When locally renowned chef Adam Donnelly was a kid, he couldn’t have cared less about cooking, menu planning, or even the means by which food ended up on his family’s dinner table.
But after two years of training at Red River College’s Culinary Arts program, Donnelly — now the head chef and co-owner of Segovia Tapas Bar & Restaurant — found he’d discovered his true calling, an epiphany that would kick-start his career as one of the most buzzed-about young chefs in the city.
“When I was younger, I’d just come home and food would be on the table,” says Donnelly, a 28-year-old Pinawa native. “I never helped my mom make food because I was never really that interested in it. Then I got older and moved away, and I had to learn to do it all myself.”
Donnelly’s original post-secondary plan was to pursue film studies in university, but he began bingeing on cookbooks and cooking instruction manuals during a break between semesters. He decided instead to take a year off so he could save up for RRC’s Culinary Arts program; shortly after classes commenced, he knew he was hooked.
“It really kept me interested — there was so much I didn’t know, so every day I came to school, I would learn something new and different,” he says.
“(The program) really gives you the basic starting skills that you need to succeed in a professional kitchen. And then you take it from there — whether you want to cook in a hotel, or cooking Italian food or French food or whatever — you can take those basic skills and go in any direction you want.”
In Donnelly’s case, those skills took him all over the world. After first honing his skills at some of Winnipeg’s finest eateries (Amici and Sydney’s), he landed a series of cooking gigs in Melbourne, Australia. He returned to Winnipeg briefly, then hopped the pond to England, where he worked under Michelin-starred Chef Tom Aikens.
It was while working for Aikens that Donnelly learned he’d been successful in securing a restaurant space in Osborne Village – his favourite neighbourhood in Winnipeg. Before moving back home, however, he took a job at London’s award-winning Dehesa Charcuterie & Tapas Bar, the eventual inspiration for Segovia’s all-tapas menu.
“We ate a lot of tapas in England, and loved the idea of eating that way — where everyone gets a chance to try everything on the table,” he says.
“Tapas are just small plates meant for sharing, so it’s very casual. There are no courses — things just come out whenever they’re prepared and there’s no rhyme or reason, so you can eat as much or as little as you want.”
The atmosphere might be casual, but the food at Segovia is definitely high-end. Though Donnelly admits he wasn’t quite sure how much leeway local diners would afford him, he’s been pleasantly surprised by people’s willingness to try just about anything. He’s rewarded their bravery by making frequent menu updates in the two years since Segovia first opened.
He’s particularly fond of fusing traditional Spanish methods and Middle Eastern influences with local ingredients and modern flavours. And as Segovia’s popularity has increased among foodies and casual diners alike, Donnelly has been able to incorporate ingredients from all over the culinary map — everything from simple charcuterie items (dried cured meats, homemade breads and pickles) to dishes made of roasted bone marrow and even horse meat.
But Donnelly says he never would have been able to tweak the rules with such success if he hadn’t first mastered the basics at RRC. He’s even begun hosting current Culinary Arts students completing the practicum component of their training — though he admits prior kitchen experience isn’t necessarily a prerequisite among his employees.
“It’s more about the attitude and the passion they have,” says Donnelly. “I have three guys cooking for me right now who all started as dishwashers … that was a year ago, and they’re all proper cooks now. It’s nice to see someone starting from a place where they have no knowledge whatsoever, and just building them up to this point.”