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Beth McWilliam – Fresh Café

Chef Beth McWilliams, Fresh Café

Ciao! magazine’s annual awards for producer, retailer and restaurant celebrate the creative use of regional ingredients

by Gillian Leschasin

Fresh café— the Corydon Avenue breakfast and lunch hot spot renowned for its garden-crisp, comfort meals—effortlessly lives up to its name.

On the patio, a lush garden blossoms with flowers, tomato plants and aromatic herbs all harvested for the kitchen.

Inside this two-storey eatery, everything from kale and apples to beets and carrots are transformed into tasty and creative concoctions at the flip of a switch from behind the juice bar.

The daytime eatery uses simple, flavourful ingredients to deliver creative fare.

And Manitoba regional cuisine—the culinary philosophy favoured by the city’s top restaurateurs—is the spine of fresh café’s menu.

The fresh formula works for good reason. From opening day in 2007, original owners and sisters Cassandra, Katrina and Becky Watson joined the eat-local charge. That unwavering commitment has earned fresh café the 2011 Good Food Manitoba Award for Restaurant of the Year. The annual awards celebrate an outstanding restaurant, producer and retailer for the creative promotion and use of local ingredients.

Chef Beth McWilliam joined fresh café as head chef in September 2008, attracted to the sisters’ food philosophy.

“It’s approachable food, not fine dining,” she says. “[The Watsons] were making things from scratch and there’s no deep fryer, which is important to me.”

Yet, eating sophisticated dishes in a casual, stylish setting is what makes fresh so irresistible. Bold, citrus-coloured walls, bright photography and modern floral prints decorating the second floor elevate fresh’s wholesome food concept into a totally unique daytime dining experience.

Breakfast standards, soup, salad, burgers and more with innovative twists—like cinnamon orange butter on challah French toast, and bison slathered in roobis tea barbeque sauce for example—populate the menu.

Tall Grass Prairie supplies bread and Frigs Natural Meats delivers chicken and bacon. Elk burger meat is sourced from Stonewood Elk. Meanwhile, tomatoes and cucumbers are harvested year-round at Greenland Gardens’  hydroponic greenhouse. From honey and basil, to other greens, grains, seeds and protein, fresh café’s fridges and shelves are stocked with Manitoba staples. Rather than  sourcing local herbs, basil, lavender, thyme, mint, dill and rosemary  are all grown on-site.

Chef Beth is no stranger to scratch cooking and regional eats. While at Red River College’s culinary school 10 years ago, she briefly trained at Calgary’s River Café, where that same home-grown and home-cooked mantra still rules today.

Owner Cassandra Watson also worked at River Café before she opened the Corydon Avenue hot spot. River Café, located on Prince’s Island Park in downtown Calgary, has its own garden plot where food is harvested during the growing season.

That experience inspired Chef Beth to stay the local-food course after graduating.

“It sparked a love of growing things, finding out how they grow, and finding new varieties.”

Up until that point, heirloom tomatoes, for example, were a mystery to Chef Beth. Adoring the multicoloured, vibrant-tasting tomatoes but afraid she’d never find them again outside Calgary, Chef Beth stashed the seeds for future planting.

The passionate chef’s resume features many prominent local restaurants: Tavern in the Park, Fort Garry Hotel, gluttons, Medicine Rock Cafe, and 529 Wellington. Most recently, she was head chef of the RWB professional dance division. This past experience helped shape her appreciation for high quality, excellence in dining.

When her former gluttons colleague Cassandra offered Chef Beth a chef position in 2008, a move to fresh café came next. Today, she is completely at home inside the 65-seat (plus 50 on the patio) café.

As she tucks into a huge, colourful tabbouleh salad with turkey and house-picked carrots, the enthusiastic chef says eating and preparing healthy, fresh and regional food isn’t just her job, it’s her life.

“A big salad like this is my staple. . . I try to buy locally. I buy lots of produce. I cook lots of things from scratch at home.”

Chef Beth’s ingenuity and fresh café’s from-scratch cooking and regional cuisine caught the attention of new father-and-son owners Brian and Jay Meyer, who took over the helm from the Watson sisters in July.

“The model works. We’re not going to change the menu,” Brian says. “The food is great, the service is great. . . If it’s not broken, why mess with it?”

While hours have been extended during summer, Brian also says a permanent dinner service will be added and a building expansion is possible. Catering and take-out business has also spiked in popularity. Vita Health, Eat and Crampton’s are all carrying fresh café salads, wraps, burger patties and muesli, among other dishes.

Fresh café’s success is a testament to the quality of her skill.

Polishing off the last of her made-in-Manitoba salad, Chef Beth is thrilled at the eatery’s dedicated following.

“I love hearing how many people love fresh,” she says. “I love that people love it here.”

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