Travelogue: Hard Living in the Red River Valley — & Dinner on a Frozen River
In which Richie Nakano discovers the true meaning of camaraderie in the cold.
April 8, 2016
I’m being detained in Canadian customs inside the Winnipeg Airport.
I’m here for Raw:almond, a 21-day long pop up on a frozen river in the dead of Canadian winter. The customs agent is friendly, making boring jokes about Portlandia and how we’re obviously hipsters or something. She knows about Raw:almond, and while she thinks its great we’re coming to cook in Winnipeg, it’s been made clear that we will need relatively expensive work visas.
The agent calls me to her desk.
“Mr. Nakano. Have you ever been arrested? Like, in handcuffs in the back of a police car?”
My pulse quickens, and I smile. 480 Canadians bought tickets to eat my food many months prior, and I’m 99% sure I’m about to board a plane back to San Francisco.
Winnipeg is cold. Bitterly cold. So cold that anytime you step outside, your breath leaps from your chest and you let out a feeble cough as your entire body contracts. People say it’s colder than Mars, and all I can think is that I have just as many reasons to visit the Red Planet as I do Manitoba.
The landscape is bleak and low slung; a sprawl of strip malls and snow drifts and old buildings dusty with salt and sand. Driving at night lends a post-apocalyptic feel to the place. It’s a fathomless dark, with few cars and even fewer pedestrians. On this night, a light layer of snow covers the ground, and the only sign of life is a long line of cars at a lone McDonalds.
Joe, the architectural genius behind the annual Raw:almond design, picks us up in a dusty minivan with muddy carpets, carting a giant plastic bin with jackets, blankets and scarves. We rumble across a bridge, then veer to the right, up a snowy hill. Suddenly, there it is, rising up before us — Raw:almond, a beautiful arrangement of steel pipes and artfully-lit white tarps, simple and striking. Walking through the entryway feels like stepping onto the set of a sci-fi movie, and then there are drinks and hugs and bites of foie gras and we are being serenaded. The mood is electric. Coupled with the extreme weather, it’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.
The next morning, we arrive at deer + almond, home base for prep, food, coffee, and drinks. This place — part coffee shop, part art gallery, part high-end restaurant, part Burning Man camp — is regarded as one of the best restaurants in Canada, thanks in large part to Chef and madman in charge, Mandel Hitzer. I’m met by Native Winnipeg son and seasoned Raw:almond chef Ryan Lachaine, who promptly hands me nasal spray, Chapstick and snow boots, followed by a bag full of brand new wool socks and long johns.
"Everyone knew the guy from California would be the one showing up with just a hoodie and a jean jacket," he says, rolling his eyes. The hospitality doesn't end there. In between meetings about the menu, shots of Jameson, and impromptu magic shows, we encounter a never-ending roster of the nicest, most gracious people I've ever met. How does the cold not turn these nice people into miserable pricks? I ask Mandel, and he replies by pulling a 50-sided die out of his pocket.
"If things are ever going off the rails, we just roll this and do the number of push-ups the die tells us to do." To illustrate, he rolls, and suddenly everyone is in on the ground doing push-ups. In the middle of service.
"So, everyone’s drinking the Kool-Aid here?" I ask. Mandel gives me a knowing smile.
"Outposts of creativity in unlikely places bring like-minded people together," he says, then tells Ryan to make a toast.
Without missing a beat, Ryan raises his glass: “God bless Manitoba.”
Later, after a long day of prepping through shivers that rack your whole body, we regroup at an Irish bar across town. Ryan elaborates.
"The people here, they know it’s coming every year; you can either be a miserable prick about it, or you can go about your life,” he says. “The cold, the hard living, they take pride in that. It makes you who you are. It made me who I am. Up here it’s fucking colder than Mars” — (see, people do say this) — “and still people show up with a smile on their face every day. Their resilience is unbelievable. Either you embrace it and you make it yours, or you don't."
Mandel Hitzer, via Raw:almond | Ryan Lachaine, via Gary Wise
Sweating it out on the line is an effectively harsh punishment for a hangover, but it’s a whole other beast when you’re elbow-deep in chawan mushi base in a basement in the middle of an icy tundra.
Raw:almond isn’t some cushy, mellow dinner service where you pawn off your prep on some junior sous chef and go raid the bourbon cabinet. It’s three seatings a night; 40 each, 20 minutes away from any sort of back-up ingredients or reprieve from the elements. Multiple courses, no commercial dishwasher, all encased in a thin layer of plastic separating you from the frozen surroundings. And yet here we are, butchering steaks and making vegetable tarts and simmering stocks, somehow feeling fearless.
The nature of a pop-up isn’t so much hoping that things won’t go wrong as much as it’s preparing for when they do. Because they will go wrong. Just got word we’re fully booked? Shit, the fish showed up frozen. There’s a huge throng of guests waiting in line outside? Damn, the compressor for all of the refrigeration just blew. How you react in these situations often dictates just how successful the event will be. Mandel and his crew know this so well, they have a slogan for these very moments: doing it live.
Colorful variations on Fuck it, we’re doing it live! are constantly shouted during our prep period. It’s scrawled on the walls, whispered between cooks, given as advice. (Later, the guests are asked to chant it in unison.) Doing it live is the standard operating procedure.
En route to the river, the mood shifts. Everyone is excited and nervous, but no one wants to let on about either. There’s nothing left to do but cook.
Service on the river contains a lot of moving parts. The only method of cookery are stoves and ovens. All of the dishes are washed by hand. The guests are nice people who have shelled out a fuckload of money to eat in the freezing cold, so you’d better impress them. In addition to Ryan, Portland’s BJ Smith, and myself, Karen Mann (Oxheart, Houston) and Dan Geltner (SuWu, Montreal) are also cooking — and generally making the rest of us look bad with their precision and finesse. BJ occasionally attempts to derail this by ordering extra rounds of Jameson.
Cup of hen broth by me
BJ Smith’s bison tartare
Ryan Lachaine’s chawan mushi
Dan and Karen’s Korean-style bison
Root vegetable tarts, and veggies by Mandel and Co.
Chocolate dessert by Karen.
(As Ryan says, “If you're late on your course, you fuck up EVERYTHING.” It’s tight.)
Presenting our dishes to guests is like a reality show: “Can he describe this dish in a way that sounds delicious and smart without stuttering through his chattering teeth?!”
The group, feeling the feels.
Back in the kitchen the next day, things are considerably less festive. BJ leans on me, groaning, while Ryan washes down a painkiller with Red Bull. “Hockey player’s breakfast, buddy,” he says. “Helps me get through the peaks and valleys.”
Generally, things are more organized, until the ingredients don't show up on time, and some mise en place is misplaced. Suddenly we are neck deep in the weeds, and the first seating is in two and a half hours.
Right about here, you could say that I’m having a moment. Dark-siding. Freaking the fuck out. We are not ready — I am not ready. Mandel wraps his arm around me and drags me outside for a cigarette.
“Fuck it, bro,” he says. Then, wait for it: “We’re gonna do it live.”
And indeed, when we lag sending the first course, Mandel and crew pour more champagne. When the mood in the kitchen gets serious, they blast trap hits over the stereo. When the dishwasher doesn't show up for his shift, Mandel jumps in. All of the burners are turned on between seatings for heat. There’s plenty of dancing and inappropriate hugging and more drinking.
A note about the drinking: as much as it might sound like any other booze-soaked bro-down food event, the drinking here is…different. The bite in the air snaps you back from any sort of buzz you might have going, which, coupled with the pressure of the cooking and the doing it live and the guests, makes for a sobering experience. Well, almost sobering; I fall and smash my head into the ground after describing my dish during the second seating of the night. I blame it on the slippery ice and nothing else.
By the end of the night, with exhaustion setting in, most of the crew heads home to rest. The rest of us head to a country bar complete with a honky-tonk band. As I sit there, trying not to doze off, a local in a Winnipeg Jets jersey introduces himself. When he stumbles away from me ten minutes later, I turn to Ryan.
“I couldn't understand a fucking thing that guy said to me.”
“Yeah, its a different dialect up here. He was either excited to meet you or was telling you you look like a fucking bitch.”
The author, in flagrante delicto of curling law.
Third, and Final, Service.
The final day of Raw:almond feels a lot like the last day of summer break. You're suddenly overcome with the desire to cram in as much as you can while the prospect of work and stress stare you directly in the face. So when I walk into deer + almond and ask where everyone is, I'm not completely surprised to hear they’re all out curling.
Of course, I somehow manage to get yelled at by the nice man running the place — “You wore your street shoes on the ice? Yeah, they don't like that here” — but the sweeping and sliding of stones is the perfect reprieve from the river.
Service that night is almost too smooth. We send dessert with almost 90 minutes to spare until our next seating, which gives Mandel an idea. He calls us all to follow him, and runs out of the tent, down a snowy embankment and across an ice patch to a tiny shack selling shots of whiskey. The only record I have of this evening is a Snapchat story I saved; there’s a lot of dancing, and one of Mandel’s chefs — a guy that barely spoke a word the whole trip — suddenly serenades us with a gorgeous rendition of “The Weight:”
I pulled into Nazareth, I was feelin' about half past dead
I just need some place where I can lay my head
"Hey, mister, can you tell me where a man might find a bed?"
He just grinned and shook my hand and, "No", was all he said.
It’s been months since I felt the chill of -40 degree winds blowing across the Red River Valley, but I still think about it everyday. What was that crazy thing that we did in Winnipeg? Why does it still matter so much to me?
The answer, I think, is in a quiet moment I shared with Ryan at deer + almond, the morning I flew out of Winnipeg. He comes in, hockey player’s breakfast in hand, and when I start in about how I can’t seem to get warm, he stops me.
“Look, man. Out of all the events we get to do, and we get to do a lot of cool shit, this is the best one,” he says. “Who can say they got to go to Canada to cook on a frozen river with their best friends? It’s one of the weirdest, hardest events, prepping for 120 a night then hauling all this shit to the river and freezing our asses off. But did you have fun? You bet your ass you did. We just pulled off something that most chefs aren't capable of. I'm proud of that.”
He takes a pull of his Red Bull.
“I left this town and started my career 1500 fuckin’ miles away. That I can come to my hometown and cook for the people here, and that they're so appreciative…it means a lot. And being up here with you guys gives me a chance to see who I am, and where I came from. These people are saying, 'This is ours, and we take pride in it. This is who we are, please come eat with us.' It's impossible to not be inspired by that. You know?”
In that moment, the chill released its grip on my bones for just a moment, and warmth — was it gratitude? — flooded through me. Winnipeg, in a few short days, transformed the way that I view cooking, collaboration, and what it means to just cook for people.
God bless Manitoba indeed.