Bringing a Savoury Sense of Place to Manitoba

April 02 2019

Among the stroll-worthy strip of Winnipeg’s South Osborne neighbourhood sits Oxbow, a locally-focused wine bar featuring globally-inspired shared plates from Chef Sean Bernard and his crew.

We recently visited Chef Bernard to learn more about his Winnipeg-centric concept and how it led Oxbow to be named a Best New Restaurant nationally.

Your dining concept for Oxbow has been affordable fine dining. Explain how you came up with this concept and what was its’ inspiration?

The idea that having a nice meal is only for special occasions never sat right with me. It’s nice having a restaurant my friends can afford to eat at. It also plays a large part in making wine, a large focus of our restaurant, more approachable as well.

When describing your vision of dining, you define it as a sense of place. How have you delivered this vision at The Oxbow?

We try to stay as local and seasonal as possible when making dishes for the menu. Working with Will Bergmann, the South Osborne Permaculture, Jardins St-Léon Gardens and Wild Earth Farms has really solidified within me an idea of where our food comes from and the amount of work that goes into producing it.

It’s a hard learning curve to be able to stock the pantry with all of the goods from Winnipeg farms for the winter but hopefully next year we will be able to accomplish having a restaurant that runs on 100% province produced goods through the whole year. Until then, we try to stay as local as possible and in season.

In 2018, you were a named contender for AC’s Best New Restaurant. What do you believe made you stand out among the other new restaurants?

It was so amazing being nominated for Top 30 New Restaurants in Canada. I still can’t believe we were mentioned alongside so many great Canadian restaurants. We really hit the road running with something to prove. There are so many great restaurants in Winnipeg, you have to really try your hardest to keep up.

What do you think is in Winnipeg’s food scene that makes it unique compared to other more popular destinations like Toronto, Vancouver, etc.?

Winnipeg is a blue-collar city, so I don’t think a lot of the fanciful stuff I see coming out of restaurants in more affluent cities would fly here. We do what we do well and we don’t want to change the Winnipeg food scene.

With the roots of the Oxbow and its offerings natively Manitoban, describe the global inspirations that go into your restaurant dishes.

Spices play such a large role in defining a cuisine, from Herbs de Provence and Togarashi to Za’atar. I love reading and researching about different cultures and techniques used across the globe and trying to imagine how they would taste in non-traditional ways and with Manitoban ingredients.

What roles do spices and seasonings play in your menu selections? Do they change through the year and, if not, which ones have the most staying power in your pantry?

I like using spices that highlight and contrast the flavours of different vegetables. I definitely change the spices I use and how much of them throughout the seasons.

How does the Manitoban climate affect your flavour process and dish choices? 

We have such an amazing climate in Manitoba, our summers are so hot and humid and our winters are the “polar” opposite! In the summer, you need something light, refreshing and simple. In the winter, all I want is a crusty piece of bread and a warm hearty stew.

What are some of your favourite seasonal ingredient offerings and why?

There are so many! Beets and carrots have always been favourites of mine. They’re versatile and humble ingredients that have so much to offer to a dish.

An important aspect of your menu has been affordability for the guests, especially the locals. How do you balance this with the needs and resources required for menu development and ingredient sourcing?

A big focus for the restaurant has always been technique. When you use the right technique, you can take an ingredient and turn it into something really special. You have to put a lot of thought and effort into it to take a tougher cut and make it tender, or to take a simple ingredient and highlight it in unique way. 

What advice would you give a fellow Manitoban looking to pursue a culinary career in their local community?

Talk with the farmers around you and get out to as many local events and farmer’s markets as possible. Farmers feed cities.

What can we see coming to the centre-of-the-plate at The Oxbow in the near future? What is a favourite dish to make you also don’t see yourself adding to the menu in the near future?

Right now, I’m working on a dish with almond milk and a sauce made from burnt bread. My partner recently made a big batch of vegan pho and it has been a dream in this winter! It’s not in the style of Oxbow but it’s an amazing treat to come home to.