Bistro on Notre Dame

February 8, 2023

Local and Indigenous sourcing key to delicious eats for Winnipeg restaurant

Dean Herkert, owner and chef at Bistro on Notre Dame, sources local and Indigenous as much as possible.

You might not expect to find items as diverse as bison on bannock, shakshuka, rojos, croque madame, poutine, chicken and waffles, chess pie, and rice pudding all on the same menu, but infusing local and Indigenous ingredients with flavours from around the world is what sets Winnipeg's Bistro on Notre Dame apart. Featuring elevated comfort food, the menu is grounded in its owner's Red River Métis heritage.

"I'm actually making a genuine effort to source local, to take it past local and actually source Indigenous, and doing it in a high-quality manner," said Dean Herkert, owner and chef at Bistro on Notre Dame. "I'm introducing a fusion of flavours from around the world, primarily focusing on accentuating what we have for Indigenous and local ingredients in this province."

For the Red River Métis entrepreneur, sourcing local and Indigenous comes down to sustainability.

"I made a conscious choice to go with local freshwater fish as opposed to ocean fish. Environmentally, I don't have to ship something at least 2,000 kilometres to get it. It's as little as 100 kilometres away to get that fish," Herkert said. "So, from an environmental perspective, for me that was a no-brainer. The quality of our freshwater fish in northern Manitoba is just as good or better than any seafood you can get out there."

Bistro on Notre Dame aims to produce healthy, delicious food from sustainable, ethical, and locally sourced service providers.

When it came to putting meat on the menu, Herkert turned to bison as a sustainable option.

"We also make a conscious effort to go away from cattle. Nothing against cattle farmers or the local farmers themselves. We understand they have to make a living. They care as much as the bison ranchers about the welfare of their animals and everything else," he said, "but, the bison rancher I have is local. I know that the bison I get doesn't travel over 100 miles before it makes it to my restaurant. So, it has great implications for the environment."

Herkert gets his supply from Red River Métis-owned Iron Head Bison Ranch, located near Richer. Bistro's close proximity to Iron Head allows for more accountability. Working with Indigenous sourcing as much as possible was important to the Red River Métis chef.

"We actually had a chance to go out and tour the ranch and see the whole operation. When you talk to (owners) Erin and Jason (Boily), you understand right away they do care about what they are doing," he said. "It's not about how am I going to become a billionaire or a millionaire, it's about (how) I want to make a living, and I want to do it in a way that I can accept or a way I can be proud of. So they're very passionate about what they do, and as far as I'm concerned, it's reflected in my food. A lot of people have complimented me on my bison products, and I tell them, it's not just what I do with the bison when it gets here, it's what they were doing with the bison before it arrived at my restaurant."

Bistro on Notre Dame's bison supplier is Iron Head Bison Ranch, owned by Red River Métis ranchers Jason and Erin Boily.

Choosing a species native to the landscape for thousands of years with a symbiotic relationship to the environment was also important for Herkert.

"From an environmental perspective, they lived here and coexisted for thousands of years," he said. "They must've been good for the environment; the environment must've been good for them."

It's especially important for Herkert to see Indigenous food sources, often suppressed, celebrated as much as other food sources.

"When you start to look into what happened with food sources and what happened with Indigenous peoples in terms of growing their own food, harvesting their own food, hunting, and the way it was suppressed, we really don't know where we are menu-wise," he said. "We have an idea of some of the stuff we used to make, but we don't know how it would have evolved and what would have happened had colonialism not interfered with our food growth, our harvesting practices." 

The Red River Métis-owned restaurant sourced local furniture makers and metal workers for the interior.

Sourcing local continued from the menu right to the construction of the restaurant. When it came to choosing furniture, the Bistro went with Prairie Barnwood, based out of Morden.

"Their name kind of explains what it is. They take old barns, tear them down, reclaim them, and turn them into furniture," Herkert said. "So, it started with that; that kind of dictated the look."

The furniture maker did all the woodworking, and used a Hutterite colony in the Interlake for the metalwork. When it came to finishing touches, it just took some radiators Herkert had on hand to complete the look.

From the food to the furniture to the plateware, Herkert has curated a "complete dining experience."

"Hopefully when you walk in the front door, just the sight, the sounds, and the aromas that are in the place are very welcoming to begin with. Our menu is very well thought out, both in terms of food and beverages. The setting, the way you're accommodated, the level of service. Overall, it's just a top-notch experience. It's unique to any other restaurant in the city," he said. "People have told me that there is nothing else in Winnipeg experience-wise that you're going to get here at the restaurant."

Located at 784 Notre Dame Avenue, the restaurant experienced challenges when it opened in November 2020.

Herkert experienced a handful of challenges in opening the West End eatery in November 2020, from being sidelined by the West Nile virus, to delays due to pandemic restrictions. What's more, the Bistro's food is meant to be experienced inside the restaurant, so it was difficult to transition to the takeout option many restaurants relied on during restrictions.

"We were ready to open just as the province went to full code red restrictions, so that was a bit of a challenge, because if you see the inside of the restaurant, we're not set up and our objective is not to do takeout or delivery or anything of the sort," he said. "It's supposed to be a complete experience from when you walk in the front door to when you leave. Our menu was set up that way. The restaurant is set up that way. So we had to do a bit of a shift just to take on delivery and takeout. And (we) just had to wait it out until we could seat people."

A grant from the Louis Riel Capital Corporation (LRCC), the Manitoba Métis Federation's (MMF) affiliate lending institution, helped Herkert start up the restaurant portion of the business.

"With the timing of COVID and my opening of the restaurant, I did not qualify for provincial support, and the only support I really received was from the MMF through the Louis Riel Capital Corporation," he said. "The province, the second time they shut down I qualified. They reluctantly provided me with funding for two months, and I say reluctantly because I had to jump through hoops just to get that funding. But the Louis Riel Capital Corporation, as soon as the pandemic hit and it was clear there was a shortfall there for me, they did help out."

From the food to the furniture to the plateware, Herkert has curated a "complete dining experience."

The MMF has also supported the restaurant throughout its closures and re-openings. In the busy week ahead of its grand opening, Bistro on Notre Dame partnered with the MMF to offer free meals to Veterans for Remembrance Day in 2020. The Red River Métis Government has also held Métis artisan networking events at the restaurant.

"We've had two Métis artist events here at the restaurant, organized through the Manitoba Métis Federation," Herkert said. "That's been a big help to us in terms of just our profile, our visibility, and just getting people in the door."

The MMF understands the importance of supporting Red River Métis business owners, as exemplified by the business grants, loans, and business plan supports administered by the LRCC. As part of the investment into the long-term economic well-being of our Nation, the MMF has also been developing economic partnerships with Indigenous Nations across the globe. Last year, the people of the Arhuaco community of Colombia honoured MMF President David Chartrand with the opening of the David Chartrand Executive Centre, as an expression of recognition for his efforts in supporting Indigenous businesses, humanitarian efforts, and promoting fair Nation-to-Nation trade in Colombia. The Centre includes an outdoor meeting space, a building for lodging, and a production facility for traditional goods such as cocoa, panela, and coffee.

Bistro on Notre Dame has already seen the fruits of these partnerships. As part of Herkert's vision to produce healthy, delicious food from sustainable, ethical, and locally sourced service providers, he is now able to access products co-developed by the Red River Métis and Indigenous peoples in Colombia. Thanks to the MMF's partnership with Indigenous Nations in Colombia, the Bistro uses panela, an unrefined cane sugar, in their desserts, supplied by the Arhuaco people, and coffee beans grown by Indigenous people from the Nariño region.

The MMF has held Red River Métis artisan networking events at the restaurant.

Because of the string of re-openings, the restaurant is still trying to catch its stride.

"The restaurant industry still isn't anywhere near what it was pre-pandemic," Herkert said.

With its close proximity to the Health Sciences Centre, Bistro on Notre Dame was originally geared towards a customer base of hospital staff.

"Because I am located right across from the hospital, my sales would be still suppressed a little bit," Herkert said. "I was supposed to be hopefully a lunch service for hospital staff and whatnot, but they are still under heightened restrictions. So I'm not seeing them as much as I believe I should be seeing them."

With its close proximity to the Health Sciences Centre, Bistro on Notre Dame was originally geared towards a customer base of hospital staff.

Herkert's work day is a long one. The Bistro currently opens for lunch and closes mid-day to then open up for dinner service.

"With the limited business, (we) can't afford to hire a lot of staff and there isn't a lot of staff available right now," he said. "People are not coming back to the restaurants, whether that is as guests or looking for work in the restaurants."

In spite of these setbacks, the restaurant has gained both attention and accolades. In 2022, Bistro on Notre Dame was awarded Most Innovative Coffee Drink - Judges' Pick by Coffee With "X", a two-week competition celebrating the province's coffee and food culture. The restaurant's innovation efforts are tied directly to the experience they aim to curate.

"Part of it for us is the experience. So when you come in here, it's not just a matter of, well my servers need to know all about the food, what it's like. They also have to know about our beverage selection too and what is complementary on the menu to each other," Herkert said.

"When we were picking our soda pops for the restaurant, we did not want to stick with the standard Coke or Pepsi. We did not want the big multinational conglomerate. We were looking for makers that were local to North America, hopefully Canada or the northern States, that took some pride in the way they made their soda pop. So when you research them you can tell by their website and where they're located, what their priorities are."

Infusing local and Indigenous ingredients with flavours from around the world is what sets
Winnipeg's Bistro on Notre Dame apart.

In this search for locally made pop, Herkert found an old-style root beer being produced in Montreal called Bull's Head Root Beer.

"We really like the flavour," he said. "They advertised it as an old-fashioned root beer. When we tasted it we thought it would be really good with our dark coffee. We use a Guatemala Bold coffee from Black Pearl Coffee roasters here in Winnipeg. And we thought it would work out well."

Herkert and his team found an innovative enough blend - a combination of coffee, root beer, and oat milk.

"I don't know that you're going to see that combination anywhere else in the city. But the most important part is it went really well with our licorice chess pie," he said, stressing the importance of menu integration. "(If) I'm serving food, we want a beverage that goes with that food. Or if we're serving a beverage, we want to be able to recommend foods that go with it."

Bistro on Notre Dame also uses local distillers for their spirits and local brewers for their beers - including Red River Métis-owned Nonsuch Brewing.

"Whenever possible I use those spirits or beers when cooking in the kitchen, when I'm making stuff, so everything's tied together," Herkert said. "So, I think the 'most innovative coffee drink' is just reflective of our attempt to integrate our venue fully and make sure you have a complete experience."

As he forms relationships with local producers and suppliers, Herkert also aims to stay involved in the community.

Bistro on Notre Dame also caught the attention of Canadian chef Chuck Hughes. Last year, APTN's Chuck and the First Peoples' Kitchen filmed at the restaurant for an episode on its third season, airing this year. The series follows Hughes as he visits Indigenous communities across the country to learn about their culinary traditions.

"(Hughes) is a very renowned chef in Eastern Canada from Montreal to the coast, and for as well-known as he is, he's a very nice guy, so there doesn't seem to be any big ego there," Herkert said. "He's very amiable and great to talk to."

As for what's next, Herkert hopes to be able to finish renovations on the restaurant and continue to gain traction.

"I definitely wanted a well-reviewed, well-received restaurant that was very clear in its identity so people would know, you know, come to Winnipeg, you want local, this is the place to go for local," he said.

As he forms relationships with local producers and suppliers, Herkert also aims to stay involved in the community.

"I'm in the West End neighbourhood, so (I want to) be a good neighbour, be a good community member in the neighbourhood, and then we'll see after that."

Check out Bistro on Notre Dame on Instagram and Facebook.


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B300-150 Henry Avenue, Winnipeg, Manitoba, R3B 0J7

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