Behind the line: Winnipeg chef Pamela Kirkpatrick

Pamela Kirkpatrick Winnipeg

Self-taught baker and chef, Pamela Kirkpatrick hit a home-run when she opened up Cake-ology, Winnipeg's first boutique bake shop. These days, she is working hard as the chef at Forth, a contemporary cafe-and-roasterie-by-day/cocktail-bar-by-night concept in the heart of Winnipeg's Exchange district.

Sitting down over a couple Americanos, Kirkpatrick opens up about why she bid adieu to all things sweet and made the move back to the savoury side of things. The chef happily shares what she loves about Winnipeg's chef camaraderie, why she doesn't miss icing one million cupcakes and cookies and how it's not about the size of the kitchen you have, it's how you use it.

How did you get your start in the restaurant world?

Well, I don’t have any formal education or training. I got my start through larger franchises and restaurant chains: Earls, Kelsey’s, those kinds of places. I got into a private restaurant called Fude down in Osborne Village and that’s when I realized I loved the independent restaurant scene. That was all over a span of about 15 years.

I always thought that was a bit of a weird name for a restaurant.

Yeah. People would also pronounce it Fudé, like, saying it in a fancy way or something.

When did you shift into the baking world?

After Fude, I started a family and having those late evening hours, you know, 5 p.m. until midnight or 1 a.m. or whatever, it would be hard to go home to a baby. So, I took a break and started making cakes for friends and family. That side project just kept snowballing and snowballing and eventually I opened up Cake-ology. That was in 2009.

I’m sure that back then, a contemporary bake shop was a new concept for Winnipeg.

Well, there were maybe two other specialty bakeries in the city at the time and none of the them specialized in cupcakes or small dainties. So, there was a huge opportunity for it. You could see [the trend] happening all over the states and places like Toronto and obviously Crave in Calgary. Crave was what I looked at and watched how they were approaching things.

What’s the story with the gigantic cake hanging above the door of the bakery?

With the shop being so tiny and the space being pretty eclectic, it seemed like it would be a novel idea. I presented it to the guy that was going to create the sign for Cake-ology and he lost it. He was so excited to do that type of project. It’s hard to scale when you’re on the street level looking up at it, but that thing is massive. It’s over 5 feet tall!

You sold the bakery late last year and moved back into the kitchen. Do you miss it?

A little bit. I went back and made a cake there for a friend recently and that was great. I miss the girls that work there. That happens everywhere, right? You end up really missing the people. But, once you get into the monotony of it, the days when the air conditioning wouldn’t work, I realize, “Oh yeah, it wasn’t all great!” Didn’t love those parts!

What did people think when they heard you are now the chef at Forth?

I think the most surprising thing was the number of people who didn’t know that I had cooked before I baked. They just assumed I was all cupcakes and wedding cakes! Before coming on here, I had really missed cooking. I had done a few private caterings in the fall of last year and to get back into the kitchen with real ingredients again and getting to cook as opposed to bake was amazing. I missed that.

Your kitchen space here is pretty limited. How do you make a small space work, especially when you’re busy?

Short of any crazy industrial equipment that we don’t have compared to other kitchens, the whole idea of a “small kitchen” is pretty par for the course at lots of restaurants in Winnipeg, I think. When you have the right tools and the right placement of things, it’s a nice, little smooth machine that can run efficiently.

That’s when being organized has to really come into play.

Spending time in the franchise and chain worlds when I was younger, you are in places that have so many systems and organization. So, these days, I find it quite easy to set up and have a great system in place. It also came into play when I was starting up Cake-ology. Within the first couple of months, I knew that our costs were in line, we knew what were doing and how to price accordingly.

Forth is part roasterie and part cafe. What's it like also being immersed in the coffee culture here?

Coffee culture is something I had not known nearly as much about as I do now. I was intimidated to order at contemporary coffee shops before, but now I’ll ask where it’s from, what the roast is like, that kind of thing.

How would you explain to somebody the difference between good and bad coffee?

The easiest comparison, I’d say, would be having a shitty, generic beer compared a [well-made] craft beer; when you start noticing all the nuances you can put into something. It’s a hard switch and Winnipeg can be such a Timmy’s sort of city. It’s been nice to think about making that extra effort to go to places now that really appreciate coffee, like Parlour or Fools and Horses.

Do you feel like you're more involved in the chef community in Winnipeg since leaving the bakery?

Yes and it’s fantastic. One of the best things about getting back in the kitchen is getting back in touch with old friends like Talia Syrie. Everybody here seems to be getting to the point [in their careers] where we’re all refining what we’re doing. They're putting themselves in positions where they are excelling at what they’re doing. I love seeing that. When Winnipeg puts on a big food event, it’s always the same crew helping out. It’s all of us. Together. We can be that way with staff too. I wouldn’t say everyone shares staff with each other all of the time, but more like we’re all liberal with helping each other out when we can. 

What’s one thing about Winnipeg that people in other parts of Canada don’t realize?

I would say the availability of ingredients. I think we can come across [to the rest of the country] as a place that’s basically winter all of the time. But I’m honestly inundated with so many amazing ingredients, week after week, here. The markets have exploded and I have farmers that come by asking if we want this or that. Some of it is stuff that we probably couldn’t get easily maybe 5 years ago, but now we can.