A Moveable Feast
Ciao! magazine’s annual award for restaurant of the year celebrates the creative use of and dedication to regional ingredients.
By Joelle Kidd
Have food; will travel. This could easily be the calling card of Diversity Food Services. This band of mobile mavericks has served fresh fare in school cafeterias, banquet halls, fields of dairy farms, even on top of frozen rivers and on the Esplanade Riel bridge, all with exceptional quality and creativity. Above all, it is the commitment to spreading the word about regional sustainability that earns Diversity the 2015 Good Food Manitoba award.
It all began in 2009, with the University of Winnipeg. The administration had dared to imagine a campus replete with fresh, made-from-scratch local food, and chef Ben Kramer was brought on to make this vision a reality.
The strategy was simple: win people over with taste. Using the best local ingredients and preparing them well proved to be the deceptively simple key to University food service. Sourcing locally and organically, fighting for the environment, delivering massive amounts of food, and doing it all on a budget was, as Kramer jokes, “taking on everything difficult about the restaurant industry, and doing it all at once.” Going against the grain of institutionalized cooking has proved to have its perks; with control over every item leaving the kitchen, chefs are able to cater to any demographic or dietary need.
Today, three campus locations dish out hot meals and snacks, and Elements, a full service restaurant open to the public as well as students, adds table service to the school’s dining options. Diversity’s operations have expanded to catering events all over the city, from coffee-and-muffin corporate meetings to white-napkin affairs, managing Fort Whyte Alive’s Buffalo Stone Café, and launching a line of take-away, deli style eats, available at Vita Health locations and Crampton’s Market.
Kramer’s role has evolved into that of a mentor. Bright young chefs Aron Epp (chef de cuisine at Elements) and Kelly Cattani (who has taken the mantle at Buffalo Stone Café) are in the trenches executing the company’s vision daily, while Kramer manages menus and projects.
High-profile gigs like RAW:almond and annual fundraisers like Grazing in the Field and 100 Mile Dinner have provided the opportunity to propagate eating local, winning hearts by filling stomachs. In 2014, Diversity provided food for festival-goers and backstage for performers at the Winnipeg Folk Festival. It went so well, Kramer signed a five year contract with the fest.
“Our core values don’t change … whether we’re serving fine dining or a cafeteria burger.”
This sense of fun and community spirit is a by-product of the same force that provides the drive for sustainable food: love of the land. Though the company may have grown, the same philosophy informs each new venture. “Our core values don’t change,” Kramer notes, “whether we’re serving fine dining or a cafeteria burger.”
Diversity has excelled in taking this idealistic, scratch-made cooking style and scaling it up. Chefs like Cattani, who won the prestigious Gold Medal Plates competition in 2013, apply experience as well as creativity to the task. The respect for the craft that these taste-chasers share keeps them passionate while serving large crowds.
They also enjoy a challenge. Last year Kramer’s goal was not to use a single out-of-season tomato at Elements. In an industry where consistency is prized, importing veggies from afar is standard, but a localvore directive prevents such a plan. Instead, summer was spent canning, freezing, and preserving, and ripe Manitoba tomatoes became flavourful condiments all year long. Such limitations lead to creative problem solving; rather than slide a slice of fresh tomato onto a burger patty, Kramer explains, “We have to ask, ‘what’s that tomato for?’ Flavour, moisture, offsetting the meat with some acidity – and then figure out what else can do that job.” In the end, the burger wore a dollop of rich red tomato chutney.
Buying locally and seasonally can be limiting, but the company has also had a hand in widening ingredient availability, as its large scale allows local producers to take a chance on guaranteed demand. Searching for fresh new finds has led to some boundary-pushing meals. The Folk Fest menu this year, for instance, includes protein bars and a chutney made from crickets. The bug (which, we’re told, tastes like a sunflower seed) is efficient to produce and packs a powerful protein punch.
Such wild ideas speak to the passion that all the chefs of Diversity share. Watching Kramer, Cattani, and Epp pinch purple leaves of orach – ‘mountain spinach’, a leafy, nutritionally dense heritage plant – during a morning photoshoot at Riverview Community Garden, it is evident that connecting to food’s origins brings pure joy. Taste reigns, and makes satisfied customers willing to hear why local eggs’ rich orange yolks or the oft-tossed tops of radishes are so surprisingly delicious.
“We want people to bite in and say, ‘why does this taste so good?’” says Kramer. Hemingway was on to something when he called Paris a moveable feast – like a beautiful city, a good meal stays alive in the memory, no matter where it’s served. Food fresh from the land, prepared well, will always be delicious.