Few foodies associate the term “culinary community” with the city of Winnipeg, but that’s changing, thanks to food enthusiasts such as Mandel Hitzer. The chef and owner of the city’s Deer + Almond has already attracted toques such as Vancouver’s Vikram Vij (Vij’s) and Calgary’s Jason Barton-Browne (Teatro) to the prairie province to cook at the annual Raw:Almond pop-up that he co-founded with Joe Kalturnyk in 2013.
So, it’s no surprise that it was a community of friends and family that awakened the chef’s passion for food, a passion rooted in a European heritage that exposed him to quality, homemade nosh. “I started cooking for my siblings on Saturdays, and I got so much joy out of it,” he recalls. Before he was 20, his career path was set. “I realized this is what I want to do: I want to follow my heart and my tummy, be a chef and own my own restaurant.”
Foregoing culinary school, the eager Hitzer worked his way up from dishwasher to sous chef to head chef. Following Winnipeg gigs at Gluttons Bistro and Fresh Café as well as at Calgary’s River Café, he moved to Mexico to open a restaurant. But, unable to adapt, he returned home with a new outlook. “Working fine-dining and running a restaurant, I burned out. The industry scared me,” he confesses. “I didn’t understand how to find a balance.”
He took a break but eventually realized how much he loved food. So, in 2010, together with his artist friend Cyrus Smith, he hosted secret dinners in art spaces, warehouses and restaurants. “We figured out a way to create a buzz and start building a name for ourselves in the city,” he says. He thought: “One day we’re going to find an investor, an opportunity, by doing this. And it worked.”
The end result is the 68-seat Deer + Almond. Named for the animal that is close to Hitzer’s heart and Mandel, which means “almond” in German, the restaurant was number 18 on Vacay.ca’s 2014 list of Top 50 Restaurants in Canada. The menu changes every three months and features globally inspired tapas dishes such as sweet potato galette ($12), rabbit and herb gnocchi ($20) as well as sage and cranberry chicken sausage ($14).
“I’m pretty lucky. I have this incredible staff. The restaurant is this energy; it’s like we’re all believing in this lightbulb, and the lightbulb keeps shining brighter,” says the 32-year-old. “With the right crew, it allows [me] to take on more than I ever have before.” That’s how Raw:Almond fits into the picture. The three-week pop-up is hosted by Hitzer who invites chefs, such as Vij and Barton-Browne, to prepare food for 120 guests on Winnipeg’s frozen Assiniboine and Red rivers. It returns for its third year Jan. 26, uniting foodies and chefs to celebrate food, drink and friendship, accomplishing a goal its co-founder set when he launched Deer + Almond in 2012. It wasn’t about being the best, Hitzer notes. “First and foremost [it was about building]