, the school has set about completely overhauling its food-services divisions, firing its catering company, hiring an idealistic young chef who advocates fresh, local ingredients and managing to quickly turn a profit by serving real food.

And in the process, they've revolutionized the city's food scene.

"We were at the very bottom. We were being hung in effigy by students," University President Lloyd Axworthy said. "Even the poutine was bad."

Just two years later, the food is so popular that the university's executive chef is Winnipeg's most in-demand caterer. The school's buying power has persuaded suppliers to finally provide sustainable, organic products to the city, once deemed too small a market to justify such deliveries. And this summer, the university will open a fine-dining restaurant open to the public, Elements, the first of its kind to be operated by a Canadian postsecondary institution.

"We made a million dollars more this year than we did with the charter company," Mr. Axworthy said. "The students have come back."

Food is not historically a major priority of university administrations. But having taken over the school's top job in 2004, Mr. Axworthy, the former minister of foreign affairs, grew tired of the harsh reviews. Two years ago, he decided to buy out the contract of its large, multinational catering firm. In its place, the school established its own arm's-length culinary company, Diversity Foods, in partnership with local non-profit SEED Winnipeg.

It was mandated to serve organic, locally grown food of an ethnically diverse variety, and to employ inner-city residents as their primary labour force.

Diversity's 36-year-old Vancouver-trained executive chef, Ben Kramer, was first hired as a consultant, tasked with investigating whether a university cafeteria could provide fresh and sustainable meals for a reasonable price.

When he first set foot in the kitchen, Mr. Kramer said the dry storage was filled with canned goods and that the only nod to the school's ethnically diverse population was a vat of deep-fried egg rolls.

After being hired on full-time, he claims to have only made one real change.

"We brought in real food. That was it," he said. "All we're really doing is bringing restaurant-quality food to an institution."

Realizing there would be resistance among students, he kept much of the traditional cafeteria menu, but made the items from scratch.

The sandwich station has been replaced by a noodle bar and the caf now serves rice and miso broth for breakfast, providing culinary comfort to the international student body.

Word quickly spread, and it's not unusual for community members not affiliated with the school to be spotted grabbing lunch in the main cafeteria. Outside catering is now 25 per cent of Diversity's business, but Mr. Kramer's proudest accomplishment is the impact he's had on the local food scene.

Before taking on the school's food system, he ran a small restaurant, called Dandelion, and said it had been difficult to source local ingredients. Suppliers told him that local food was a passing trend, and that Winnipeg was too small a market to justify bringing in items like sustainable seafood.

Marnie Feeleus, of Winnipeg's Fresh Option Organic Delivery, said suppliers now have a reason to bring local produce to the city, and that everyone is benefiting from the university's influence. Local farmers have increased production as a result, she said, and the city's menus have changed drastically.

This August, Mr. Kramer will also introduce the city to a new restaurant. The university-operated Elements, a licensed, full-service, 75-seat restaurant, will open on the main floor of the $45-million Richardson School for the Environment and Science.

Already, representatives from the University of Victoria, UBC and McGill have visited Winnipeg to investigate the Diversity model, and Mr. Kramer has turned down offers to take over the cafeterias of other city institutions, including the provincial legislature.

He dismisses claims that healthy food is too big a challenge for cash-strapped schools.

"If you're strictly concerned with profits and you don't care about anything else, then yeah, it's more expensive," he said. "But we approach this with the mindset of being sustainable and paying our staff well. Why not try and raise the industry standard?"

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