By Joelle Kidd
The Canadian Museum for Human Rights holds many distinctions: it is the first national museum outside of Ottawa, as well the first museum in the world to focus entirely on the study and advancement of human rights. It is also part of a new breed of museum that extends its mission to every aspect of the visitor’s experience—even their lunch.
For Era Bistro, the bustling contemporary dining room in the corner of the ground floor, the secret to success has been delivering food as beautiful and socially conscious as the museum itself. Under the direction of Executive Chef Stephen Strecker, local ingredients are transformed into dishes that inspire. In celebration of this, Ciao! Magazine has named Era Bistro the Good Food Manitoba 2017 Restaurant of the Year.
The rules for Era’s sourcing are simple: local, wherever possible, and anything that can’t be grown locally (such as chocolate and coffee beans) must be sustainable and fair trade.
Luckily, Manitoba yields a bountiful harvest of ingredients with which the kitchen can play. The menu is a who’s who of local farms, a cherished a network of suppliers with which chef Steven maintains close contact.
The dedication of restaurants like Era is vital to making local eating the new norm. While small farms love to connect directly with consumers at farmers’ markets, packing product is time consuming, and it is bought in much smaller quantities. Chefs like Steven have the opportunity to bolster business by placing large orders.
The perceived limits to eating local—time intensive preparation, seasonal unavailability, a smaller pool of ingredients to draw from—may seem at odds with the restaurant industry, which values consistency and unlimited choice. Yet these hurdles drive creativity, resulting in a wide ranging, varied menu that capitalizes on what’s good, right now: the line up of dishes changes with the season, and accommodates for the diversity of the museum’s guests (more than half the menu is gluten free and/or vegan).
Traditional techniques like preserving, pickling, freezing, and using all parts of the animal (or vegetable) are taken up with gusto. That’s why you’ll find shelves lined with jars of pickles, and ingredients like beef tongue—the basis for Era’s popular beef chips—on the menu. This kind of cooking can be a way to open diners’ eyes to new possibilities. “I want to change people’s minds with food … take something people would dismiss and transform it,” says Steven.
Extolling the plump rye berries from Tamarack Farms in Erikson, MB, or beef from Carman (“It’s so well marbled it looks like knock off Wagyu!”), chef Steven reinforces the bounty that is right under our noses in Manitoba. “When the farmers do their job, it’s easy to do my job,” he avers. The bright, concentrated flavours of a freshly pulled carrot or a gorgeous ripe tomato are proof enough.
Input from the other chefs in the kitchen is another important part of menu creation. Cooks with culturally diverse backgrounds—Jamaican, Filipino, French—introduce dishes and techniques from their heritage, along with creative new ideas. Everyone from sous chef to line cook is encouraged to chime in.
Chef Steven intentionally defies the image of the snappy, domineering chef. He is humble, explaining his kitchen philosophy with an earnest passion, and lights up when he talks about his staff. He acts as mentor to students passing through the restaurant, both as part of the RRC co-op program and the LEGO program, which connects struggling teenagers with restaurant work.
It was as a high school student in Beausejour, Manitoba, that Steven began cooking as part of a co-op program to earn extra credit. Under the tutelage of chef Peter Kubaluk, he not only learned chef skills but adopted a new philosophy of food. Seeing the diversity of the kitchen staff, and how people from wildly varied backgrounds could come together to create something delicious, inspired him. The kitchen was the great equalizer, a way to create a community.
After graduating, Steven moved to Winnipeg and completed the Red River College culinary program, with a three year apprenticeship under chef Roger Wilton at Centerplate (Bell MTS Place), then became Head Chef at the Dandelion Eatery.
“I made the common mistake of a new chef—I dove in too fast,” he admits. Soon he was running ragged with 90 hour work weeks. Feeling burnt out, he quit and took a brief soul-searching trip to Ontario. On the flight back to Winnipeg that he saw an ad for the Inn at the Forks and decided to apply to work there.
Steven worked his way up through the ranks at The Current under chef Barry Saunders. When the restaurant space at the CMHR was announced, Steven accompanied Barry to make the concept presentation for the restaurant. They were chosen, and Steven became his sous chef. When chef Barry was tapped to go back to Inn at the Forks restaurant, Smith, Steven took on the mantle of Executive Chef.
With this role comes the responsibility of sourcing that fits into the mandate for local and fair trade ingredients. A member of Fair Trade Manitoba, Steven is passionate about this goal. Changing the food industry is a Herculean task, but Steven is eager to take on even small steps.
Era Bistro proves that food can be a statement, that the choices we make about what we eat matter. And the team behind it all continues, happily, to keep making their corner of the world better one plate at a time.