Behind the line: Winnipeg chef Michael Robins

The chef from Sydney's at The Forks on young chefs, bad restaurants and misuse of food terms.

chef Michael Robins
photo by Ian McCausland provided by Figure 1 Publishing.

From getting into the industry from bare necessity for some extra cash 16 years ago, Michael Robins has slowly and steadily climbed the kitchen ladder. After working for years in the Rocky Mountains, the chef returned to his hometown of Winnipeg, completed the culinary program at Red River College and began working under some of the best chefs in the city, including Michael Schafer and at Deseo Bistro with Scott Bagshaw.

After a few years back in the city, Robins was brought on as the chef de cuisine of Sydney's at The Forks, where he currently oversees two other kitchens for the small restaurant group that includes Sous Sol--a speakeasy-style basement spot in Osborne Village, lined with pages from old cookbooks, that's all about throwback French cuisine and good cocktails. His refined take on food has not gone unnoticed by local critics and cookbook authors, and you can currently find Robins' scallop dish gracing the cover of Winnipeg Cooks.

Here the chef talks about the enthusiasm in young culinary students, his definition of a bad restaurant, the bastardization of the term "tapas" and a lot more.

Red River College just moved to a new building a few years ago. Since you attended there, would you say the culinary program has gotten bigger and better?

It is, for sure. I took the program at the old campus about seven years ago. Now, there are lot of people coming in from out of the city. They do get a lot of students who don’t necessarily know a lot about the industry. When I was in school, most people had a good chunk of experience prior to attending. So, it’s a lot of green students, but you get a lot of really ambitious ones, which is awesome!

So, do you hire a lot of students from Red River?

Absolutely! In all three of our restaurants, we try and have some students in the kitchen. They’re gung-ho and ready for anything, usually. Good line cooks are really hard to find these days, so if you can train someone into a good line cook, then that’s great.

Most major Canadian cities have reached a saturation point in their food scenes where for something new to open, generally, something has to close. Do you think that will ever be the case in Winnipeg?

I don’t think that’s possible, I’d like to believe in "the more the merrier" mentality over being competitive. I don’t think we could ever be oversaturated with good restaurants, but bad restaurants? I hope that doesn’t happen.

Can you give me an example of a bad restaurant?

Ask me that one later when we're not recording [laughs]. I guess the one thing I don’t like are places that just never change; the ones that just stick to their old ways. If it’s a recipe for success, go with it, I guess, but I’m going to stop going there eventually when it’s the same thing, every single time. Push yourself, try something new.

Do you travel very often?

I definitely do more work than travel these days. When I do travel, it would be to cook or at least pop into a restaurant kitchen for a day. I went to New York for a month last year. The boss man sent me down and told me how important it was that I experience New York and that it would open my mind. I worked at a restaurant there for three weeks, didn’t get to see much of the city, but definitely opened my eyes to a different kind of scene.

Did it make you realize that your food scene here might be lacking in some aspects?

Absolutely. It makes you realize a lot of things you’re doing wrong, but also a lot of things you’re doing right. Of course, everyone has this perception of New York having the one of the best food scenes in the world, and it does; but per capita, it’s got a ton of shitty ones too. I think you could put some of our Winnipeg restaurants in New York and they would just thrive.

Which ones?

I think anyone here doing something that they really want to do and doing it well. Scott Bagshaw’s two restaurants, Segovia…

Those spots are awesome. Segovia is probably one of the most consistent restaurants I've eaten at in Canada.

Alright, so do you think you could cram that into the New York City food scene?

I think so, definitely.

See, that’s what I’m talking about! So many people come to Winnipeg and you’ll hear how impressed they are with the food scene and these are well-travelled people who eat a lot of food all over the world.

To be honest, the first time I went to Winnipeg on assignment, I wasn't overly excited to go. Then, I came here and really loved what it had to offer.

Maybe my next restaurant should be like that, low expectations--tell people to expect really low level things and then surprise them. No, I’m totally joking. Honestly though, a lot of the time, I think when Canadians hear anything, like, literally anything interesting about Winnipeg, they are surprised. It seems like people think that we’re just this desolate place in the middle of the country, but the food scene here is genuinely, legitimately good and the people that are active in the food community legitimately care about what they’re doing.

When you're not working, do you like cooking big dinners at home for friends?

That is the farthest thing from the truth. Kraft Dinner is always a good go-to [laughs]. I like going to other spots to eat. I want someone to cook for me, even if it’s just going over to a friend’s house. You usually want the opposite of what you do in the kitchen. I like to try and turn off that internal chef brain as hard as I can when you’re looking at everything and judging it. I like just going, eating and having a good time.; shooting the shit with friends and chatting with the staff.

What's the future of this city's food scene? Do you see it continuing to progress rapidly over the next few years?

I think so. There are a lot of things that I think we are still lacking in this city.

Like what?

Well, they might be concepts that I might want to open myself, so I don’t want to say, but let’s take ramen as an example. We don’t have a good spot for ramen, where in almost every other major city now, it’s overblown. Just really good ethnic cuisine done professionally is what we’re lacking. Why can’t we get izakaya, or a contemporary German spot? Those types of spots.

Black garlic seems to be a really popular ingredient in this city.

It does seem trendy here. Bagshaw loved black garlic when Deseo first opened. It’s so good, it’s silly. It’s a pain in the ass to clean, but otherwise it’s great.

Is there an ingredient or trend that you think is overdone these days?

I feel like different things go in and out of style over the years. Doing tapas-style dining has obviously been huge for awhile. Sharing plates are a fun way to eat, but that word, "tapas" has now been crammed onto so many menus to describe things that aren’t actually tapas.

That's probably one of my biggest food descriptor pet peeves. I was reading a story last year about six best tapas restaurants in Winnipeg, and thinking to myself, "Well, there's only one tapas restaurant."

Yeah, that is definitely a pet peeve of mine too. When people walk into one of our restaurants and ask for that and you sort of think, "What exactly are you asking for?"

So, if I order a whopper at Burger King when I’m drunk and cut it into four pieces to share, is that considered tapas? Just label it what it is.

What was it like having one of your dishes on the cover of a cookbook?

Having my dish on the cover feels great. We constantly change the menu at Sydney's but I have kept that dish on it since the book was released. I have always enjoyed the plating aspect of cooking. It seems like you see the book everywhere you go and it always reminds me of how awesome the Winnipeg scene is becoming. The book turned out super good and I'm proud of all the restaurants, Robin and her team and in our crew for landing the cover shot!

photo by Ian McCausland provided by Figure 1 Publishing.