Any restaurateur will tell you that being a chef is very different from being an owner of a business. For Talia Syrie, who was working in festival catering and wanted to transition into a job based in Winnipeg that required less travelling, opening a restaurant seemed like a natural progression. Having no prior actual restaurant experience herself, the learning curve was steep, especially after her business partner with the experience had to return to the U.S.
We chatted with Talia Syrie about her ballsy move into becoming a restaurant owner, The Tallest Poppy’s humble beginnings, and why you can count on something weird and wonderful happening with them.
Looking back, would you still open up The Tallest Poppy knowing what you know now?
I could always blame the craziness of it all on “I didn’t know any better,” but I would do exactly the same again with a few changes here and there. It was, in many ways, an ideal situation. We were in a really obscure location in a rough neighbourhood, so it was very forgiving. We weren’t crazy busy and high profile, which gave us the opportunity to learn the things we needed and allowed us to be creative and crazy. We also didn’t pay rent for the first two years we were open, so that allowed us the room to just figure the basics out, like food costing. If you ordered a hamburger, it could be a 45 minute ordeal because I didn’t know you could pre-make hamburgers, I’d never heard of mise-en-place.
Your food is like the kind you crave and are willing to go home for, even if you’re really mad at your mom.
Yes! It’s a challenge for me to describe who we are. The actual recipes are mainly Jewish-inspired and yet Southern; neuvo-baba peasant food that is very similar to the food my grandmother taught me to cook. She always said the only way you show someone you care about them is to feed them. So we try to be creative in that way, making the best of humble ingredients.
Why the name “The Tallest Poppy”?
It’s an old Australian saying: “you shouldn’t be the tallest poppy because they’re always the one that gets their head lopped off.”
It’s a very Winnipeg thing to be humble, and almost self-deprecating. We don’t like to stick out too much.
Would you say that Winnipeg has cultivated a vibrant food scene?
The landscape of Winnipeg has grown so much in the last decade. There is a massive focus on using locally-sourced ingredients, to the point where the farmers grow what restaurants request. This kind of cooperative nature lends itself to the success of everyone, really. We have Manitoba maple syrup now, farmers have started growing quinoa and crazy root vegetables which has given us the opportunity to expand our culinary repertoires.
What’s the inspiration behind the artist residency program?
We sort of have an unofficial mandate that we do at least one weird thing a month. We want people to engage with other people they wouldn’t necessarily meet in their day-to-day, to be entertained, and to have a well-rounded experience when they visit us. So, we’ve partnered with a mobile curatorial company, Synonym Art Consultation, to run a two-day artist residency in the restaurant space.
Do you have a favourite art exhibit that has been hosted at the restaurant?
There have been several that I really liked, but I love the ones that are more engaging or interactive with the guests. In our old location, a storyteller created these magical fairytale stories about the entire staff and then performed them all. Once, we had hip hop artists come in and record an entire album in the restaurant, singing songs entirely about brunch.
What’s your idea of the perfect date in Winnipeg?
Taking the river taxi on a really sunny day and going on a patio crawl is a really lovely way to spend the day.
What is your biggest front-of-house pet peeve?
People don’t realize how hard the front-of-house staff works. There is this belief that anyone could do it, but that’s just not the case. A good server is a proper skill; it’s a trade.
On that note, what do you think about the no-tipping trend?
It actually makes me really angry, mostly because traditionally, and on average, the majority of servers in the industry are women. There are very few businesses where women can make a decent equal wage. The no-tipping trend takes away those opportunities for women--students, young women, working moms--to make themselves a good living.
Is there a menu go-to for you at Poppy?
I love the chilaquiles.
Have a guilty culinary pleasure at home?
White bread. I would eat fresh white bread forever. But that doesn’t make me feel as guilty as the favourite from my youth: macaroni and margarine and shaky Parmesan. I hide the Kraft parm at the back of my fridge.