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Getting Down to the RAW Roots of Winnipeg Cuisine

April 24 2019

In 2013, during the coldest month recorded for Winnipeg that year, Chef Mandel Hitzer and his partner created a temporary tasting venue atop a frozen river, a first of its kind. Six years later, same pop-up RAW: almond continues to bring celebrity chefs and hungry guests from across Canada to Manitoba on an annual basis. Meanwhile, restaurant deer + almond continues to feed the hunger needs of Winnipeg’s citizens and guests year-round.

We spoke with Chef Hitzer to learn more about both concepts and his community-orientated desires not only for his legacy, but also for the city as a whole.

Since its conception in 2012, deer + almond has ranked as one of Winnipeg’s top restaurants. What would you personally credit most to its greatness? 

I think a big thing that I've been a part of in this city is building community and bringing people together, one of my secret talents.

We at deer + almond are also at the forefront of doing a lot within the community, everything from charity work to having a voice and responsibility. These are the foundations of the restaurant. It's not just me making fancy food. The idea is to give people sustenance and we have the responsibility of taking care of the community that we're a part of.

What have been the biggest changes in the concept or menu since the restaurant opened, and how have your influences or inspirations for the restaurant changed?

I think the biggest challenge when we started the restaurant was that I was cooking for myself and what I thought should be going onto the plates and tables. I realized very quickly that I had to really pay attention to what people wanted and change the restaurant to adapt and grow with the clientele that we serve.

For example, when we opened the restaurant, we focused on tasting menus and now it's very much a family-style, shared plate, comfort food inspired concept.

How do you continue to evolve your cooking style and find inspiration?

Winnipeg is a cultural melting pot. There are literally different ethnicities from all over the world so there are really fantastic restaurants here. I frequent those restaurants and become inspired by those cuisines. Part of what we do here at deer + almond is actively having no real box that defines our style. When we're cooking, we don't set any limitations on our food, and are often inspired by global cuisines.

You recently held RAW: almond 2019, a yearly fine dining pop-up, with Chefs Jeremy Charles, Misti Norris, Scott Vivian, Jesse Friesen and many others. Describe the inspiration for this pop-up and some of the most memorable moments/dishes to date.

Before deer + almond opened up, I was a lost chef trying to make my way in the industry and it took me a lot of time and courage to jump off and start doing things on my own. I started off by doing pop-up restaurants with a friend of mine, Sarah Smith. We worked to revive the word pop-up. It had lied dormant for a very long time here in Winnipeg. So, we brought it back to life by taking over rooftops, other restaurants and art galleries.

After opening deer + almond, it just so happened that my partner for RAW: almond was doing pop-ups at art galleries. Somebody introduced us, we went on a whim and opened a temporary restaurant on a frozen river. Since then, it has grown and we work really hard to continually build the culinary community in Winnipeg and in Canada. We do this by getting people to meet each other, talk and share their passion and love for food.

One of the most iconic memories was when Chef Vikram Vij came here and cooked for us. At the time, he’d been on Dragon's Den; and we became friends while he was with us, it was really cool. We hung out and I had the opportunity to show him my city. He then led a tour of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, which was being built at the time. The opportunity allowed me to learn about his life story, trials and tribulations. Meanwhile, he provided me with advice on life and restaurants. His best tip was, "never stop answering the community. If people ask you to do things like charity work, say yes."

Share your approach to ingredients when it comes to planning and executing RAW: almond.

For me, RAW: almond is always an opportunity to expand my horizons. I've done menus that are very Canadian-influenced because I'm from Canada and proud of where I am from. That involved using fish from coast-to-coast.

This past year, I've done something I'd never done before where I completely focused on Manitoban ingredients. I was inspired by the seasons, the time and place in which we are and limiting myself to only use the bounty from this land.

Last summer, I spent roughly thirty hours per week foraging and gathering ingredients; everything from teas to wild berries, blueberries, mushrooms. Learning how to preserve and carry these ingredients into the winter months was a big education opportunity for me.

Which cooking techniques have you picked up and introduced to your kitchen staff at deer + almond?

When we opened the restaurant, we'd decided to start a bread program. It's easy to buy hamburger buns or bread from local bakeries but we chose to take on the challenges of learning how to make it ourselves.

We then set up really simple systems for other foods, everything from curing, smoking our own meats and fermenting our own vegetables. We're constantly learning new techniques and finding systems to make them work for the restaurant. It doesn't seem like a lot when you look at a menu and read the ingredients but it's about the hours and dedication that go into that.

What dish would you love to serve that won’t be seen on the menu anytime soon?

I'd like to do more with really simple vegetable dishes, but that just might not sell. I love kohlrabi; it's a root vegetable that's really healthy for you. 

deer + almond and RAW: almond have helped put Winnipeg’s food scene on the map. Where do you hope to see it go in the next 5 years?

Personally, I'd like to see fewer chains and more family-run restaurants. I know it's hard to do, it's a labour of love but I think that would be really sweet. 

What do you believe it would take for Winnipeg to be the next great culinary destination?

I think it's already happening. What will get Winnipeg to that level is people coming here and giving us a shot. Come whether it's in the winter for Festival du Voyageur, RAW: almond, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights or come in the summer and see what we have to offer as an adventure destination.