Words: Chelsea Parkinson / Photos: Janine Kropla
You might not expect someone who works in one of the most hectic industries to be an extremely calming presence. Charged with bringing comfort and satisfaction to people’s mouths and bellies, and standing at the helm of the crew that has to do it, the head chef of a restaurant needs to know how to communicate effectively and efficiently. But, when we sat down with Jesse Friesen, the head chef at Lobby on York, we were in for a thoughtful, slow kind of communication. A good meal is a treat for the soul just as much as the taste buds, and Jesse’s food, as well as his words, both deliver just that.&nbsp;
Muddy Water: Let’s drive right in; this is a pretty big week for you. How are you doing?
Jesse Friesen: Good, good. Kind of getting sick, which is bad timing with RAW: almond this weekend and Valentine’s Day coming up next week. But I’ll manage.
MW: You’re no stranger to pressure, hey? How many people do you cook for here?
JF: A night like Valentine’s we’ll probably serve about two hundred and seventy people. That’s pretty average here.
MW: How many will you be serving on the river?
JF: I did the tasting bar last week, which is ten people at a time, and you do three seatings of that. The dining room where I’ll be serving on Sunday is thirty, and there are three seatings of that.
MW: No big deal to you.
JF: No biggie. I’ve worked at smaller places, too, like Bonfire Bistro, and so the pace will be a bit more like that I think. When I was on the river doing the tasting bar I was so impressed with the vibes. I didn’t know what to expect and it was just so much fun. It was no pressure. It was relaxing and fun and calm.
MW: How did you get involved with RAW: almond?
JF: I know Mandel. We took a walk together after both doing a panel discussion at Red River a while back, and it just came up in that walk and that conversation that I could be one of the chefs. It’s a great thing to get to do.
MW: Did you go to Red River?
JF: Yep, graduated in 2009. I go back every so often to talk to the culinary students. A lot of them have no idea what they’re getting into. It’s not always that glamorous of a job, especially when you’re first starting. And they need to know about all of that, to make sure they know that they really want it.
MW: Where was your first job in the industry?
JF: I’ve actually never worked anywhere but in a restaurant. I worked at Mona Lisa in the dish pit when I was thirteen. I started working there because my teacher’s husband owned it and I needed money for this school trip to Quebec that everyone was going on. So they were nice for giving me the job so I could earn money to go on the trip. Oh, I actually started out busing tables, but I moved to the kitchen to do dishes because it seemed more exciting to me.
MW: Do you remember what intrigued you about the kitchen?
JF: I liked the pace. And I like the family dynamic that goes on in a kitchen. You all stick together. I liked seeing what a respectful environment they had going on there, and then they made this beautiful thing, this food, together. I’d spend all my tips eating food there because I wanted to try everything, and I was hooked. Never wanted to work anywhere but a restaurant.
MW: You knew so young, then, that this is the life and the career you wanted. That’s pretty incredible.
JF: I honestly just don’t know how to do anything else…I know how to, kind of, build stuff around my house, but no. I’d be helpless without this.
MW: How would you describe your style and your tastes in terms of what you serve?
JF: Asian cuisine is definitely a big influence. Big and bold flavors from India, from the southern U.S. and northern Mexico. I love all of that and those are all big influences on what I serve.
MW: What kind of menu did you plan out for RAW: almond?
JF: The tasting menu I did was a tip of the hat to our province, to Manitoba. We did one dish that was to Mennonite heritage, another to Aboriginal heritage. Then, for the bigger dinner on Sunday, it’s more Asian-influenced but using Manitoba products. The pork belly is Manitoba Berkshire. The lamb is local too. Making the menu, though, you do have certain things to think about. You’re thinking about where these people are, and what time of year it is. You don’t want to be serving people, say, a salad. You want to give them something hearty that will make them feel warm and comforted out there.
MW: Do you cook well for yourself at home? I can imagine that, as a chef, it could go either way. You could keep it up at home, or just be so tired of cooking that it’s the last thing you want to do when you’re done work.
JF: I do try to cook at home for myself at least twice a week, but a lot of the time I just eat here cause I’m usually here for twelve hours a day, at least. Sometimes way more.
MW: Twelve hours a day…how many days a week?
JF: I’ve been doing 6 days a week lately. Sixty-five-ish hours a week right now. But in the busier times of the year it’s more like eighty hours a week.
MW: That’s like, having two, very busy, full-time jobs.
MW: So, even though you’re so busy, you could not say no to the opportunity to cook on the river, hey?
JF: No, you don’t say no to that. It’s totally unique and it’s totally crazy and that’s what’s so great about it.
MW: Can you outline some of the challenges of cooking in a tent on a frozen river?
JF: You don’t have a full kitchen, but I was surprised, pleasantly, at how well equipped they are down there. And it’s just going to get better every year. There’s a six-top burner stove and the gas for that went out a few times throughout the night, which means running out of the tent to refill it. And then food freezing is a problem, obviously. The oysters that I had were in a fridge, but if I had left them out they would have frozen. We were making a hollandaise for one dish and would have kept replenishing one batch for each seating, but out there it just turned to ice cream, basically. Had to start fresh each time.
MW: Then, on the flip side, what are the perks?
JF: For me the perk is that it’s just fun. It’s just a blast. A big party. Mandel is such a great host and he knows how to make sure that everyone from the guests who are eating to the servers to the people in the kitchen is having a good time. And it’s all for charity, so you feel extra good.
MW: Is Mandel still camping out every night?
JF: Yeah. So when you buy a ticket for the dinner, some of it goes to just the costs, buying the food, building the tent, all the stuff that just requires money to get done, so the dinner can happen. And then whatever is left over, which would be a profit, all goes to charity. Plus there are donations.
MW: Did you know much about the set up beforehand, and what you were getting yourself into?
JF: Almost nothing. When I went for the first time I actually missed it! Went right past it. It’s white and it just looms up like a snowdrift. It’s really neat. Then when I went in I was blown away. The different coloured lights are great. Mandel comes in and kills the lights and just puts on a wacky light show for kicks.
MW: And, like you said, for as long as it continues it’s just going to get better and better.
JF: Yeah. I know that next year is a go. Mandel’s been pretty busy, you know. Just got married. Sleeping in a tent on the river. He’s insane.
MW: Right. I guess we’ll maybe give him a couple weeks to thaw before we start asking about next year. Is it the coolest thing you’ve done in your career?
JF: This will be one of the coolest things I’ve done in life! No, but, yeah, kind of. It’s such a great thing for the community, too. Winnipeg is a city that has a lot of good and a lot of bad, and this is something that just feels like pure good. We have such a bad rap in so many ways, and then this is something that highlights that but kind of turns all of that around. It highlights the problems, because the charities Mandel has chosen are all very focused on community outreach, and then it also combats our reputation as being just a boring, cold, ugly city. It brings people together at one long table, on the river, for some food and wine, and it all goes towards a good cause. It’s so special.
Fast forward a few days and we’re with Jesse, on the river, as he serves one delicious course after another to diners clad in toques and scarves and smiles. The energy is exactly what Jesse promised. Mandel is teaching a guest how to saber a cork off a wine bottle, while servers are bustling in and out of the tiny kitchen, and the chefs are spinning about in an organized frenzy. But everyone—from host, to guest, to server, to chef, to visiting magazine gals—has a grin for each other. I ask Jesse, when it’s all over, how he feels. He wipes his hands on a cloth and raises his shoulders along with the corners of his mouth. “It was great. This is just the best. I feel so lucky.”