Building a temporary yet fully functional restaurant is no easy task, but chef Mandel Hitzer and architect Joe Kalturnyk seem to have mastered it – on ice, no less.
Five years ago, the two conceived of RAW:almond, a pop-up restaurant located on a foundation of frozen ice at the crossing of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers, just outside of downtown Winnipeg. Taking place annually since 2013, construction and execution of this imaginative dining experience is far from simple, but the event is still going strong.
The one-of-a kind restaurant's name is a mash up: Kalturnyk's design and architecture gallery is named RAW and Hitzer's restaurant is called deer + almond. This year's event kicks off on Jan. 21 and, as always, it will take place in a unique temporary structure.
As top chefs from Winnipeg and across Canada come together to serve dinner and weekend brunch in this most Canadian of settings, they'll benefit from the lessons learned over the past iterations of the restaurant.
"The hardest thing [about cooking on the ice] is dealing with the unknown," Hitzer says. Among the challenges they've dealt with are unexpectedly frozen ingredients. "These chefs come from their kitchens to a foreign city, a foreign kitchen and, on top of all of that, you bring them down to the restaurant on the river."
Once the restaurant is erected, the main draw for guests is three weeks of meals cooked by collaborating local and visiting chefs. Working together in a surprisingly functional makeshift kitchen that boasts a gas range and prep tables, the restaurant's staff serve about 120 guests each night.
Talia Syrie, owner of Winnipeg's the Tallest Poppy restaurant, has been cooking brunch at the pop-up since 2013. This year's midday menus are a collaboration between her and chef Chris Gama of Winnipeg's contemporary brunch spot, Clementine.
The menu isn't finalized yet, but they're thinking dishes such as Red River porridge with stone fruit compote and lavender almond crumble, house-made chicken sausage with lentil curry and bacon and ratatouille with poached eggs. While dinner – reservation only – is currently sold out, there are walk- and skate-in spots available for brunch.
"I would say [we are] infinitely more organized nowadays," Syrie says. "The first year … it was pretty cold inside the structure – we hadn't really worked out all of the bugs in the heating department. To stay warm, I remember everyone just getting up and dancing around. It was a proper early morning breakfast party. It was so great!"
The two founders handled the design for the first two years of operation, when the restaurant resembled a large snow fort more than anything.
In 2015, after a global call for submissions, British design firm OS31 produced a striking cross-shaped structure built out of scaffolding. That was the first time guests sat separately from the kitchen, which had been notably expanded from previous years.
For this year's structure, Kalturnyk found local inspiration in the children at Art City, a non-profit that offers programs in a safe, creative environment.
"It's like those Construx toys you might have played with when you were a kid," Hitzer says in describing this year's building, which is made of wooden slats that slide into one another from various angles.
"The way we've built the pieces is that the structure can change or grow to any size. It's all how you connect them."
This year's design also allows for easy take down and transport should RAW:almond ever pop up in another location, something Hitzer hopes might eventually happen.
On Jan. 23, Toronto's Alexandra Feswick, chef at the Drake Hotel, will work alongside Winnipeg's Scott Bagshaw, owner of Enoteca and Maque. Other returning out-of-town chefs include Scott Vivian of Toronto's Beast, Dan Geltner of Le Kitchen in Montreal, and Calgary's Jamie Harling of Deane House.
Though the restaurant is heated to around 12 degrees, patrons still don tuques and scarves while sitting on fur-covered stumps on the ice. Chefs parade in and out of the kitchen, presenting their creations to the long communal table of diners, while servers hover around clearing plates and pouring wine.
In past years, the buzz, chatter and excitement have superseded the actual temperature, making the dining room feel truly alive and warm.
Hitzer says the pop-up is a chance to watch a community grow. "One night we had a local musician, Smoky Tiger, do an impromptu song after a dinner service," he says. "The entire place lit up and was clapping along."
RAW:almond runs in Winnipeg from Jan. 21 to Feb. 13.