Local foodies can thank the humble hot dog for leading Chef Norman Pastorin to a career in haute cuisine.
The 2002 Culinary Arts grad is head chef and co-owner of two top eateries in iconic Winnipeg locations: The Cornerstone Bar & Restaurant at the former Papa George’s site in Osborne Village, and The Grove Pub & Restaurant, once home to Tubby’s Pizza on Stafford Street.
But Pastorin was on a different career path when he found his calling in 1999, while in the Philippines working for an uncle’s marketing firm.
“One of our accounts was this food company, and their biggest seller was hot dogs,” he explains.
The company had its own food lab and hired students from the Centre for Culinary Arts of Manila to come up with new ways to present hot dogs to home cooks.
“I made a few trips to the food lab and was hanging out with the culinary students and I found that to be more interesting than what I was doing. I was like, ‘Wow, I think I want to give this a shot,’ and I just dropped everything and moved back to Winnipeg. I had a house here, and decided just to take a chance and enrolled in Culinary Arts,” he says.
“It was the best thing I ever decided to do. It just changed my life for the better.”
A University of Manitoba Bachelor of Commerce (honours) grad, Pastorin says he was late to the culinary table, but he kicked off his career on a fast track, working under acclaimed Chef Takashi Murakami at St. Charles Golf & Country Club. (Who was RRC’s Honorary Diploma recipient in 2011.)
“I did both of my co-ops there just because I was really growing at an accelerated rate, which was what I wanted because I believe I was 26 when I enrolled in Culinary Arts and all my peers and colleagues were like 18, 19, 20, so I really felt I needed to get a really good start.”
Elevated to junior sous chef almost immediately after graduation, he spent five years at the country club before moving on to the now-defunct Spuntino Café on Grosvenor Avenue (right across the street from The Grove) and Fazzo Bistro on Corydon Avenue. Despite rave reviews from diners after it opened in 2009, Fazzo was short-lived, but its demise left general manager Miles Gould in a good position to open a British-style pub and eatery in the Tubby’s Pizza location when that restaurant closed in 2010.
“Miles contacted me and said he had an opportunity to open The Grove and asked if I’d be on board. And I said of course because our relationship is so good,” says Pastorin, who eventually became a partner in the business.
“Things were going extremely well at The Grove — like, immediate success — and we were approached by the leasing company for Papa George’s. They came to us and asked, ‘Do you think you could do what you did here at another location?’ and I said yes.
“Even though things were tight at The Grove, I told Miles we had to do it – we had to give it a shot at least.”
Pastorin moved to The Cornerstone while his wife, fellow Culinary Arts grad Kristel Blawat Pastorin, took over the kitchen at The Grove. Three years later, both businesses are going strong.
While The Grove serves bangers and mash, fish and chips, lamb shank and more exotic fare, pizza is still a staple at the neighbourhood hangout — including specialities named for the Pastorins’ kids, Scarlette, 11 and Xavier, 9.
The Cornerstone’s eclectic menu reflects Winnipeg’s cultural diversity, with inspired takes on everything from kimchi and butter chicken to frijoles and pork belly with adobo sauce, and it draws an equally eclectic clientele, from businesspeople at lunch meetings to families at dinner and late-night hipsters who can enjoy the full menu up to 2 a.m.
“I’m extremely happy. I’ve created two environments with a good atmosphere, not just for the guests but for the staff. We really pride ourselves on how well we treat our staff,” Pastorin says. “I have amazing staff retention, especially at the back of the house, which is where I focus.”
Many of those staff members are RRC alumni, and he hosts one or two students for each Culinary Arts co-op placement.
Running two restaurants and raising two kids keeps the couple on the go, but Pastorin says they love it, and their work and home lives are more of a blend than a balance.
“We cook at home quite a bit — family parties, family get-togethers — we always put on a big spread. I’m a sports fan so I usually have friends over whenever there’s a big sporting event and Kristel and I cook up a storm.”
Since Xavier is into skateboarding, Pastorin took it up again at the age of 41 two years ago, and it’s become something of a passion.
“The best part about skateboarding as opposed to other sports [is] if they were playing soccer or basketball I’d just be sitting on the sidelines watching, but skateboarding I can actually be with him and be engaged.”
He and Kristel, who attended the same elementary and high schools and connected at RRC, also find time to participate in community and culinary events.
Pastorin won silver at the 2014 Winnipeg Gold Medal Plates and followed up with a Gold Medal win in 2015. He’s cooked for outdoor winter event RAW: Almond, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Winnipeg’s 100 Mile Dinner and Share Our Strength’s (SOS) Chef’s Dinner and Taste of the Nation, which raise funds for local food security programs.
Last November, he was among the alumni chefs who joined students to cook for RRC’s inaugural School of Hospitality and Culinary Arts Homecoming Dinner to raise funds for the Student Travel Opportunity Fund.
“It was at Jane’s, and I couldn’t stop telling the students how good they have it now. They have everything under the sun.”
— Profile by Pat St. Germain (Creative Communications, 1989)