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Take me to the river: Culinary grad serves high-end winter fare at acclaimed outdoor restaurant

January 22, 2015

Don LaFrenais 2Don LaFrenais’ meals will soon be warming up Winnipeggers in the coolest of locations.

The 2007 Culinary Arts grad is one of 31 chefs taking part in this year’s RAW: almond, a pop-up restaurant situated on the frozen junction of the Red and Assiniboine rivers.

Now in its third year, RAW: almond has earned praise from architects and food critics alike for its nature-inspired design — complete with tree-stump seating — and gourmet dishes. The recognition has begun to spread internationally, even recently catching the attention of the New York Times.

“It’s all just been incredible reception,” says LaFrenais, the 30-year-old sous chef at the Exchange District’s Deer + Almond. “I definitely have met a lot of chefs from some crazy places — chefs that have been really interested in what we’re doing. It’s been an incredible journey.”

The journey has indeed been a long one from LaFrenais’ first kitchen job — washing dishes and flipping pancakes at Perkins. After working in several restaurants around Winnipeg, he decided to turn a lifelong passion into a career and apply to the Culinary Arts program at Red River College.

LaFrenais credits the program for developing his cooking fundamentals, including one crucial element missing from his repertoire — presentation.

“It took a while for me to realize that presentation is an art form, and a lot of the chefs today are really taking it very seriously,” says LaFrenais. “They look at it almost like their plate is a canvas, and they’re trying to create this masterpiece every time they plate a dish.”

LaFrenais’ experience at RRC also showed him how to take in knowledge from unexpected places.

“[I learned] that everybody around you can teach you something,” says LaFrenais. “It doesn’t matter [about] age or wisdom or anything like that. Everybody in the kitchen has something to teach you.”

A successful work placement in Calgary led LaFrenais to stay there after graduation, where he helped open several restaurants. He returned to Winnipeg five years later and joined up with Deer + Almond owner Mandel Hitzer, who brought LaFrenais along with him when he turned his love of the pop-up concept into the first RAW: almond in 2013.

Since then, LaFrenais has been putting his own personal touches on the menu, including incorporating ingredients from his parents’ native home of Pakistan.

“Mandel is always asking if we have anything that we want to try out or contribute to the menu, so I started playing around with some flavours and foods that I was raised on, and it’s gone over really well,” he says.

IDon LaFrenais 4n the spirit of the RAW: almond event, LaFrenais won’t divulge his upcoming secret dishes, but he does tease he’ll be stepping outside of his comfort zone with a combination of French and Italian — with a Manitoba influence.

It’s that willingness to never be content with the familiar — whether it’s trying a new type of cuisine or a creative mix of ingredients — that LaFrenais says helped get him to where he is today.

“Be patient and push yourself, constantly push yourself,” he offers as advice to anyone considering a career in culinary arts. “There are no limits in the culinary world, so you always have to make sure that you’re pushing for that next step and that next goal.”

For LaFrenais, that next goal is one day owning a small restaurant of his own. In the meantime, he’ll continue to experiment with new ideas at RAW: almond and Deer + Almond, such as his most recent creation — fried chicken with corn and jalapeño pancakes and maple chutney.

“I really like [food] with a homey feel to it. I think that’s where people find their comfort when they’re eating out,” he says.

RAW: almond runs from Jan. 22 to Feb. 11, with LaFrenais as one of the featured chefs on Feb. 6 and 7. Click here for more information on the Culinary Arts program at Red River College.