Nelson Urteaga is the product of many environments
It’s hard to determine what’s more interesting: the star of this story or the restaurant he created. The chef, Nelson Urteaga, is a multi-talented veteran who’s dabbled in medicine, teaching and business. The restaurant — Saskatchewan’s iconic Hole in the Wall — drives repeat traffic despite its obscure location. Either way, it all began with the 68-year-old Lima, Peru-born toque who is known for his classic continental cuisine, after-hours cooking classes and an easy rapport with diners.
The chef ’s culinary career was a long-time coming. “[In Peru] my parents’ intentions were for me to become a doctor,” he says. Attempting to fulfill their wishes, Urteaga enrolled in medical school in Spain before deciding it didn’t suit him. Instead, he spent a few years travelling through Europe before joining his mother who had moved to Stockton, Calif. He enrolled in a general arts program at the University of the Pacific where his love of teaching led to a Masters in education.
Later, the graduate’s interest in the world of business led him to Saskatchewan, where is brother worked for a linen company. “I was going through a divorce,” says Urteaga. “I went to Saskatchewan with him, but a few ears later the [linen] company was bought out. I had to decide to go back [to California] or stay. I had met a Saskatchewan girl who later became my wife, and we decided to open a restaurant together.”
The Hole in the Wall Restaurant took shape 29 years ago at a humble gas station more than 50 kilometres from Saskatoon, in Shields Townsite. Urteaga was undaunted by the inaccessibility of his restaurant — he had plans to create a destination. The idea was to replicate a trend he had seen in California. “People would drive to Napa Valley and Sonoma to eat at these tiny restaurants,” explains Urteaga. “Those areas weren’t developed like they are now. They were little restaurants where the chefs were extremely good and people didn’t mind driving two hours to get to them.”
Opening any restaurant is a gamble, but Hole in the Wall was a greater risk. Urteaga, the owner and executive chef, learned his culinary craft by taking crash cooking courses during his visits to California. He fashioned a unique menu comprised of such Peruvian favourites as ceviche ($16) and pollo Escondido ($38) — a pastry-wrapped grilled-chicken breast stuffed with spinach, brie.
“We’re very different,” says Urteaga. “You won’t find what we have in other restaurants.”
The restaurant possesses a warmth fused with excitement — the environment is welcoming and unique. Urteaga makes the rounds after meals eliciting feedback from his guests; it’s not uncommon, he says, for diners to linger for two to four hours.
In fact, his onsite cooking classes were born two years ago by customer request. Today, Urteaga teaches 12 students every other Wednesday. While he offers instruction, the conversation, he says, is the most rewarding. “After cooking, we sit and eat at a big table and talk about food. It’s important people learn something, and I let them learn by taste. It’s always fun.”
Looks like his love of teaching came in handy after all.