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Alumni Engagement

Top chef: Culinary Arts grad a connoisseur of new challenges

October 19, 2018

Culinary Arts graduate Chris Stoneham is always plotting his next career move. In fact, as we speak, he’s looking for ways to expand his latest business, a quick-serve restaurant called Rebel Pizza.

He’s a firm believer in the idea that if you settle, you might lose out — and so far, that attitude has paid off.

“Standing still is pretty much like moving backwards because there are so many other people that are innovating and re-creating,” Stoneham says. “You always have to try to better yourself and be your best self.”

The Red River College alum has challenged himself from the get-go, starting shortly after graduating from the two-year Culinary Arts program in 2000. That’s when he took on the role of Executive Chef at the then-newly opened Shooters Family Golf Centre restaurant.

“It was a pretty huge undertaking,” says Stoneham, who was in his early 20s at the time.

All of the knowledge and practical experience he’d gathered at RRC — especially through his shifts at the student-run Prairie Lights restaurant — prepared him for wearing many hats at Shooters.

“It was like, organize the kitchen, order all of the supplies, hire all of the staff, create the menus, set up suppliers … just do everything,” he says.

Clearly Stoneham — who’d gone the RRC route after working various restaurant jobs as a teenager — passed the test, and the owners leased him the food and beverage business a couple of years later.

After running Shooters for a year, though, he felt he needed to trade casual dining for the high-end style of cooking that led him to study Culinary Arts in the first place. So he moved on.

Enter challenge No. 2: Opening his own fine dining restaurant.

Thanks to his training at RRC and his first-hand experience at Shooters, Stoneham already knew the ins and outs of opening a restaurant when he launched Enorae Bistro on Academy Road in 2003. The chic Euro-Asian eatery earned a lot of praise — and a prize for Best New Restaurant in Canada — in its inaugural year.

Stoneham’s Bistro sizzled for six long years until he decided to sell it.

“(Working) 14-hour days, seven days a week, you’re abandoning your family and friends,” he says. “I thought maybe I needed to step back and take some time for myself.”

While Stoneham pondered his next move, the superintendent of the condo he was renting made him an offer he could refuse:

“He said, ‘why don’t you work in the jail?’

“I’m like, ‘What? No! I don’t think so.”

Little did Stoneham know that challenge No. 3 had entered the picture — and he eventually agreed to become a Correctional Trades Instructor for Manitoba Justice.

For six more years, he worked in the kitchen of the Winnipeg Remand Centre, instructing inmates and working as a guard while learning “a whole other side of the business.”

When it felt like time to start a new chapter, Stoneham took a former supplier up on an offer for challenge No. 4 — a sales position with local family-owned company Pratts Wholesale.

Chris Stoneham, Rebel PizzaThat was four years ago, and Stoneham is right at home in his gig as an Equipment Specialist with Pratts. His experiences in restaurant ownership have allowed him to design and manage renovations and new builds for grocery stores, convenience stores and even other restaurants, like the Flight Club at the Winnipeg James Armstrong Richardson Airport.

Last year, he returned to his roots with a side project, Rebel Pizza — an assembly line pizza concept he created with his brother-in-law. The duo has turned the McPhillips Street artisanal quick-serve spot (which they call “the Subway of pizza”) into a franchise, and they’re well on their way.

“We had the dream to create our own franchise, and that dream is about to come true because we are about to open our second location in Southdale and a third on South Pembina Highway, and we’re hoping to expand further,” Stoneham says.

The Saskatchewan, Alberta and Thunder Bay, Ont., markets are next on Rebel’s radar, and Stoneham also has plans to design a clothing label for the brand. He and his co-owners have even come up with an idea to allow customers to interact with chefs and watch their pizza being made on a smartphone or tablet.

“You have to innovate and re-invent a little bit,” says Stoneham, who’d rather spend his time trying to better his own business than worry about the competition.

“I don’t always look at my competitors, I just try to be the best version of me. If you focus too much energy on them, you’re almost giving them a gift.”

And even though that often means rising before the sun, and punching out at the Pratts sales office as late as 9 p.m., well, Stoneham has obviously never been one to take it easy, anyway.

“If you need more than six hours of sleep, you should sleep faster,” he laughs.

Profile by Lindsey Ward (Creative Communications, 2004)