Tiny Kitchen, Big Ambition
Chef Dustin Pajak of Close Company does big things in close quarters.
By Jessie Schmidtke
“It feels massive now,” jokes Chef Dustin Pajak, stretching his legs out in the 330 square foot River Heights restaurant where he’s been chefing for more than three years. Close Company may be the tiniest restaurant in the city, but Pajak’s talent and ambitious menu carry big intentions. He’s redefining what a neighbourhood restaurant can be.
When the spaced that housed a barber shop for more than 60 years became available, owners Cam Chabot and Tammie Rocke envisioned a cool spot to grab coffee and cocktails, something lacking in the area at the time. Rocke, an interior designer whose touch can be seen at trendy eateries across the city, put her skills to work, adding industrial elements and even lodging a ship porthole in the wall to make the most of their cozy 12-seat space.
Candles flicker on dark soapstone surfaces and music gently plays, setting the mood; a little bit soul, a little bit rock and roll. Pajak is a true multi-talented chef, seamlessly transitioning from DJ to mixologist, server to dishwasher, all in one night. His days start early, receiving deliveries from farmers and picking up ingredients from the neighbourhood suppliers before his guests start to arrive. Seeing the reaction of everyone relishing the first bite of his food makes long days in the kitchen worth it. “People always say we should move to something bigger, but then we’d lose the magic.”
Navigating a kitchen with just a single burner and one-pan oven presents a daily challenge for the chef, one he embraces wholeheartedly: he swears that it spurs creativity, and in some cases, even improves quality. A lot of planning goes into everything – because it has to. Searing, a go-to technique for chefs, can’t be executed because it would smoke out the restaurant, and there are days when up to nine sauces need to be made, some taking up to an hour each. But limitations present opportunities; Pajak taps into lesser-used techniques to craft imaginative dishes, such as the French method mi-cuit for broiling scallops.
“People always say we should move into something bigger, but then we’d lose the magic.”
Like many Winnipeg chefs, Pajak graduated from the Culinary Arts program at Red River College, but it was at Lobby on York, brushing shoulders with acclaimed chefs, where he really got hooked on fine dining. “It was really cutthroat and amazing,” he says, reminiscing about the exhilarating and talent-filled atmosphere.
There, he worked his way up to chef de cuisine before switching gears, completely immersing himself in Italian cooking at Brooklynn’s Bistro and Teo’s. For five years, he learned from family cook and Nonna, Elena Colosimo. “Italians are the best at repurposing things,” Pajak says, explaining that she taught him how to be resourceful, canning his own tomatoes, pickling and finding a way to maximize the value of every ingredient coming through the door. “You can do almost anything from scratch.”
Back in the day, restaurants would cut ingredients into perfect cubes and toss the rest away, but with prices (and waste) rising, it’s not sustainable. At Close Co., dishes are prepared with top notch ingredients (a single sea scallop can cost upwards of $3) but Pajak manages to keep costs down with his renaissance-man mentality. Mushroom stems are dehydrated and powdered to add rich flavour to sauces, anything that can be turned into vinegar is, and herbs grown on the patio are ground into a house seasoning.
Since guests are able to order the whole menu for $107, every dish is meticulously designed to work together in a specific progression. “You want a tasting menu to be like a roller coaster,” Pajak states, pointing out that there is no repetition of ingredients, keeping diners on the edge of their seats for each flavour that rolls out.
He’s obsessed with tartar, crudo and anything torched, showcasing exquisite preparation and always letting the star ingredient shine. Sometimes, simplicity is key. When asked if he ever feels like an artiste as he delicately dresses a towering mushroom pintxo with petals, he laughs. “I try not to let it go to my head.” Though ambitious, his food is approachable for those who consider fine dining uncharted waters, yet exciting for seasoned palates. His rule: 50% adventurous, 50% familiar or relateable.
Close Company offers a distinctly different experience in this city’s exploding restaurant scene. “We love Winnipeg, but we want to play on a global scale,” Pajak says. In New York and Toronto, spaces are inherently smaller, packed on street corners, in basements and second floor walk-ups – a concept this tiny neighbourhood locale embraces thoroughly.
There’s something magnetic about sharing close quarters with total strangers who may not be strangers by the end of the night, like a party you accidentally walked in on. With Chef Dustin playing host, you know it’s going to be a good one.