Secrets Of The Sauce
The city’s toniest steakhouse shows us how a dedication to quality ingredients and detailed preparation keep the classics fresh
By Joelle Kidd
Behind the hiss of searing meat and the sounds of knives chopping, the kitchen at 529 Wellington moves like a wound clock, each small part turning perfectly to keep things running smoothly. Since opening more than a decade ago, the steakhouse has held a consistent place on lists of Winnipeg’s best restaurants—most recently on USA Today and The Huffington Post—no small accomplishment in the lightning-fast world of food fads. Executive chef Fraser MacLeod, who has been with 529 from the beginning, knows first hand that this is more than a stroke of good luck. The restaurant has become the city’s standard for excellence for premium steakhouses with its dedication to consistency.
“That’s a very challenging goal,” says MacLeod, of reliability and consistency. These very things are what 529 Wellington has always strived for: top quality ingredients, prepared clean and simple. The restaurant is built on the cornerstone of customer expectations—and those expectations are high. There is little margin for error, and the standard must be constantly met. “It’s a bit like theatre,” MacLeod explains. “You have to perform, put on the same show flawlessly, night after night.”
It also requires intricate systems, which MacLeod sets up with gusto. With 25 staff running a 150 seat restaurant (plus 40 seats on the patio), communication is key. Weekly meetings keep everyone on the same page and ideas fresh, while protocols for opening, closing, setting up the kitchen, and cooking ensure all the details are covered. Fraser notes that this organization is “almost down to a science” after so many years, but the good-natured chef is still flexible, gamely treating challenges and setbacks with a “we can do it” attitude. Maintaining an infectious joy and a calm presence, MacLeod is ready to play but not afraid to get down to work. His mentor-like leadership style comes from understanding that each person is a valuable part of the team. “If someone’s off, then everyone’s off,” MacLeod notes; each person has an integral job to do, “from the person peeling potatoes to the person washing dishes.”
“If someone’s off, everyone’s off … from the person peeling potatoes to the person washing dishes.”
MacLeod himself worked his way up the culinary ladder, working under Michael Dacquisto at Green Gates (now Gates on Roblin) while he put himself through school. When 529 Wellington opened, MacLeod followed Dacquisto there.
Now, as the executive chef, MacLeod’s intimate knowledge of ingredients and relationships with suppliers is clear. Working to secure the best product at the right time is another important element of consistency; with such simple dishes, flavours have to be perfect. MacLeod sings the praises of local Greenland Gardens’ juicy red tomatoes, but points out their short growing season. In colder months, MacLeod buys from US and Mexico suppliers who uphold the same standards his customers have come to expect. Loyalty and a close relationship with his butcher help ensure this dependability in 529’s specialty—beautiful cuts of meat. All meat must be aged before it hits the grill and MacLeod only chooses cuts he believes are excellent, even if it means cutting profit margin.
After all, a good steak, at whatever the cost, is what it’s all about at this meat mansion. Waiters, making an event out of showing the alluringly marbled cuts on white platters, whisk from one table to another with their “tour of beef”: ribsteak, porterhouse, and filets all displayed with pride. The other ingredient to steakhouse bliss, great gravies—bearnaise, hollandaise, cognac peppercorn, marrow, and rossini—turn premium slabs of meat into masterpiece meals domestic barbequeing can never quite replicate.
While this menu has changed very little in 13 years, the place is anything but stagnant. Modern additions to the menu can be spied in items like black cod with mirin butter sauce, and unique daily specials which allow Fraser to flex his creative muscles. As tried-and-true mixes with imagination, the restaurant continues to grow.
MacLeod points out that 529 has always catered to customer preferences and needs. “We’re undermining this idea of a steakhouse as a place where you can only get a big, heavy, chunk of meat,” he says. Carnivorous hankerings can now be satisfied in lighter ways, with manageable portions and sumptuous sauces. With meatlovers more conscientious about eating their veggies, salads have an important place on the menu. Subtle shifts like these keep 529 Wellington on the pulse of Winnipeg’s ever-changing dining scene, while still staying the course.
At a time when dining out at food trucks and pop ups is trending, its comforting to see gold standard setting companies reap rewards for taking their risks everyday. Whether serving choice cuts to celebrities entering through the kitchen or high school students in kilts ordering take out burgers at the front door, the kitchen works with the self-assuredness of seasoned performers, a well-choreographed dance in which everyone—from servers to chefs to dishwashers—moves in step.