It's become the most anticipated mid-winter feast this side of Christmas: a five-course dinner prepared and served at long tables on the ice of the Assiniboine River, when evening lows take the thermometer deep down into the minus double-digits.
"We sell out a 9:30 PM seating seven days a week, and people truck down a frozen river for dinner. It's amazing," said Mandel Hitzer, one-half the director duo behind RAW: Almond, as he took a break from helping raise the scaffolding and fire-resistant tarp that will shelter diners from January 21 to February 14.
This year, its fourth, the festival of food and communion sold out in 24 hours, with most of the 2,500-plus tickets secured by people who queued for hours on a December morning outside Deer + Almond, Hitzer's brick-and-mortar restaurant. Still slightly awed by the turnout, the chef and Joe Kalturnyk—architect and cofounder of the event—chalked it up to the force of a simple yet visionary idea that there is joy and pride to be taken in doing winter right.
"Winnipeg was forged by a single block of ice," goes a bit of promo copy on RAW: Almond's website. "The waters flow north. Once a year, the people celebrate its return by climbing down the banks ... to feast on fare unmatched on any frozen river." Part myth-making and part riff on the The Forks, the historic port of the fur trade where the event takes place, the image of these hardy gastronomes has been fully adopted into the lore of Winnipeg. For that, the organizers can thank the support of local tourism organizations, simultaneous outdoor activities like a skating trail with architect-designed warming huts, and positive press. It wasn't always so.
"When the press approached us in the first year, they were disparaging, a little bit condescending," Kalturnyk said. He admitted that at the time, he himself was scrounging for a pair of warm boots because, like so many Winnipeggers, he'd spent years resisting winter gear and the season. He'd also held modest expectations for the turnout.
It was "just another art project, another theoretical proposal," he said, referring to his previous experience founding and directing Raw, an experimental architecture gallery. The prevailing attitude to winter at the time was "hunker down and avoid it." And it was frequently invoked in stories about Winnipeg's unusual supply of artists and musicians, who produce works of genius over long periods of hibernation.
But the event sold out. And when it was over and the temporary structure was torn down, they found that guests had spontaneously marked up the table with graffiti about their love for the city. This year, a special piece of wood will be designated for the purpose.
"It's activating people's imagination and getting them to think about the kind of city [Winnipeg] can become," said Jason Svixay, managing director of the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ, which has dovetailed its efforts to enrich winter culture. Taking a cue from RAW: Almond's sell-out success, it launched A Moveable Feast, a winter bicycle tour in which people ride up to bars and restaurants. Winter cycling has become popular enough that Svixay suggests snow-cleared bike paths might yet become part of city planning. Ice bars also have become a thing, such as Rudy's Igloo Ice Bar and the one at the Festival du Voyageur, a French-Canadian music festival that's been popping up in February for 47 years.
Also, since RAW: Almond emerged, the Festival's attendance has reached its highest level. Now the two events have begun a programming partnership. "Sometimes it takes crazy people to change the culture," said artistic director Julien Desauliers, drawing a parallel between the founders of the two events. "Once you experience it, you get it."
But word-of-mouth seems to work well, too. The first iteration saw seven chefs, while last year it saw 12. This year, 31 chefs from across North America are participating, meaning every night will offer a different food experience. Among them is Mitchell Bates of Momofuku Shoto in Toronto, Makato Ono and Amanda Cheng of Vancouver's PiDGiN restaurant, and Irwin Adam Eydelnant, the creative-scientific force behind Future Food Studio.
The chefs' only guideline is that they must come up with a five-course dinner, although the pop-up kitchen mandates some limitations. There are two ovens and 12 burners, but not convection ovens or deep-fryers, Hitzer said. At the same time, the space offers certain freedoms—for example, to cook something larger or longer than the rhythms of a restaurant permit.
Hitzer added: "There's sometimes a feeling of complete remoteness." He recalled moments in events past when the water pipes froze and burst, when the food delivery truck got stuck in a snow bank, and when someone forgot to call for a refill on the propane. "Anything could happen," he said.
But mostly what happens is memorable meals: For one, a Montreal chef team staged an elaborate meal around the theme of "The Hunt," with courses symbolizing a hunter's breakfast, shore lunch, and catch. Another night, a soup-meets-salad dish that Hitzer plated featuring Manitoba goldeye and whitefish caviar was so well-received that it has ended up on the regular menu at Deer + Almond.
Intent on making the event more than a foodie exclusive, this year also adds the three-day Big Fun Music Festival, opening the space to people who didn't get their hands on the $120-a-head dinner tickets.
"It's a different landscape" from five years ago, said Cody Chomiak, marketing director of Tourism Winnipeg. "We've gone from a city where there wasn't a lot to do and people hovered indoors to seeing people really get out there."
Looking ahead, the BIZ's Svixay added, "Pop-ups are fantastic, but the long-term vision is: How does our city and its design respond to winter?"
The question generates the kind of conversation RAW: Almond hoped to spark. In fact, pop-ups "are integral," added Kalturnyk, as the activity from which new networks and patterns are built. He is working on an idea for connected ski and snowshoe trails through the downtown.