Fiesty on Ice
Chef Mandel Hitzer of deer + almond harnesses free spirited energy into border-crossing tastes and boundary-pushing culinary adventures.
By Arvel Gray
“I fell in love with flavours at the age of nine,” Mandel Hitzer says. He fondly remembers his grandmother and mother filling the kitchen with the intoxicating aromas of bread baking, roast beef, and Yorkshire pudding. By the time he was a teenager Mandel was cooking for his four siblings, smitten with the pleasure of creating good, simple food.
That childhood passion is now at play at deer + almond, a 68-seat restaurant in the heart of Winnipeg’s Exchange District, where seven days a week chef Hitzer serves up tapas-style dishes that challenge culinary convention with a clever mix of global styles and ingredients.
The ‘almond’ in the restaurant’s name is the German translation for Mandel. The deer is a symbol of nature’s elegance, a description that applies to his menu as well as the sleek and inviting decor. Thick wooden slabs for tables and a scattering of antlers pair with potted plants and modern art. There’s sparkle from polished barware and suspended filament bulbs, glittering like frost in a forest.
“Sharing food is a tradition that is replicated in every culture around the world,” says Hitzer, whose strong sense of the global community seeps into his menu planning: he’ll pair rabbit ragout with herb gnocchi, Manitoba pickerel with Hungarian sausage, and Alberta lamb with pumpkin curry, coconut and bamboo shoots. While trying to source as much local and national produce as possible, Hitzer also leans on the palates of Asian cuisines, where clean, pure flavours hold sway on the dinner plate.
The self-taught chef began working at the age of fourteen at Bridgeport at The Forks, where everything in the kitchen was produced from scratch. Further career moves led him to the kitchens at Step’n Out and Gluttons, where he honed his craft and galvanized his food philosophy: fusion food with clean, distinct flavours, created with love. This credo can be spied in Hitzer’s dishes, like fettuccine infused with fresh tarragon and topped with puttanesca sauce and Manchego cheese. “It’s salty, briny, garlicky and spicy all at once,” he says.
After a stint at Fresh Café on Corydon, Hitzer hit a roadblock, unsure if he wanted to continue in the industry. Indecision led him to San Francisco, where he wandered into the Mission Chinese Food restaurant. Here, food was not just being produced for the masses; it was a religious experience, prepared lovingly, adored and adorned. His fire was rekindled and he returned to Winnipeg to open deer + almond.
““I want to unite people and build a culinary community in this city.”
In the last two and a half years, Hitzer has played the role of culinary anchor and renegade, a driving force in the city to use food as common ground and a diving board into the unknown. Part savvy businessman and part visionary, Hitzer was one of the first to introduce pop-ups to the city: spontaneous, experimental eating adventures marketed through crowd sourcing and social media.
Winnipeg’s appetite for pop-ups spawned RAW:almond, a short-term dining experience conceived in 2013 by Hitzer and his friend Joe Kalturnyk, director of RAW: Gallery in the Exchange. The three week annual event features North American guest chefs who execute a five course tasting menu with wine and spirit pairings. This year, Hitzer will cook with a dozen colleagues like Dale MacKay, winner of Top Chef Canada’s first season, and Emma Cardarelli of Nora Gray in Montreal, who is noted for Italian fare that showcases local, seasonal ingredients. Also on hand this year: Mandel’s former mentor from Gluttons, Mokoto Ono, who took gold at the first Canadian Culinary Championships in 2006, and has since gone on from Winnipeg to open restaurants in Beijing and Vancouver.
RAW:almond, which is expected to serve more than a thousand dinner guests, is erected at the frozen mouth of the Assiniboine and Red River. Tarp and scaffolding shelter a 30-seat communal table and tasting bar, designed by UK architects OS31, who won a juried contest to create the 2015 designer digs.
For the last two years, Hitzer has also participated in a massive catering gig at the Rainbow Trout Music Festival near St Malo, where his kiosk served vegetarian fare, barbequed chicken skewers, and smoked trout salad. “We closed deer + almond and the whole staff worked there,” he says.
Last May, he was part of the creative genius behind Table for 1200, one continuous 1200 foot long dining table on the Esplanade Riel pedestrian bridge. Tickets were purchased in advance, but eager diners—who were asked to bring their own chair—were given only a few hours notice about the location prior to dinner.
This nomadic, spur of the moment energy is evident in everything he does. There is vibrancy in his food and his life’s mission. “I want to unite people and build a culinary community in this city,” he says.
At 31, this culinary adventure junkie seems more old soul than whiz kid, bringing customers a satisfying plate of food that goes beyond pleasing the palate. It would seem Mandel Hitzer has learned at a young age that following your passion can create joy (and a whole lot of fun!) for an entire city.