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All Chefs

Adam Donnelly – Segovia

A Lesson In Less

Chef Adam Donnelly of Segovia’s masterful dishes deliver
more than meets the eye

By Jen Zoratti

When Chef Adam Donnelly and his wife/business partner Carolina Konrad opened Segovia Tapas Bar and Restaurant in December 2009, they knew they were taking a risk. Donnelly had never been a head chef, and he and Konrad were first-time restaurateurs. Not only that, the pair’s vision, a Spanish-style tapas-only restaurant, was new to Winnipeg.

“It was pretty nerve-racking,” Donnelly recalls with a laugh. It’s late afternoon and Segovia’s open kitchen is bustling with dinner prep. “We did it by the seat of our pants. We dove in, we were busy, and we stayed busy.”

The city’s response defied the couple’s scepticism and their Osborne Village hot spot is now a perennial fixture on Best Restaurant lists by a host of publications, including this one; Segovia was Ciao!’s best new resto of 2010. Just last fall, Maclean’s ranked it among the Top 50 in Canada. It’s not just the critics who are raving. The intimate space is consistently packed with diners lucky enough to score a table.

It’s the kind of elusive, white-hot buzz most new restaurateurs only dream of. Segovia certainly isn’t short on It factor, from its industrial-chic space in a trendy neighbourhood to its young, tattooed chef and precedent-setting no reservations policy, a common practice in Spanish tapas bars. Still, Donnelly, 30, knows that buzz is fickle and momentum must be maintained if your hot new restaurant is to remain sizzling. Accolades feed Donnelly’s drive more than his ego. The tremendous amount of self-imposed pressure to surpass lofty expectations of others has resulted in a smart, ever-evolving menu that continues to surprise. His minimalist presentation sets the pace for creativity in the city’s culinary scene. Adam is a chef’s chef, respected in the community for both his prowess and humility. (It helps, too, that he’s also possibly the nicest guy in Winnipeg.)

Indeed, Donnelly’s emphasis on simplicity and flavour goes a long way in explaining his restaurant’s magnetic appeal. Most of his dishes use just four ingredients. At Segovia, the wow-factor happens in the mouth, not on the plate. It’s a culinary sleight of hand that can be chalked up to skill he’s refined over the past three and a half years. As Adam says, “we can’t hide behind anything.”

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“We can’t hide behind anything”
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Donnelly draws inspiration from old world and new. Lately, he’s been looking beyond the borders of Spain on the nueva cocina, or ‘new cooking’ menu, introducing the flavours of the Middle East through ingredients such as chermoula, a marinade for seafood, and pine nuts. Both appear in the sea bream dish featured on these pages.

While many of his peers are playing with pork belly presentations, Adam has moved on to pork neck. “It shows skill in the kitchen,” he says of his nose-to-tail ethos. “Anyone can cook a beef filet and it’ll taste great.” Donnelly favours Nagano Pork, raised in Quebec and originally cultivated for Japanese chefs, for its tenderness. He raves about tomatoes from Greenland Gardens. All his favourite ingredients are prized for flavour.

With such ingenuity on display in the kitchen, it’s hard to believe the Pinawa native didn’t grow up wanting to be a chef. “I never cooked anything,” he admits with a laugh. A passion for travel intersected with a burgeoning interest in food and he enrolled in Red River College’s culinary arts program, graduating in 2005. After stints at Winnipeg fine-dining stalwarts Amici and Sydney’s, Donnelly packed his bags and refined his skills in kitchens from Melbourne to London. It was a gig at London’s award-winning Dehesa Charcuterie & Tapas Bar that left the biggest impression and would serve as inspiration. Carolina’s parents secured Segovia’s current home while Adam and Carolina were in the U.K. and the pair began dreaming of opening their own Spanish tapas bar in the space. The couple went on a six-week soujourn through Spain before returning to Winnipeg, excited and focused.

Theirs is a partnership that many artists would covet. “I get to dream and cook while she keeps the place running,” Donnelly says fondly of his wife, who handles front-of-house duties. “(Segovia) wouldn’t be here if she wasn’t here.” Although the pair has put down roots in Winnipeg, recently buying a house in Wolseley, travel remains a priority. Segovia closes for 10 days every February so Donnelly can gain experience in kitchens abroad. This past winter, he worked at New York City’s Torrisi, a Lower East Side haunt specializing in traditional Italian cuisine.

Opportunities at home have also inspired him. Adam was one of the chefs who took part in last winter’s groundbreaking river pop-up. Not surprisingly, he enjoys working with innovative chefs.

For his part, Donnelly’s ambitions are in the kitchen. There are no plans for a second location. His business goal, like the food he serves, is simple. “Stay open and stay full.”

Note: Segovia closed in May 2020