When I start researching a destination the first thing I look for is where to eat and lately I have been all over Twitter for recommendations. When Shel Zolkewich offered to send me an email of everything I should do…I mean eat in Winnipeg she said I needed to meet Chef Ben Kramer who was the Jamie Oliver of Winnipeg.
I didn’t really know what this meant. I have met a lot of chefs who champion the local food movement or push people to start cooking but this is something completely different. Chef Ben Kramer runs the food service program at the University of Winnipeg. Normally university food service is run by corporate conglomerates that look for profit over nutrition but Chef Kramer is doing something different, and I now understand the Jamie Oliver reference.
As amazing as Chef Ben really is I think it needs to be stated from the beginning that he works in partnership with Kirsten Godbout who manages the business. It is great to have a chef with passion but you also need someone with the same vision to make the money work. Both were recruited by the university. Chef Kramer, was already known as one of the best chefs in Canada and in Winnipeg for his organic restaurant Dandelion Eatery and Kirsten had worked in a small business dedicated to local food in Toronto. Neither had any experience working for an institution but the university wanted a team that were committed to serving students real food.
If you are Canadian or have any real knowledge of food in Canada what I am going to tell you right now will blow you away. The most progressive food program in Canada is not coming out of Vancouver or Victoria, not even Toronto or Guelph.
It is happening right here in Winterpeg.
The University of Winnipeg wanted to set up a meal program that did not rely on a big corporations coming in making a lot of money off selling students meals that were low on nutrition but big on cheap processed food. Here students have a declining meal card so they start off with a balance of $1500 – one of the lowest in Canada. The program focuses on local food and instead of using one supplier Chef Kramer works with over 80 small, local farmers to source the food. There is as much organic as possible but the goal first is to be local.
Touring the university I am incredibly jealous of the options, there is a standard cafeteria with a noodle bar, fair trade coffee and locally made bread; heading upstairs students can pop in to a street-food like café with tacos and an all day breakfast. If students prefer they can save their money and splurge at Elements, a fine dining restaurant where they could take someone special. Students can still eat burgers but instead of them being frozen concoctions that already have grill marks on them they are made fresh with fresh local beef.
The kitchen itself is incredible, all summer they preserve what they can. Nearly everything is made from scratch, including the bacon in the smoker. It takes real commitment to make this work.
A lot of people want this program to fail. Kirsten shared how you need to be innovative to keep it all running and shares it’s not only about the food. They also have a mandate to hire students and works with SEED Winnipeg, a community organization that trains people who are hard to employ? That means Chef Kramer is working with a kitchen staff that often has absolutely no cooking experience and he needs to train them.
To make the money work, the kitchen also runs, Diversity Food Services, a catering company on the side. The number of hours Chef Kramer has to commit simply to talking to farmers and meeting with each one when they deliver is unbelievable. But Chef Kramer believes keeping money in the economy is important and that local is better.
What they are doing here is incredible, showing the world that you can feed local, organic on a large scale and make it work financially. While big corporations are hoping this will fail, I am rooting for them as I remember my time in residence at Dalhousie University and I can tell you the food was not worth the Freshman 15 I packed on.